Are Free Pianos Worth It?

Should I Take a Free Piano, or Not?

A question I get often is “are free pianos worth it?”, and the answer can’t be summed up in a simple yes or no.  However, I have put together some information based on my 17 years as a piano technician that will help empower you to answer this question for yourself.  My criteria for helping you evaluate a prospective piano is based on the following 6 factors:

  1. Age of the piano
  2. Obvious wear signs
  3. Age of the home the piano is located in and whether its insulated well
  4. Brand of piano
  5. Internal piano wear
  6. Any available piano history in terms of where its been stored or located

In addition to these factors I will give you a percentage estimation of how likely it is for a piano to be “worth it” based solely on its age.  The 5 remaining factors should be considered as you visit the piano for assessment

There are a couple of caveats to consider.  If the piano is a Steinway, Knabe, Chickering, Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Boesendorfer, or any other handmade older grand piano it will likely be worth investing into even if it has some issues.  But if someone is going to give you a piano like that, consider yourself very fortunate.  This post is geared toward older free upright pianos and older free grand pianos that aren’t well known branded instruments.

My Free Piano Just Needs Tuning Right?

Believe it or not every few weeks a client will hire me to tune a piano they’ve gotten for free and they just want to get it back into working order.  Sometimes this is possible without too much expense, but sometimes it is physically impossible to give them any kind of acceptable result from a single piano tuning.

To be clear, piano tuning is the sound adjustment of the 240 strings of a piano.  Parts replacement, adjusting the keyboard, etc.. is not considered piano tuning.  Those services would fall under the category of regulating a piano action or piano restoration, and sometimes require a visit to the piano restoration shop.

So what defines whether a free piano is worth it or not?  The main factor I am considering is not exceeding the value of the piano in repair cost and moving cost.  In many cases that may not be possible, but at minimum we know that no one wants to invest into a piano that’s just not worth it.  You may decide to pay for it to moved and tuned and that alone has exceeded the value of the piano, but that’s worth it for you.  However, investing thousands in a piano that needs tens of thousands of dollars worth of work is just something that doesn’t make sense for most.

What Service Does My Free Piano Need?

Well, that all depends.  Some instruments only need 1 or 2 tunings and some cleaning to be ready to enjoy in your home.  Whereas some pianos will need $1,000 – $2,000 worth of work just for basic functionality.  Not to mention even after that kind of investment some pianos will still not really perform perfectly.

Consider this analogy.  You’ve just inherited a vintage car and it’s over 50 years old.  It’s been siting in a barn for years on flat tires.  Obviously, you wouldn’t expect to put a new set of tires on and it be roadworthy.  It’s safe to say that you might expect the engine might have seized (similar to piano action parts not working) or that the oil needs to be changed (analogous to lubricating a piano action).  How much work it needs will depend on its age and how it’s been stored, if all of the parts are still in tact, and the quality level of the manufacturer.  If it’s really old, let’s say one of the first cars ever built, it might need days worth of work before it even begins to function at all.  If you want it to be in really excellent condition it might take weeks or months.  Pianos are very similar in this regard.  

If you feel that the instrument you are considering is valuable and you are willing to invest, then it just might be worth it. So consider the information laid out for you here to avoid getting stuck with a piano that needs thousands of dollars in repair when that wasn’t your plan to begin with.

Based on Age Alone: Will my free piano will be worth it?​

Newer than 30 years: Greater than 90% chance its worth it

Between 30 – 50 years old: Around a 70% chance its worth it

Between 50 – 80 years old: A 50% chance its worth it

80 years old and older: Less than 20% chance its worth it

How do I Evaluate a Free Piano?

  1. Find out if the brand was reputable.  Was it a beginner piano, intermediate piano, or high quality hand made piano?
  2. Look for obvious wear signs on the outside of the instrument.  Generally speaking, if it looks like it’s been neglected it probably has been.  Look at the bottom of grand pianos, and the back of upright pianos to check for any wood separations or cracks.
  3. When you visit the piano take notice of the environment.  Is the piano located near a drafty window, is there an heating/AC duct blowing on it?  What kind of environment has the piano been kept in?
  4. For upright pianos, open the top and look down at the action parts.  Disassemble the cabinet to the degree to which you are comfortable and know how to, and view the internals.  If there are parts missing or broken, strings missing, lots of string replacements (new strings will be shinier than the surrounding strings) that’s something to consider.  For grands, you likely won’t be able to view the action parts, but you can remove the music rack and look down through the strings to see if the hammers have deep string cuts in them.  Look at the damper felts to see if they look worn and discolored.  Look at the strings for replacements.
  5. Ask the piano owner if they know where the piano came from before they bought it.  Has it ever been stored, and if so where?

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to consider when being gifted a free piano so I wouldn’t just jump in before you’ve done your due diligence.  I hope this information helps you asses the piano you are being given so you don’t end with something you are unhappy with.  If you find the piano you are considering falls between some of the criteria and you can’t easily tell if it’s worth it, Bradfield Piano offers an in home evaluation service.  Our piano technicians will assess the above criteria plus other technical details.  Call or text 214-883-1885 to set up an evaluation service in the DFW area.  Contact Bradfield Piano

written by Holt Deniger