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Which features should I look for ?

You've been looking forward to having a piano in your home and making music a part of your life. You're ready to buy a piano. How will you decide which instrument is best for you?

A piano is many things - an instrument, a fine piece of furniture, an object of sentimental value and a long-term investment that yields musical dividends. Keep in mind that you'll be listening to and looking at your piano for a long time. The average lifetime of a piano spans decades, and you will probably own it long after you've sold your present furniture, house and car.

So buy the best piano you can afford. Don't economize on a piano, especially for a child who's starting lessons. Making music on a quality instrument is one of the best ways to keep your young pianist interested.

    the grand piano action (image courtesy Renner)

Which Type Of Piano Is For You?

Upright Pianos

  • The Spinet piano was first produced in 1935. Its low cost and reduced height, between 35" and 39" (89-100cm), made it a popular choice after World War II.
  • Console pianos are 40" to 43" (102-110 cm) tall. This means longer strings and a larger soundboard that improves the tone. Generally, the larger the piano, the better the tone.
  • Studio pianos from 45" to 48"(114-122 cm ) tall are often found in schools, studios and, increasingly, living rooms. The string lengths and soundboard size are comparable to those of small grands.
  • Professional upright pianos are those ranging in height from 49" to 52" (124-132 cm) and offer the most power and tone in a vertical piano.

Grand Pianos

Grand pianos designed for home use have enjoyed an increase in popularity in recent years. They start at under five feet (152 cm). If space is a major consideration, use a paper pattern on the floor to measure - you may be pleasantly surprised to find you have room for a larger piano! The curved shape of the grand piano helps with the flow of a room and often means that the instrument is easy to accommodate in the room layout. Five and a half foot grands (1.68 cm) have a richer tone. Six foot grands (183 cm) are a popular choice for piano teachers and serious amateurs. The largest grands in the seven to nine foot category (213 - 274 cm) are used primarily for public performance, and are found in concert halls, churches and auditoriums.

The Piano Inside And Out
A piano is a marvel of engineering and depends on top-quality materials, impeccable craftsmanship and unflagging care to produce good music. The piano has profited greatly in tone and performance as a result of technological improvements, and modern pianos are far superior in many ways to their predecessors.

Piano strings are made of high grade steel drawn to exact sizes. The bass strings are wound with copper or copper-clad wire to add mass for lower tones. The plate is made of cast iron and bolted to the frame. It anchors most of the 20 tons of pull exerted by the taut strings. At the top of the plate, the strings are wound through and around tuning pins. These are set into the pin block, constructed of layers of carefully seasoned hard wood which grips the pins in place for better tuning stability.

The soundboard amplifies the vibrations of the strings. It is made of fine, straight grain spruce (grow in cold or mountainous regions) in top-quality instruments. The hard maple treble and bass bridges transfer the vibrations of the strings to the soundboard. These assembled components are called the strung back.

The playing mechanism of the piano is called the action:

As many as 9,000 parts play a role in sending the hammers against the strings when the keys are struck. Grand pianos have horizontal actions, and upright pianos have vertical actions. Grand pianos have a so-called "double repetition" action, made possible by the intricate design of the wippen:

grand wippen

Piano hammers are made from sheets of felt molded around a wooden hammer under tremendous pressure. A 12-pound hammer refers to the weight of a sheet of felt used to make the hammer, not the weight of the hammer itself. The shape of the hammer and the density of the felt have a crucial impact on the quality of the tone. Older hammers may need re-shaping, and the tone of both older and new pianos can nearly always be improved by "voicing" in the hands of a skilled technician.

Today, piano keys are almost never made from ivory. Instead, piano manufacturers use a fine molded resin that won't crack or turn yellow. The keys are generally white, but some manufacturers add more natural looking off-white colour or even imitation ivory grain. The black keys used to be made of the now rare ebony wood, but are these days made of a synthetic material - sometimes lightly textured to prevent fingers slipping. Each key is balanced by a center pin and "bushed" with fine wool for proper clearance and quiet operation.

Pianos may have two or three pedals . The sustaining, or damper pedal on the far right lifts the dampers away from the strings so that the notes will continue to sound after the keys are released. The pedal on the left is the "soft" pedal and reduces the tone by shortening the distance the hammers travel in uprights. In grands this pedal is called the "una corda" and causes the action to shift slightly so fewer strings are struck. Most grand pianos and some uprights have a third pedal called the "sostenuto". It sustains selected notes at the pianist's discretion, allowing for more subtle damping techniques. On upright pianos the third pedal is generally used for for activating a practice mute.

Some words of warning

from the authoritative: PIERCE PIANO ATLAS "9th Edition"

The words below may seem a dealer's way to play on people's fears, they are nevertheless true. In my work I frequently have to walk away from an untunable, unservicable piano to the disappointment of the new owners.
Wytze Hoekstra

Buying a used piano privately can be dangerous and costly.

* What appears to be a rare bargain may prove to be a real liability.

* Unless you are a piano expert, your best assurance is to rely in the
judgment of the most experienced dealer in your area with a proven
record of integrity and fair dealing.

* It is unwise to pick up an old piano privately "To get started with."
A poor piano offers discouragement to the child and is at best, a
questionable investment for the parent.

Here are just a few of the many "danger" areas encountered when a
non-expert piano buyer buys a piano privately:

1. PLATE: May be cracked or broken which cripples the piano musically & renders it useless.
2. STRINGS: Bass strings may be "Tired and Tubby", totally devoid of tone.
3. SOUNDING BOARD: May be cracked or worse yet, may have lost crown to become tonally deficient.
4. RIBS: May be broken or pulled away from soundboard.
5. BRIDGES: May  have  lost proper bearing, be broken, split or cracked, necessitating a major expense.
6. TUNING PINS: May be loose, may have previously "Doped",  may require new pin block.
Avoid like the plague any piano with pins evidence of having been pounded.
7. PIN PLANK: May be split and is very costly to repair.Since this is concealed, experienced judgment is required.
8. ACTIONS: May be literally worn out rendering piano useless. If re-bushing is required, this is very costly.
A complete regulation requires much time of an expert and is expensive if properly done.
9. HAMMERS: May be worn out or improperly filed so as to require replacement - another costly repair.
10. TRAP WORK: The internal leverage controls of the expression pedals may need complete overhauling.
11. REFINISHING: Many people learn to their sorrow that refinishing a piano is not a Home Do-It-Yourself Project; that it requires much hard work and know how best left to a skilled craftsman. Good refinishing work is very expensive.

"9th Edition"

Guide to Free Piano Sheet Music online