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Buying a Player Piano

Posted By: RobG57

Buying a Player Piano - 11/10/11 04:17 PM

Hi There,

I am new to the forum and am considering buying a used player piano, but would love to get some advice.

I just looked at a piano that was an antique Strohber player piano from the 1920s. The owner wanted $2,000 for it; what is the best way to know if that is a fair price? Also, the piano played by pump only and I was wondering how costly it is/if it is easily possible to convert a foot pump player piano to one that plays by electric motor. Finally, some of the keys on the piano were sticking...is this typically something easy to fix?

I am also looking into a 1920s Grinnell player piano, that is listed for $600 and will play by electric pump, and a Baldwin player player piano from 1991 listed for about $1,000.

I know it's probably hard without seeing the instruments and condition, but any advice on what brands of player pianos to look for and how to research the fair market price? Also, any advice on a good place to buy a used player piano in Michigan, other than searching on Craigslist?

Any help would be appreciated smile

Posted By: Colin Dunn

Re: Buying a Player Piano - 11/10/11 09:25 PM

I'm also searching for a player piano. Haven't bought one yet, but here are some of the things I learned along the way so far.

- It costs about $600-$1,000 (labor and materials) to electrify / automate a pump-action player. Pianos that are pump-action-only generally sell for less than the ones that are fully electrified / automated, but with one exception. Some people are historical purists and want something as close to "all original" as possible. But this should only be important to you if you're the curator of a museum. If you want the player piano to actually use as a player piano, I think the electrified ones are much more practical.

- Upright players, usually 48-56" tall, from the 1920s often are listed for $200-$800. Many in this price range either need full refinishing, or significant restoration to the piano or player mechanism.

- What to look for: Strings, hammers, dampers replaced previously, especially for pianos that are 80-90 years old! How do you know if it needs new strings? If the bass sounds like an upright bass instead of a piano, or the strings are old, rusted, and dusty. Restringing a piano can cost over $1,500. Hanging a new set of hammers, about $1,000. Replacing dampers? Hundreds more. You want to find a piano where someone else had this work done 20-30 years ago. If it was just recently done, the piano is going to be expensive (seller will want to recoup that $3,000). If it's never been done, you'll spend it. If it was done 20-30 years ago, someone paid for it and enjoyed it, but you get the second half of the useful life for little increment in cost.

- Also look for one where the finish is in good shape. Professionally refinishing a full-size upright costs north of $2,000.


As for what you've seen, here are my opinions:

- The 1920s Strohber player is overpriced. A price of $2,000 should get you a fully working player that needs only routine maintenance (pitch raise, tuning, a few minor repairs). Most players above $2K are electrified / automated. Unless this particular piano is of valuable historical interest, there's nothing to justify this price.
- The 1920s Grinnell is promising if the internals check out and the finish is in good shape.
- The 1991 Baldwin is the most promising option, at least on paper. It's the least likely to need extensive restoration. But it may be a short piano; after about 1950, a lot of roll players were 40" consoles instead of 52-56" uprights. A taller upright will play and sound better, as long as the strings, hammers, and dampers are in good shape.

Posted By: RobG57

Re: Buying a Player Piano - 11/11/11 04:11 AM

Hi Colin,

Thanks for the response; these are super helpful tips and I learned a lot. Keep me posted on your player piano search, and if you learn anything else along the way, and I will do the same.

A couple piano technicians have discouraged me from buying a player piano because of all the potential restoration or repair costs, but I happen to think they're really cool and hoping to find one at a reasonable price with an electric pump that is in fully playable condition.

Where have you been looking for player pianos? Craigslist seems to be the best option. I found a local guy who restores them, but he charges $3,000+ for a piano and I'd rather not spend that much.

Posted By: BDB

Re: Buying a Player Piano - 11/11/11 07:18 AM

To add to what Colin said, restoring a player mechanism can easily run to several thousands of dollars. An electric motor can somewhat compensate for leaky tubes, valves and bellows, but it will not last forever, even with the added vacuum from an electric pump. You also lose the ability to alter the volume by how fast you pump. So many old players leak so much that people rarely know that was the way they were meant to be operated.
Posted By: Colin Dunn

Re: Buying a Player Piano - 11/18/11 12:34 AM

RobG57 -

I should have a player piano tomorrow!

I looked at a bunch on Craigslist, but spent months finding nothing usable. In the sub-$1,000 range, you usually find players that are old, beat-up, and require restoration. Though once in a while you'll find something good, so you'll just have to put in the time to go look at pianos.

Then a few weeks ago, I posted a "wanted" ad and was contacted by someone considering selling their player piano. They initially asked for $2,500, but agreed to a $2,200 selling price. This was for a 1970s-era upright with combination pump / electric player mechanism and a couple dozen rolls.

My second choice was one that had a $715 asking price. It had been partially restored though the cabinet was not in great shape. This one was foot pump only, but it possible to pump the pedals and get it to play. It may have needed some restoration (though not complete) in the player to eliminate leaks.

Given that the less expensive one needed to be electrified ($800) and refinished ($2,000+), I went with the $2,200 piano that needs very little work (one missing damper and needs a pitch raise tuning).

By the way, I don't think it hurts to buy a player piano to use as a regular piano. In many cases, you can get repairs / restoration done gradually, as funds permit, just as long as the piano doesn't require full refinishing or major structural repairs. So if you get an upright player that works as a piano, but the player system needs restoration, you can still use it as a regular piano while you save money and make arrangements for player repairs. Just make sure it's tunable, looks good, and playable as a piano first and foremost.

See my thread in the main piano forum, "Journey to a player piano," if you want to know more details about my experiences shopping around for antique uprights / player pianos. I'll keep updating that thread as I take delivery of the player piano, as well as get an antique upright fixed up and fitted with a modern-style solenoid player system.
Posted By: Chopinlover49

Re: Buying a Player Piano - 11/19/11 05:14 PM

My wife inherited a 1920 era Heintzman upright player piano that had been bought new for her grandmother. About 15 years ago we found a nice technician who liked re-doing them and he thoroughly rebuilt the player unit for about $500. I don;t remember exactly. However, we did not redo the strings, hammers, etc. I really regret that as the piano now is not playable really. Funny, though, when you play rolls, it still sounds ok. Probably because the player unit is more forceful than a regular pianist. We could have had it electrified for $250 but my wife said no. Another big mistake. I know today it would cost a ton to do this work. My grandfather used to do pianos and would restore players, nickelodians, etc. He said there are something like 25,000 parts in a player piano (if I remember right.) Many techs won't touch them. It takes a special person. Good luck. I would probably go with the newest piano you can find. Of course, now there are computer-driven player systems that are fantastic! Better than the old reproducing pianos which were head and shoulders above ordinary player units. Something to think about. But they are expensive. (I think they add about $5-6000 to the cost of a piano when bought with a new one. Check online. Not sure.)
Posted By: RobG57

Re: Buying a Player Piano - 11/22/11 02:57 AM

Hi Colin-

Congrats on finding a player piano! I was looking through some of your old threads and can tell it was quite a journey.

I actually just found a player piano as well! I think the vintage roll player pianos are really cool, but can tell that they can also need a lot of work if you don't know what you're getting yourself into, particularly for the ones that are antiques. So I actually ended up finding a used upright with a PianoDisc at a great price. It is a 44' Knabe ebony console (built by Young Chang) with a player system that can play from discs and CDs. I'm very excited and can't wait for it to be delivered next week! smile

Enjoy your piano! Glad we were both successful in our quest.

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