Pianos Doomed To Junkyards As Cost To Repair Them Is Too High For Many Music Lovers

As lovely and elegant as pianos can be, and as many memories one might have of plunking away at “Heart and Soul,” if you’ve got one that doesn’t work and aren’t willing to spend the money to fix it, it just turns into a huge piece of furniture taking up room in your home. Since the value of used pianos, uprights in particular, has gone down in recent years, owners are starting to dump pianos instead of trying to fix them or giving them away.

The New York Times says it’s becoming increasingly common for piano movers to turn into piano dumpers, as owners of used pianos call them to dispose of non-working instruments. Sometimes the movers take them apart to sell off pieces or even burn them as firewood.

All those working parts that come together inside a piano to produce beautiful music are also very expensive to repair, and require the attention of skilled experts. There are less of those technicians around these days, however, while music lovers can get a kick from less expensive digital pianos and keyboards, as well as cheaper imported pianos.

“Instead of spending hundreds or thousands to repair an old piano, you can buy a new one made in China that’s just as good, or you can buy a digital one that doesn’t need tuning and has all kinds of bells and whistles,” the editor and publisher of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer tells the NYT.

Unsurprisingly, many people have grown attached to these instruments, whether because they used to play it at grandma’s house when she was alive, or because we can remember peeking at the inside of a piano and marveling that such a huge mechanism could create such delicate sounds. But when grandma dies or your apartment becomes too small to accommodate an upright piano, the dump is sometimes the only way to go.

Since pianos usually last about 80 years, with the peak of piano-making in America hitting between 1900-1930, thousands of pianos are now arriving at the age where it’s time to go.

One piano moving company said it brings around five to 10 pianos a month to a debris transfer site, where they’re pushed off the back of the truck one by one. It costs the owners $150 per piano to get one hauled away, while it can cost thousands just to fix one.

The founder of a piano adoption web site says he tries to find homes for unwanted pianos, but that’s not always an option, despite the outcry from piano lovers who have seen videos of dumped pianos.

When owners ask where a cherished piano is going, he said, he tries to avoid the subject or tells them it will be put up for adoption.

“The last thing they want to hear is that it’s going to a landfill,” he said.

For More Pianos, Last Note Is Thud in the Dump [New York Times]

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  1. Golfer Bob says:

    “Since pianos usually last about 80 years, with the peak of piano-making in America hitting between 1900-1930, thousands of pianos are now arriving at the age where it’s time to go.”

    I had to laugh when I read this line because it sounded like something that Michelle Bachman said about the Affordable Care Act and the alleged “death panels.”

  2. Rebecca K-S says:

    I love my electric piano!

    I stand to inherit a 1920s Steinway that I don’t look forward to ever having to repair. Fortunately, it was fully refurbished about ten years ago, so hopefully I won’t ever need to do much.

  3. Jane_Gage says:

    If the keys are made of ivory artists would be happy to paint or carve them.

    • RvLeshrac says:

      Unless you have hard, written proof that the ivory was legally obtained, selling it is a good way to get hauled off to federal PMITA prison.

      • Kuri says:

        Depends on the age of the piano. If it was made before the ivory laws were in place there wouldn’t be a problem.

        • mdarnton says:

          The laws are very specific in prohibiting the reusing of old ivory. It’s not even legal to use old ivory from keys to fix old keys that had ivory on them previously. Thank your ever-logical government for that.

      • shinzon says:

        As stuporglue points out below, the ivory would be veneer, but even if the keys were solid ivory you wouldn’t be looking at prison time. In the US, you would only be looking at prison time if you were doing something like running a smuggling ring and got caught with a large amount of raw ivory, like 65lbs of it, in which case you would be looking at a year in prison (see the second source below). But, for petty violations, the felony is so minor that you usually just sign something forfeiting the ivory and that is the end of it. The first source below has a handy table for what is legal and illegal in the US, the second source is a full report about what happens in these cases.

        Sources:

        The Ins and Outs of Owning Ivory
        http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/chattanooga_200804A10.html

        An Investigation of Ivory Markets in the United States
        http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/Ivory_Trade_Report.pdf

    • stuporglue says:

      Ivory keys on pianos are veneer only and it’s too thin to really do much.

  4. Laura Northrup says:

    I hope that all of the pianos are put out of their misery by being dropped off the tops of tall buildings.

    I’m a Freecycle moderator. Pianos are a very popular item there. Along the lines of “Please, please, take this piano away!”

  5. Bladerunner says:

    Man, I want a piano…

    • jsibelius says:

      You probably don’t want one of these. Free pianos are never actually free.

      I’m lucky – I’m going to inherit my parents’ piano in the next few years. It was the same piano I learned on. It’s got a couple of sticky keys and needs tuning, but I’ve seen way worse. And as a piece of furniture, it’s still incredibly beautiful.

      • RvLeshrac says:

        Free pianos are usually pretty free, if you can move them. It really *DOESN’T* cost that much to have them re-tuned, or even repaired in many cases.

        The “thousands of dollars” figure is from Assholes, when what you really want is a $5 app from the App Store or Google Play and a few parts from your local music store.

        • stuporglue says:

          Thousands of dollars would be for more than a tune up. I have an old piano. If I were to properly fix it up I would need to do some wood working to fix the dinged up decorations and legs. I would need to sand and stain the wood. I would need to restring it.

          I would need to remove the harp and mechanisms in order to protect them from the sanding process.

          The peg holes where the string pegs go are too loose and I should replace that piece so it can hold its tuning for longer.

          The felt strips and the felt on the hammers needs replacing.

          To restore an old piano to compete with a new piano, I can see it easily costing hundreds or thousands.

          If people just want a piano to play though, a $60 tuning service will bring their free piano up to usable condition. Or you can buy a piano tuning wrench and do it yourself.

          I just bought a piano tuning wrench and tuned it, and we live with the fact that it’s an old piano.

  6. Velifer says:

    When the New York Times claims something is a trend, it has either ALWAYS been a “trend” or you need to wait two more years. NYT claiming something is a trend? This is never news.

    • thatblackgirl says:

      Usually it means that the writer of the piece has heard about it happening among a few of her friends.

  7. drowse says:

    This is sad but unfortunately I see it all around. Trying to haul around a 100 year old piano is a pain. Particularly uprights are seemingly a dime a dozen – I know lots of people who would pay to have someone take it off rather than keep it around and learn to play it.

  8. tinmanx says:

    So that’s where OK GO got all the pianos for their music video!

  9. smo0 says:

    This is depressing.

  10. Kestris says:

    My parents had an upright piano when I was a kid. They traded it as art of the deal for a new satellite dish back when they first came out- you know, the big 6 to 8 feet across ones.

    That satellite is still standing in the backyard, though no longer used as they went to DishNetwork (I believe).

    No idea what the satellite company ended up doing with the upright piano.

  11. Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

    One snowy November we were stuck in a cabin in the woods because of heavy snow. Very little firewood because we had only planned to be there 2-3 days. Temps near zero and no fuel except… the ancient upright piano. It burned better than it played and made a nice fire but stunk a little.

  12. Miss Dev (The Beer Sherpa) says:

    My folks are moving out of their house of 36 years, and they don’t have anywhere to send their piano. It was the piano my grandmother used to play for my father when he was going to sleep and it was the one that I played growing up… but now it’s got to go.

    Trying to find someone to take it away is a nightmare. They are seriously worried that they will be moving on Friday and the piano will still be there!

    • sorta savvy consumer says:

      Freecycle it especially if it is generally in tune. You should have several offers to come and get it.

    • Kuchen says:

      The people we bought our house from left their piano. It’s in the basement, so it probably has a little moisture damage. I have no idea how they even got it down there in the first place, so I’m sure it will be a pain in the butt to move should we ever have the desire (and the money) to finish the basement.

      • Willow16 says:

        When we bought our house, there was a piano in the basement. The owners said it was the upstairs tenant’s (along with some other junk) and we believed them. Come to find out, it wasn’t. The piano was in terrible shape having been in a damp basement for many years plus someone had removed the ivory veneer off of the keys. My husband used a reciprocating saw and cut it up to put it in the garbage. I hated to do that but it couldn’t be salvaged.

  13. sorta savvy consumer says:

    We gave away our piano on freecycle rather than move it. It was in good working condition being only about 20 years old or so. We had moved it a number of times and we were putting everything in storage and it just wan’t worth the cost to store when you can buy a practically new one for around $600 if you watch craigslist.

    We ended up buying a very nice electric piano used on craigslist after we moved. It is lighter, smaller, has headphones, all in all a great deal.

  14. thomwithanh says:

    As a musician this breaks my heart… they just don’t make ‘em the way they used to.

    • bobosims says:

      Indeed. This makes me very sad.

      At some point folks will look back and say “if only I’d saved grandma’s bic pen” … wait, that’s not right… they’ll say “if only I’d saved grandma’s piano”.

      Note to everyone: pianos will live a very long time with a minimum of occasional care and a smattering of common sense. If you’re ditching your piano like you ditch a used-up bic pen, you’re doing it wrong.

      • Southern says:

        Sorry, but I disagree. A piano like a baby grand will have between 18 and 30 [b]tons[/b] of pressure on the strings of the piano. Even if unused, the strings will stretch due to the pressure, and the tone of the piano will go “flat”. If left untuned for too long, the strings will not stretch back into the correct pitch (or they just snap), and have to be replaced – and they’re not cheap. To properly maintain a tuned piano, they need to be serviced at least once a year.

        Now, if you don’t care what it sounds like, then sure, a “minimum of occasional care” is fine.

        • Coelacanth says:

          Ehh, I’m extremely sensitive to out-of-tune pianos (damn absolute pitch!). Even instruments with homes tend to suffer from extreme neglect unless the owners are truly musicians themselves.

          While a part of me should be quite thrilled with evangelising people take up the piano again, so many of these instruments are probably beyond repair.

          Unless we’re talking about vintage grand pianos, it may be simply better to replace rather than repair.

    • Velvet Jones says:

      The problem is they’re too expensive to fix. I looked at buying a used, extremely vintage piano a few years ago. Even one still in nice shape needed a major overhaul. It would have been more expensive to rehab one of these 1930s uprights than to buy a new one. Unless it is a high end brand it isn’t worth it. My parents spent about $8000 to rehab a turn of the century player a few years ago. I still don’t think it sounds particularly great, has a honky-tonk kind of sound, but man does it look good. A true piece of artwork.

  15. trencherman says:

    I grew up listening to my mother play my great grandfather’s upright piano. It’s beautiful, but now it’s sadly out of tune and can’t be tuned true without snapping the sound board in half (I pay a tuner to come out and tune it to “itself” every once in a while as a gift to my mom. If I inherit it, I plan to take the keys out and turn it into a bar. This was done in an episode of “design on a dime” or a similar show, and the results were awesome.

    • quail20 says:

      I’d want a desk made out of one. Maybe with an hydraulic lift that opens the piano when you press one of the pedals.

  16. OriginalFiveO says:

    Many years ago, on the Japanese TV show Soko Ga Shiritai, they showed the life of a piano, and one of the segments dealt with the disposal of unwanted pianos.

    Imagine a mini-truck full of pianos, being crushed by an excavator at a dump site. The guy that hauled the pianos lamented “the piano’s are crying” in response to the sounds the pianos made when the excavator began to crush them.

  17. jeepguy57 says:

    Well when you consider that for our grandparents, the piano was probably the main fixture of the living room. Now it’s a TV.

    We bought our house from a musician and he had a beautiful upright in the living room. Of course, it was just he and his wife in the house. Where his piano used to sit now sits a large sofa, adjacent to another large sofa, both facing a 42″ television.

    Times sure have changed.

  18. quail20 says:

    Yea. It is sad that these things are going by way of the trash heap. Even if they are too expensive to return to working order, I’m shocked that no one is trying to turn them into desks or what have you. People were falling over themselves for junky 100 year old wood from barns not that long ago. The wood that went into some of these pianos has got to be excellent.

  19. frodolives35 says:

    I see at least 2 free piano’s on Craig’s list every month and I live in a some what rural area.

  20. Cacao says:

    On HGTV’s Design on a Dime, a designer turned an old piano into a bar. Sounded bad back then, but if the choice is bar or landfill…

  21. BBG says:

    “When owners ask where a cherished piano is going, he said, he tries to avoid the subject or tells them it will be put up for adoption.”

    No, no, the piano is going to a farm upstate, where a nice old lady will play it everyday…

  22. thomwithanh says:

    The piano I practiced on every day growing up met a similar fate. It was a brown baby grand we got with the house, though it was surprisingly in good shape and sounded great after a tuning. When I was in high school, mom stopped getting regular maintenance for the piano (and it was noticeably out of tune by my senior year), and by time I was out of college the piano was unplayable. It went to the dump :(

  23. Steve Oliver says:

    I disagree that a Chinese piano is “just as good” as an older American piano in good condition. And even if it’s not in good condition, many older pianos are constructed of stronger and higher quality materials that last longer and create better tone once refurbished. I recommend taking the time to find a trained master piano rebuilder/restorer. It’s quite possible that restoring your older American piano will cost less than purchasing a new Chinese import.