Steinway pianos are excellent instruments but there are many misconceptions about older Steinways and older pianos in general. Many people don’t realize that pianos age and their ability to play correctly and hold a tune start to be compromised after many years of use.
In particular, Steinway pianos manufactured before 1950 often develop sluggishness in their actions due to a condition called verdigris. Wooden action parts were treated with a wood preservative that would react to the nickel hinge pin in the action parts. The result is a sticky green substance called verdigris that makes the parts sluggish. Most pre-1950 Steinway pianos that I have encountered – both upright and grand – have verdigris in their actions. Many pianos with verdigris are unplayable.
What is the solution? The only true and permanent solution is to replace the affected action parts. This can be a significant expense but could be worth it in a piano that is in otherwise in good condition. A low-cost temporary option is to have the action lubricated with a lubricant used by piano technicians called Protek. This is often done for under $1,000 but must be done by an experienced piano technician. I must emphasize that this is only a temporary fix as the verdigris always returns.
These considerations should be made when considering purchasing or otherwise obtaining a vintage Steinway piano. Many Craigslist ads offer Steinway pianos with “all original parts!” Understand that this is not necessarily a good thing in that you may be looking at substantial repair costs to get the piano in playable condition. Other issues in vintage pianos (not just Steinway) that you should consider:
- What is the condition of the pinblock? Will the piano hold a tune?
- How are the bass bridges – are they cracked and in need of repair?
- Are the hammers deeply grooved and in need of shaping or replacement?
- Are the keys made of ivory and do they need replacement? New ivory legislation makes repair and replacement of existing ivory key tops more difficult.
- Does the action play smoothly with no notes double-striking or incorrectly sustaining?
- Do all the notes play and do they all sound lively or dead? Remember that older pianos may not have spare parts available for use in repair.
There are so many other things to consider when purchasing or acquiring a vintage piano. Remember that pianos generally don’t have antique value, just a value as a playable musical instrument. Consider that when viewing a craigslist ad that states that their antique piano “just needs tuning.”