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Here are some diagrams of external piano case parts so
you may become familiar with piano lingo.
These are popup windows so you may read this while
looking at the pictures.
Size: First, how big a piano can your house and budget afford? In this case, size really does matter: the larger the instrument, the better the sound. If you have the room and the money, go for the grand. If not, choose a sturdy well-build upright. Remember, a tall upright has long bass strings, so a 55" upright will approximately deliver the sound quality of a 5' grand piano. The longer the bass strings, the lower the fundamental bass notes. There are fine used pianos - often better than new - on the market, but approach the purchase of either new or used with some basic knowledge before buying.
Condition: When purchasing a used piano ask about the condition of the instrument: Where has the piano been? Who used it? Has it been cared for? When was it last tuned? If the piano has spent any time outside, or in an unheated/cooled structure such as a shed or barn, it will most likely need work. This is not to say it will not hold a tune, but there will be soundboard cracking, case & finish damage and possibly bridge damage/separation. Although a cracked soundboard is serious, usually a little rib tightening can make all the difference in the world, both structurally and sound quality wise. Believe it or not, after the ribs have been tightened in a piano with soundboard cracks, the quality of sound is very near equal to that of a similar piano with no cracks! It has been proven by piano technicians time and again.
Personal Appeal: The right piano for you must appeal to both your ear and your heart - but go after the sound first. Everyone has an individual response to music, so go with what you like, not what someone else tells you you should like. An instrument that gives almost, but not precisely the sound you want can be adjusted by "voicing", which is performed by a technician who regulates the action of the keys and softens or hardens the felt on the hammers.
Touch: Touch is almost as important as tone. Play every key and feel for sticky or squishy action - it should feel as if there is no obstacle between you and the instrument. Listen for notes that are out of tune and for buzzes and rattles. These few things are as important as a look inside.
Strings: When "looking under the hood", there are several checks you can perform: look for rust around the tuning pin where the string is wrapped. These wraps should not be covered in rust. Some, slight rust is OK, but a furry rust is bad news. That means when your tuner tunes the piano, you can expect strings to break! Any missing strings? You should be able to see all three strings of a unison, from the treble down to the tenor section. The exception is double strings where the first few unisons in the tenor section have double bass strings, as in a Steinway grand. Missing strings generally indicate the strings have rusted somewhere along the string and the string has broken. Another common place for strings to break is under the damping braid/felt in the non-speaking length of the string. This located between the bridge and the plate.
Hammers: Deeply grooved hammer faces can be bad too. While a hammer can be shaved down, this can only be done once, maybe twice in a hammer's life.
Once you find a piano you love, call in a pro to give it a thorough exam. Although a cracked soundboard may not be easily spotted by an amateur, it may be very serious and require major rebuilding. It's always best to hire a registered piano technician you know or who has been recommended by friends.
Even if you're buying a piano without knowing how to play, remember it's never too late to learn. At the age of 51, Noah Adams, host of the National Public Radio show All Things Considered, bought a piano before knowing how to use it - chronicling his adventures learning to play in his 1996 book Piano Lessons. What happened when he finally played Schumann's Traumerei for his wife? She cried and so did he.
THE ANATOMY OF A PIANO
HAMMER: A felt-covered wooden mallet that strikes a string to produce a note when a key is touched. As can be imagined, a great deal of tonal quality comes from the hammer. Nearly everyone has his or her own favorite hammers, whether they are of American, European or Japanese manufacture. Unlike a harpsichord or guitar where the string is plucked with a pliable pick, the hammer strikes the string much like a xylophone hammer or a bass drum hammer.
DAMPER: A wooden tongue, also covered in felt, that rises from a string as a hammer strikes it, then falls back to "damp" the sound, and keep the note from lingering. A properly adjusted damper will not let the string ring after it has fallen back on the string. Old damper felts may cause a piano to "ring" after the damper returns to the string. Also, a metallic buzzing may occur if the damper wire is too close to the adjacent string.
ACTION: The complex mechanism between each key and its complementary strings that activates the hammer and damper. There are many adjustments in the action which will determine how a piano plays, whether it feels "heavy" or "light" to the player (action regulation). Heavy means it takes a lot of force to produce a good volume. Light can be good or bad, it takes very little force to produce a good volume. Pianos with very worn action parts typically produce a light touch as there is very little resistance to the touch with it's worn bushings throughout the action. A new or rebuilt piano may feel heavy until it is broken in. New hammers, which may not be properly voiced, may make for a bright tone as the felt is new and supple, compared to old hammers which become worn and hardened (compressed) over time.
PLATE: The iron frame to which the strings are attached. Also known as the harp, it enables the strings to bear enormous pressure. In most pianos, the tuning pins come out of the pinblock and pass through the plate, where the plate has a hole for each tuning pin. On other pianos (such as the Bechstein), the plate is cut away just above and around the pinblock so that the tuning pins are not supported by the plate.
SOUNDBOARD: The heart and most important part of the piano; a shallow dome of wood, usually spruce, that acts as an amplifier for the strings in motion. The soundboard will have ribs underneath to make it appear as one piece of wood, when in actuality, the soundboard is comprised of several strips of spruce, 8" to 12" wide glued together, with the ribs being the support bed for these spruce strips. A frequent scenario with age is that the soundboard splits, producing visible splits, sometimes paralleling the bass bridge. This is due to many factors, such as changing temperature and humidity and sometimes, bass bridge design. Soundboard's are normally repaired with spruce shims cut to fit these gaps or cracks and glued into place. Some technicians use epoxy to repair these cracks. The bottom line is that in order for the instrument to produce deep, rich bass, the soundboard needs to be one continuous membrane, much like the head of a drum.
A quickie and less expensive repair is to glue the soundboard back to the ribs where the soundboard cracks and separates from the rib(s). This is an acceptable repair in an upright where it won't be seen and where the plate cannot be removed to install shims. This could be an ugly repair on a grand, where it would be seen, however, with a lack of funds for a full restore, it would suffice. It should be noted that this is where the majority of buzzes come from inside a piano.
BRIDGES: Wooden supports situated between the strings and the soundboard to transmit vibrations from one to the other. The treble end of a piano has a long, curved bridge; the bass end's bridge is shorter. Problems with older bridges include loosening of the bridge pins and the associated cracks around the bridge pins. This is not normally a problem unless the pin has moved away from it's hole or the wood surrounding the pin (bridge cap) has turned soft due to environmental neglect. This can result in a "dead string". That is, it does not produce proper tonal qualities, like the surrounding strings: weak sustain, poor treble or bass response.
SPEAKING LENGTH: Sometimes known as sounding length. The section of each string that is located between the bridge pins and the pressure bar (Capo D' Astro) on the plate nearest the keys and vibrates.
HITCH PIN: The metal pin on the plate that holds one end of the string secure. The other end is held by the tuning pin.
TUNING PIN: A screw like steel pin around which the other end of the string is wrapped. The tension of a string is adjusted here (with a tuning hammer). Tuning pins come in sizes from #1 up to #7, each size a larger diameter then the last, with #1 being the smallest (new pianos come with a size #2) on up to a #7. #1 pins were used and are still used on European pianos. Most pianos made today use a #2 from the factory.
PIN BLOCK: The layered and bonded wooden block in which turning pins are set. A badly made or warped pin block means trouble. Pinblock's are made from laminated hardwood. There can be as few as 4 laminations on an older piano, or as many as thirty or more on a modern or replacement pinblock.
CASE: The cabinet, or exterior wooden parts of the piano. Although the proto-typical veneer is usually ebony, many other woods such as mahogany and walnut are often used. The choice of wood or condition of the case does not affect sound quality. Also referred to as the rim on a grand piano. The rim is the side(s) of a grand piano.
KEYBED: The wooden panel that supports both the action and the keyboard. On older and some costly modern pianos, this is made form solid hardwood. On less expensive pianos made today, this made from particle board.
LYRE: The construction that holds the pedals on a grand piano. A properly designed lyre should always have some sort of rear support, that bears the rear-ward motion of the pedals being used.
KEYS: A keyboard should rise slightly - about three millimeters- in the middle, the section that supports the most wear and tear. If you want ivory keys rather than plastic, you must buy an older piano (pre-WWII). Although ivory keys have a tendency to unevenly discolor, the feel is unsurpassed and serious consideration should be made before replacing original ivory keys with plastic.