Are Old Pianos Better? Old Pianos Vs. New Pianos

Monday, November 5th, 2012 general

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This might sound silly but this is actually a very complex question.

When I was growing up, my father Mortin Estrin was a Baldwin artist. When he was selecting new pianos for performances and recordings, we used to go into the Baldwin artist showroom in New York City and he would play all the pianos and choose the one he liked the best. Back then, whenever he would encounter a restored piano he would scoff at them and couldn’t see any value in them. For a large part of my life I grew up with a similar mindset.

But now things are different for me; I sell restored pianos. So what changed? Well, pretty much everything when it comes to pianos. Back when I was growing up we had Baldwin, Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, Knabe, Sohmer, Chickering, and dozens more piano brands still producing new pianos in the United States. Today, we only have 3 piano companies left making pianos in the US and the rest are mostly made in huge Asian factories at a fraction of the cost and quality of the handmade pianos of yesterday.

There are still some pianos being made today in America and elsewhere that maintain a very high quality – but unfortunately they come with a very high price tag. However, the vast majority of new pianos are nowhere up to the standard of the handmade pianos.

At the turn of the 20th century there were over 1800 companies producing pianos in the United States! Sure, we still remember some of the big names, but with hundreds of companies competing for the top spot, there were plenty of phenomenally high quality pianos being produced during that time period. Every company had to compete against each other and while everyone was at the peak of production, the quality was at an extremely high level; it had to be. However, the vast majority of pianos ever produced in the US are very old now.

Right before World War II there were still over 300 piano companies in the United States. They were producing lots of high quality pianos but even this was a long time ago. Many of these instruments have not stood the test of time – whether they weren’t maintained properly, succumbed to the elements of nature, or just wore out.

Some old pianos have huge potential to be great. The craftsmanship and level of work was outstanding. However, a lot of their potential lies in the life that these pianos have had. How well have they been preserved? And how much work has been done to make them play like a new piano?

In a perfect world where money is no object you could buy a brand new Hamburg Steinway or Shigeru Kawaii or other top brand and have a wonderful piano. For most people however, if they are looking for a top tier piano they will most likely consider a vintage instrument that has been meticulously restored.

There is a wide range of tones possible with many of these vintage pianos. Even the old Mason & Hamlins and Steinways have a different quality than the ones being produced today. They have slight differences in the methodology of production. There were also countless, skilled workers from what was a huge industry. Some people think the quality and aging of the woods produces a richer tone like a Stradivarius violin.

From my experience I have seen quite a bit of magic produced out of the great, vintage pianos. There is a difference in quality and tone that is rare on newer pianos. However, the question of whether or not they are better comes down to the individual pianos. You simply can’t compare the quality of Asian production pianos and handmade pianos. However, this is not to say that every handmade piano is better. Really the bottom line comes down to personal preference. Some people, particularly in rock and pop actually prefer the more strident tones produced by factory pianos today – it is a sound many people have become accustomed to.

13 Comments to Are Old Pianos Better? Old Pianos Vs. New Pianos

  • Catherine says:

    I have an 1892 Steinway Model K and the sound is wonderful. I am looking forward to replacing the hammers someday soon. Oddly, I am a music director at a church and play on a Knabe 9 foot grand(maybe 8.5) that was made in 1852! The sound blew me away. I think there is something about the wood. Sadly, they have not taken very good care of this instrument that was bequeathed to them in 1963. I just had it regulated and tuned. It is amazing how long this piano has lived. I don’t know how much longer it will last without more work. The hammers were recently reshaped as well and they are on their last days. At some point in its history the mechanism was modernized…and there are tell tale signs that this grand was once a player piano. But it needs new hammers and the dampers are starting to look pretty bad. The fact that it plays and sounds as beautiful as it does is a testament to the craftsmanship of Knabe. My piano technician says it’s the oldest thing he’s ever worked on. He’s amazed at the sound and overtones. I really worry one day the thing will just crack or something. It is getting a sort of warped look about it when I stand at a certain angle and look at it. Or maybe it is the way it was made because of lack of technology? It just never looks quite straight to me and drives me crazy.

    • Richard Little says:

      I’d love to see this Knabe - I wasn’t aware they were even making pianos in 1852 - that’s before the Steinways established their business in America (March 5, 1853!), almost before the “overstrung grand with steel plate” that we now know as the traditional “grand” piano had become standard. And at that age, it’s unlikely to have been a player piano - they did not exist until much later. Early pianofortes tended to become somewhat “twisted” with age as the tension from the strings overcame the strength of the wood, but this is very unusual in a full-plate grand.

  • Richard Little says:

    Robert, you’re certainly right on point insisting on an “apples-to-apples” comparison - it is primarily a matter of taste whether a WELL-MADE older piano is to be preferred over a WELL-MADE new piano. But the plain fact, as you have said, is that the vast majority of pianos made today are not WELL-MADE; they are industrial products which are, for the most part, inferior to A VERY FEW of the pianos made today and to A GREAT MANY of the pianos made before World War II.

    • Richard Little says:

      A little wording difficulty in the last sentence - meant to say that only a very few pianos made today (the hand-made ones) can fairly be compared (”apples-to-apples”) with quite a few [hand-made ones] that were made before World War II; most, being factory- rather than hand-made, simply do not warrant comparison.

  • Maria Teresa Renado says:

    I own a Yamaha Baby Grand (my husband bought it for me in 1978) Were they made in Asia? if so, what level of quality?….I have enjoy the sound and the “feel”…but I’m far from an expert…

    • admin says:

      Yamaha is a Japanese company and is not only the largest piano company in the world, but also the largest musical instrument manufacturer in the world. Your piano was made in Japan. Yamaha is a global company and has piano factories in other countries such as Indonesia. They manufacturer pianos of different levels of quality from entry level price point pianos to hand made instruments. The vast majority of Yamaha pianos sold are well made, Asian production pianos. While they are not on the level of quality of the great hand-built instruments, they are definitely a notch above the vast majority of pianos coming out of China, Korea and Indonesia. Kawai is the 2nd largest piano manufacturer in the world and is also a Japanese company.

  • Sue says:

    Is it true that after WWII, many piano technicians from Germany whose manufacturing plants had been destroyed, went to Japan to train the Japanese in piano building. As it seems to have happened in many areas, the Japanese, being very intelligent and clever people, soon perfected their piano building abilities and by the early 1960’s had introduced the Yamaha piano to America…along with Hondas!

    When I was in college studying piano, all the practice rooms had broken down, worn out Kimball, Everett, Story & Clark, pianos. When the new Yamaha arrived for one of the practice rooms, waiting lines formed outside its door because its quality was so superior to the others…and that was nearly 50 years ago!

    How do you rate older Yamahas vs. newer ones? Just curious because I have a “new” older Sohmer piano which I absolutey love from the 1960’s.

  • pamela says:

    I would love to know what vintage of upright pianos — Steinways, Mason & Hamlins, perhaps Ivers and Pond — are considered the best years. What were the best upright makers — high end ones? And what decades were their best years?

  • Lesley says:

    I just started looking for a “grand” piano to replace my old upright (circa 1904 or so and it simply won’t stay in tune). I tried a 2000 Baldwin model M and really liked it. Of course, anything will be an upgrade for me. I’m an average sort of player, just playing for my own enjoyment. This Baldwin was one of the ones built in the USA (as opposed to China). Any thoughts on a Baldwin? Because I am only a “recreational” player, I don’t feel like committing huge resources to a piano. The dealer is asking $12,000 for the Baldwin. Any thoughts?

    • Bob Estrin says:

      Lesley-

      Baldwin pianos were one of the great American pianos. However, Baldwin began a long decline starting in the late 1970’s competing with the Japanese imports from Yamaha and Kawai. First their uprights suffered lower quality as Baldwin tried to compete with the lower cost Asian imports. In the 1990’s even their top tier Artist Grand pianos began deteriorating in manufacturing quality. It really wasn’t until the early 2000’s when there were some really sub-par work coming out of the factory just prior to the bankruptcy.

      So, the Baldwin you saw may very well be a good piano. But I would definitely make sure there are no issues with any of the manufacturing. If you can accommodate a grand piano, I have a rebuilt Chickering for around the same price. Chickering is one of the ldest and most respected American piano manufacturers. They were producing pianos decades before Steinway even existed. Here is the piano with a video for you:

      http://livingpianos.com/pianos/chickering-grand-piano-143565/

      Please let me know any other information that may be of help to you.

  • Susan says:

    Hi, Bob! I have been a professional pianist/vocalist for about 25 years. Until about 10 years ago I was also a piano tuner/technician. I have a special fondness for older pianos — when I was a tuner I would do repair work on pianos that other tuners would have relegated to the junk heap. I now have an antique piano “collection,” if 2 pianos constitute a collection: a 1905 Bush & Lane upright that I bought in 1976, and an 1891 85 key Steinway grand (I think it would be considered a “B.”) that I acquired a year and a half ago. The Bush % Lane is truly monumental: the supports for the legs are 6 1/2 inches wide and the legs are columns about 4 inches in diameter with Corinthian capitals, in solid mahoghany, no less. There is a relief column across the music desk with solid walnut “flames” shooting out from both ends. It has a big sound too. I bought the Steinway for a song from a friend who had to part with it: he had purchased it about 25 years ago for his late wife and had been moving it around with him for years. The soundboard has cracks every 5 inches and the tuning pins are rather loose, but it’s tunable and playable and has a lovely tone. It’s veneered with ribbon mahoghany, though it’s in dire need of refinishing too. I wish that I had the time and energy to rebuild and refinish it. I don’t have any questions for you; I just happened upon your website and was delighted with the information on it. Well, perhaps one question: when did the 88 key keyboard become standard? Thank you so much.

  • jordan says:

    hello i have a weber full size upright piano made in .the action is badly worn would it be worth replacing

    • Bob Estrin says:

      It is hard to say if it is worthwhile restoring this piano. If you provide information about its age that would be helpful. Weber went out of business decades ago. So pianos bearing the Weber name since then have been Young Chang pianos with the familiar Weber name on front. These pianos are not terribly expensive to buy new, so investing money in an older one is questionable. However, if you have strong sentimental attachment to the piano or there is something special about this particular instrument, you could investigate further. Be sure to assess everything on the piano before embarking on any work.

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