Free pianos abound on the internet, at yard sales, or as hand-me-downs. It is tempting to pick one up, since it will potentially save you time, energy, and lots of money. Or will it?
In my experience as a piano technician, free pianos that are actually worth tuning and maintaining are few and far between, though they do exist. “Free” is also a deceptive term in the context of the piano market, since there will still be costs associated with moving the instrument and preparing it for use.
Free Is A Relative Term
Yes, you found a piano that someone is giving away. But you still have to move it and make it usable.
Even the smallest acoustic pianos are heavy and large compared to other objects people normally move around. In addition to the size and weight, it’s best not to handle it too roughly while you’re moving it, or you could render your new find useless. This means you’ll want to use professional piano movers, which will likely cost you at least $200, if not more. For a reference on piano moving costs, here is a previous post on the South Jersey Piano Service Blog.
Just because the seller isn’t charging anything for the piano doesn’t mean it won’t cost you anything to be able to use it. I’ve already mentioned that it’s going to cost you some money just to move the piano. Now you have to make it playable.
This will likely cost you a minimum of $150 just for the tuning. Many pianos that people give away have been sitting in a corner, unused, for years. If pianos are not tuned somewhat frequently, the strings can get so far out of tune that it becomes either impossible or impractical to get it up to pitch. Keep in mind that the more something is out of tune, the more a piano technician will charge to tune it, since it is more difficult and time consuming to achieve an acceptable result.
There’s also a good chance that the piano hasn’t been properly maintained, which means you’ll have to shell out a few hundred more just to get it working (if that’s possible). The neglect in routine maintenance is likely compounded by the conditions in which the piano was stored, since environments without proper temperatures and humidity levels will cause the quality of a piano to deteriorate.
It’s always a good idea to hire a technician to do an evaluation. You are going to have to spend money on a piano even if it is given to you. It’s best to spend a little on a professional evaluation up front, since it can save you a lot of time and money further down the road. In this regard, the same principles apply to picking up a free piano as to purchasing a used one. For more information on that, check out this post.
The majority of free pianos you see will probably be spinets. One easy way to spot a spinet is that the height of the entire instrument rises just above above the keyboard.
History Of The Spinet
Spinets became popular during the depths of the Great Depression. Manufacturers severely sacrificed tone and feel to make these pianos smaller and cheaper, because at the time many people did not have enough money or space for anything else. Spinets were produced from the 1930s to the 1990s. Many of these pianos made their way into Depression-era or middle class households, were passed on to children, and are still circulating today.
The drop-action design, which allowed them to be so small, is hard to access, regulate, and repair. So, in addition to having poor tone and feel, they are difficult and costly to maintain.
These pianos are not worth much at this point. They weren’t made well to begin with, and the newest spinets are now about 30 years old. Most of the spinets you come across will likely be 50-60 years old, which is pushing the limits of durability even for something that is well-made.
Pianos For Beginning Students
If you are looking for a piano for a beginning piano student, you should consider that the quality of the piano can have a significant influence on the student’s experience. No matter how talented you are, you can’t overcome a piano that doesn’t work right. This can get frustrating for students, especially beginners, and can lead students to quit. While it may cost a little more for a decent used piano, or to evaluate a free piano, it’s worth the money if you want to give someone a real shot at learning to play.
Free pianos are ubiquitous, especially online, and it is tempting to pick one up. However, you have to be wary of what you’re getting yourself into. It may be free at the point of sale, but it will still cost you hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars to be able to use it.
In addition, most often these pianos are old, severely neglected, and poorly made. There are some gems out there, but in order to know that you’ve found one it’s best to hire a technician to do an evaluation. As I mentioned above, you’re going to have to spend money on a piano anyway, so it’s a good idea to spend a little money up front to know that you’re getting something that is worth the trouble.