Beware of Antique Pianos
Antique pianos quite often have attractive and ornate cabinets. It's okay to buy an antique piano if you want an antique but is not the best choice if you want a good instrument to play. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in period pianos in some circles but that usually should be left to those with knowledge in this area. If you are looking for a good musical instrument for yourself to play or your kids to learn on, then an antique is probably not what you want.
Three types of antique pianos to avoid
There are at least three types of antique pianos I have worked on that I would not recommend. They are: square grands, grands with a Viennese action, and uprights with "birdcage" actions.
Square grand pianos are actually rectangular in shape. They are about 7 feet long from left to right and about 4 feet deep from front to back. There are some smaller ones that are about 5 feet long and 3 feet deep. Most square grands i've seen are made rosewood and have beautiful carved legs, lyre and music rack but the action is very primitive. They have an unusual damper system that doesn't work very well and when tuned they usually don't sound that good. They are hard to tune partly because the damper system is in the way but also because the tuning pins are located to the back of the piano instead of the front. The tuner has to lean over the whole time to reach the tuning pins. It is very hard on the back.
Some antique pianos from Europe have a Viennese action. Usually the hammer flanges are mounted 180 degrees to the way they are mounted in a modern action. This is called a reverse action. The action is more difficult to remove and unless you know how, it may appear that it won't come out. This action is very different to a modern one and will not perform as well.
The third type of piano to avoid is a very nice looking upright with an action that tuners call "birdcage" actions. The term birdcage is used because when you look inside, the action has a wire that goes up to each damper. There are so many of them that it reminds you of a birdcage. These wires are there because they go up to an "over damper" system that is quite inefficient. Dampers stop the sound when the key is released but an over damper system doesn't do it very well. These pianos have 85 notes instead of 88. The attraction is their beautiful cabinets. The wood usually has a very figured grain. They can have inlaid wood or mother of pearl on the front and a lot of carving on the cabinet. They quite often have candle holders to each side of where the music rests. Another clue that it is a birdcage is that most of them were made in London and will say show that on the decal.
Few piano technicians will work on antique pianos
Most technicians don't want to tune or work on antiques. However, there are some that specialize in this field. If they were a good design, the manufacturers wouldn't have changed them. These actions don’t play or feel like a modern action and you aren’t likely to be satisfied with one.
Antique pianos have their place in history and should be preserved. If you are looking to have a piece of history in your home then by all means buy one. If you want to have a good piano that functions and responds the way you expect, then an antique probably should not be your choice.
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