Ok - I accept that the majority of people won't need me to tell them that the future of the piano pictured above is going to be nowhere near as long as its past, but there are many pianos out there that although they don't look or sound too bad, are not worthy of your purchase.
The following is a quick crash course on "How to buy a piano and what to look out for".
During the late Victorian period, there were over 200 piano firms in the UK, mostly situated around Camden. There were tens of thousands of pianos being made at this time. Many were made by well known companies such as Chappell, Challen, Rogers, Hopkinson, Collard & Collard, Broadwood........the list is long. These pianos tended to be of good quality, and to back this up, they were proud to cast their name into the metal frame of the piano and inlay their name in brass into the fall (the bit at the front of the piano that folds down to cover the keys).
There were many other makers who also made decent enough pianos, but didn't put their name on them. These pianos would then to be sold to the many dealers who could then put their own brand name, or the name of their shop on the instrument. From time to time, you will see the phrase "made expressly for" on the fall of the piano, followed by the name of the shop. Of course, the piano wasn't made expressly for them, it was made for whoever wanted to buy it, but it sounded good!
Then there were the pianos that were cheaply manufactured using the cheapest materials so they could be sold cheaply.
Do not assume that because something is old, it has been well built. The saying "they don't make them like they used to" is usually uttered to mean that the quality nowadays is not as good as it was back then, but it can also be turned the other way.
These days, only a few people can, or are willing to pay the money necessary to purchase a top quality piano, so cheaper ones are made for the majority of people. It was exactly the same 100 years ago.
However, every piano should be judged individually, because over those 100 years or so, many problems can now exist with that piano, however well it was built.
When central heating started becoming popular in the 1970's, many of the older pianos were quite happy with the climate they had become accustomed to over the last 50 years or so. Although fairly cold in the room and maybe a bit damp from time to time, they were used to it and content.
All of a sudden, central heating warmed up the room considerably, and the air got a lot drier too. Many pianos didn't like this, certainly the wooden components didn't, and they decided to split or shrink. It wasn't just the pianos in the houses that suffered, many old dressers and chests of drawers show splits and cracks due to excessive heating too. The problem with it happening to the piano though, is that the wooden part affected the most by this is the wrest plank (or pin block). This is a part of the piano that you can't see, but it is the bit that all the tuning pins are hammered into. On new pianos, this wrest plank is now made from good quality multi laminated plywood which is exceptionally stable, but on the older pianos it was usually just a solid plank of beech. If this does shrink, it results in the tuning pins being too loose to hold the necessary tension on the strings, meaning the piano can't be tuned. If it is just a few pins that have gone loose, replacing them with slightly bigger tuning pins will usually do the job, but if it is widespread, the cost of re-pinning the whole piano, with the possible added cost of new strings too, makes the job unfeasible.
If the wrest plank has actually split, then a new one can be fitted, but the cost of that would be...........a lot of money......
If you do go to view a piano, ask the current owner when it was tuned last. (Whatever they say, double it, because isn't it shocking how quickly time flies by?) ....but at least you now know the piano was tuneable then. If they start racking their brains and mumbling " now, was it when Dana won the Eurovision, or Johnny Logan" (answers at the bottom of the page), then beware, as it has been a long time since anyone has checked out the piano.
Even if it has been far too long since the piano has been tuned, it should still be fairly consistently out of tune, but if you get a few notes that sound like they are sounding three notes in one, chances are the tuning pins are loose.
As well as central heating playing havoc with the piano, insects can too.
Moths love pianos. They are warm, people don't bother them in there and their is an almost unlimited supply of felt for them to nibble on. They not too keen on the hammer felt, it's a bit too hard, but they'll give it the odd nibble anyway. The notch felt (this cushions the jack against the notch when it returns once you release the key after playing it) is a particularly appealing bit of felt, you will often find the majority of these missing on a moth attacked piano . It can easily be identified by a loud click when you release the key after playing it. (It is the sound of wood on wood) They are also very found of the green baize found under the keys of the piano too. Not long ago, I had to fit new key baizes on a 1980's John Broadwood. The moths had eaten every last morsel of the baizes, bar a few crumbs. It was the most extensive moth damage I have ever seen.....so far!
(Dana was 1970, Johnny Logan twice, 1980 and 1987)