Author Archives: Graham

A paper on the Early Pianos of Thomas Tomkison

There has been little written about Thomas Tomkison until now but Norman MacSween has undertaken detailed research of this piano maker.  His article is published in the current edition of the Galpin Society journal and is titled: “No Maker to be Compared – The Early Pianos of Thomas Tomkison (c1764-1853)”

The quote in the title comes from the society hostess and lady of letters Hester Piozzi, who in 1802 recommended the purchase of a grand piano by the maker Thomas Tomkison to wealthy neighbours in Wales. Though Tomkison was well known at home and abroad during his lifetime as a maker of equal standing to Broadwood, Stodart and Clementi, his reputation was soon eclipsed.

The article looks at new evidence that has emerged on Tomkison’s background and apprenticeship, and in particular at his association in the 1790s with the Wardour Street workshop of James Henry Houston, continuing a line of manufacture there from George Garcka and John Bates. It describes how Tomkison opened his own workshop in Dean Street in 1799 and soon developed a distinguished clientele that included the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent); Tomkison’s bill for supplying a grand piano to him as George IV in 1821 survives.


Tomkison grand piano

The grand piano made in 1821 by Thomas Tomkison for George IV  now in the Colt Clavier Collection, Kent, UK

An appendix to the article lists the serial numbers of all known surviving Tomkison grand, square and upright pianos, compiled with the help of colleagues under the auspices of the website Friends of Square Pianos.

Those who wish to see the article can join the Galpin Society to get a copy of the journal, or they should be able to access it electronically it via JSTOR at a suitable library.


Square Piano Weekend 2014 at Finchcocks Musical Museum

Finchcocks Musical Museum

Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent

The 4th Square Piano Weekend will be held at Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst in Kent, UK on the 10th and 11th May 2014.  This is an informal and social weekend and all are very welcome.  The main part of Saturday is devoted to demonstrations, talks and discussions, primarily about square pianos.  There will be evening dinner in the Cellar Restaurant followed by a recital by the ensemble Café Haydn from the Netherlands.  On Sunday there will be unstructured access to the amazing instruments in the collection, with the usual ‘Open Day’ in the afternoon.

Finchcocks Square Piano event

Finchcocks Square Piano Weekend May 2013

The soloist during the day on Saturday is Martyna Kazmierczak .  She will lead a presentation on the different stages in the development of square pianos, and the relationship between the technical differences, the music, and the approach to playing.   Other presentations include, “The Early Development of the Square Piano in America” – by Tom Strange; “Tales from the Saleroom” – by Graham Wells who was the early keyboard instrument specialist advisor to Sotheby’s;  “A Portable Square Piano made by Charles Trute”;  “The Sound of Silence” on hearing Music in the 18th and early 19th Century – by Olaf van Hees; “The Square Piano as a Musical Instrument – A player’s perspective”,  a second presentation by  Martyna Kazmierczak; “The Broadwood Tuners”  by Alastair Laurence who is the Curator at the Finchcocks Musical Museum;  and “Bells and Whistles, mutation stops and pedals”  by Luke Bradley.

Martyna Kazmierezak

Martyna Kazmierczak

Café Haydn in their evening concert will re-enact a musical evening with a cup of tea, as it was usual around 1800 in a well to do English household. This was not as formal as we think today. Some songs and lyrics caused amused raised eyebrows and hilarious moments. The programme includes music by Haydn, the composer with the status of a popstar in the era of Jane Austen.  His Scottish Songs, piano trios and piano sonatas, were written to please the audience.  Café Haydn has performed this programme ‘Tea with Jane’ with great success.  The reactions of the audience: Absolutely hilarious!

Prices: The main programme: £50 per person.  (Concession £25 for full-time students under 30) Saturday evening dinner: £25.  Evening concert: £10.  Tea and Coffee on Saturday included.  All other meals and drinks at cost. To confirm reservations, and for all enquiries, please contact David at

The early keyboard materials offered for sale on this website will be available at this event for purchase.

The Survival and Preservation of English Square Pianos


This article is about the development of the English square piano; their ownership in the late 18th and during the 19th centuries and their survival and preservation in recent time.  It also provides information about early keyboard instrument collections in the UK and the United States that include these instruments.

The development of the English square piano

Square pianos in England were made during a period of just over 100 years. The earliest surviving English square piano was made by Johannes Zumpe in1766.1  The last square piano made by John Broadwood & Sons was in 1866 but Collard & Collard continued to make these instruments into the 1870’s.   During this period the square piano developed dramatically from a small lightly strung instrument meeting the needs of musicians of the classical era to one of large proportion with iron plate and greatly increased string mass and tension.   These changes gave increased volume and dynamics required for later romantic period music. Continuous change was made to the technical design and the appearance of case changed in line with furniture style and fashion.


1776 beck square piano

An early square piano by Arnold Frederick Beck made in 1776

Collard & Collard square piano

A later square piano by Collard & Collard made in the 1840’s

The ownership of square pianos in the late 18th and during the19th centuries

Square pianos would have been considered old-fashioned a few years after they were made and fall short in meeting changes in musical expectations.  Many were sold by their original owners for a more up-to-date example.

A Broadwood square piano of 1791 in my possession recently was inscribed on the inner cover showing that it had changed hands many times up to 1840. The first change of ownership was in 1806.  By 1840, this instrument would have been considered to have little value.   Fortunately, it survived as a piano probably fulfilling a purpose as a side table but many others were less fortunate and were converted into desks, sideboards or dressing tables in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.  The output of square pianos declined after 1850 in preference to the upright piano as the domestic instrument.

A minority of square pianos remained in the ownership of the family who first bought them. One such example was made by Adam Beyer in 1779 and was purchased for Cusworth Hall, Doncaster where it remained until the contents were auctioned in 1952.  This instrument is now in The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, Faculty of Music, Oxford.

1779 Beyer square piano

A square piano made by Adam Beyer in 1779 for Cusworth Hall, Doncaster that is now in the Bate Collection of early keyboard instruments

Some square pianos were available with added ornamentation at extra cost that reflected the wealth and social status of their owners.   Contrasting veneers and neoclassical style inlay in the late 18th century gave way to gilt brass mouldings by about 1810.   In the Victorian period fewer square pianos were decorated and some were very basic and plain making them more affordable to people with less financial means .

1794 Buntebart square piano

A Buntebart square piano of 1794 in a satinwood and purpleheart veneered case. The nameboard with detailed floral inlay.  This square piano would have been an expensive example at the time.

c1812 Rochead

A square piano made about 1812 by Andrew Rochead & Son, Edinburgh with three music drawers having having extensive original gilt brass mouldings

The revival of interest in the square piano

From the mid-Victorian period until the 1970’s square pianos were generally discounted as musical instruments and were viewed as having little antique value.  Their survival depended on their use as a piece of furniture.  Others were abandoned and kept in unfavourable conditions resulting in their deterioration.  Interest in square pianos has gradually increased since the 1970’s and they are now appreciated by many as an historical musical instrument in their own right that demonstrate the music of their period.  Later square pianos of larger proportions still remain less desirable but earlier examples are receiving more respect and are being repaired more authentically than they were previously.

Their survival, condition and restoration

It is considered that the survival rate of square pianos on average is between 3% and 5% of total production.  This may seem a relatively high figure but has occurred because of their convenient use as an alternative piece of furniture.  Early grand pianos were less fortunate in this respect.

A significant number of the surviving square pianos have received some repair over the past 60 years and therefore a square piano in good original well-preserved condition is rare. If an instrument has survived substantially in original condition, there is a good argument to conserve only and not to put back into playing condition.  It is important that we are able to show instruments that are in an original state with all materials as used by their makers for current and future research and provide a benchmark for those that are restored.

The question whether to restore an early piano may depend on who has acquired the instrument.  For museums it is often considered necessary only to conserve and not restore unless the museum specialises in having instruments for public performance. If an early piano has been acquired by a private individual, it is more likely that the owner wishes to have the instrument restored to playing condition.

There is merit for restoring many square pianos. This will enable their continuing survival and allow their musical performance to be appreciated.  However, if an instrument is to be put back into playing order, one of the golden rules of conservation has to be broken as some of the original material will need to be replaced.  Materials should only be replaced if it is absolutely essential for bringing the instrument back into playing condition.  Replacement materials such as leather, cloth and music wire should be as close as possible in composition to the original material. The case should not be re-polished even if it does have marks and stains but this is more likely to happen where the instrument is a privately owned.

Keyboard instrument collections that include square pianos

In discussing the preservation of square pianos it is worth mentioning two important collections in the UK.   In 1944, Mr C. F. Colt, a timber frame building manufacturer, started to acquire instruments and house them at Bethersden in Kent. This collection is known as the Colt Clavier Collection.2  In 1944 early keyboard instruments were relatively easy to find and Mr Colt acquired about 160 including many square pianos.  His collection includes more Broadwood pianos than are held in any other single collection.  Mr Colt died in 1985 but his collection survives. About 1971, Mr. Richard Burnett acquired Finchcocks, an eighteenth century manor house in Goudhurst, Kent and brought together a large collection of early keyboard instruments.  The Finchcocks Musical Museum.3 is open to the public and is very much appreciated for the services it provides and access it offers to its early keyboard instruments.

Finchcocks Musical Museum

Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent, UK

Finchcocks Musical Museum

Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent, UK.

A large number of early keyboard instruments in the UK including square pianos are in the care of the National Trust and dispersed between its many properties. A register of these instruments is in preparation but information about some instruments can be found in the “National Trust Collections” published on the Internet.  At Hatchlands Park, a National Trust property in Surrey UK, there is the Cobbe Collection of Keyboard Instruments with Composer Associations.4   At Fenton House, Hampstead, London, another property of the National Trust The Benton Fletcher Collection of Keyboard Instruments  is held.5  Collections of musical instruments including square pianos are held by some universities and colleges including the Edinburgh University Collection of Musical Instruments (Russell and Mirrey collections of early keyboard instruments) 6 ; The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, Faculty of Music, Oxford;7 the Royal College of Music, Museum of Music, London.8 and the Royal Academy of Music, London.9 There are a number of small private collections that include square pianos such as the Kenneth Mobbs Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments formally in Bristol but now in New Zealand.

In the United States, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia hold a collection of early keyboard instruments and a selection of these instruments including English square pianos have been brought together for special exhibit between 22 November 2012 and 7 September 2014.  This exhibition is known as “Changing Keys”, Keyboard Instruments of America 1700-1830.10  It shows the transition from the harpsichord to the piano and the standard of presentation is exemplary.


Changing Keys

Part of the “Changing Keys” exhibition at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia, United States

There are many other collections around the world that include English square pianos.

The availability of English square pianos today

The number of square pianos coming onto the market or sale appears to have decreased over the past few years.  One reason for this may be that more instruments than ever before are being exported to overseas buyers.  The availability of online fine art auction sales has increased the visibility of these instruments to potential buyers. I am aware of a significant demand from overseas buyers not only across Europe and the United States but also from the countries in the Far East.  Fortunately, square pianos are no longer being converted into furniture but some are being broken up because they are undesirable or are in a very poor state.

The importance of English square piano

Piano making in the late 18th and 19th centuries was very competitive and potentially a very lucrative business which grew from just a handful of square pianos made by Johannes Zumpe to a major business sector in which a piano was owned in the majority of households.   Many thousands of people were in its employ during the 19th century and therefore the production of pianos was very important to the UK economy.  Piano manufacture was the most mechanised industry of the 19th century in England.

The merit for a national collection of early keyboard instruments in the UK

Although we have a number of excellent early keyboard collections in the UK, there is not one that could be considered as a national collection.  There was a small collection of early keyboard instruments at the V&A Museum in London until recently but this has been disbanded in favour of other exhibits.  There may be sufficient interest and incentive for a national collection of early keyboard instruments that brings together a single collection of original and well-preserved instruments and also those with special merit or rarity.  This should be managed in a controlled environment for the purpose of public exhibition and academic study.  The square piano was the domestic keyboard instrument for over 100 years and should be represented in this collection.

There is a danger that the heritage of early keyboard instruments in the UK will become dispersed and, as time goes by, it will be increasingly difficult establish a national collection for both present and future generations should there be a will to do so.

An international database of surviving early pianos

An international register of early pianos is maintained by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in the United States.  This database was established by Professor Martha Clinkscale a few years ago who undertook a considerable amount of research in setting up the register.  Her aim was to catalogue all surviving early pianos together with information about their makers. There are two books by her published by the Oxford University Press: Makers of Piano 1720-1820 and Makers of the Piano 1820-1860.  Her work is continued today by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in the United States, and all owners of early pianos whether held by institutions or privately are encouraged to register on this early piano website and give basic information about their instruments.  This has proved to be an invaluable source of information and has broadened our knowledge and understanding.

Graham Walker

Dorset, England, UK

If you wish to make any comment, please contact Graham by email:


  1. There are four surviving square pianos by Johannes Zumpe dated 1766.
  2. The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, Faculty of Music, St. Aldate’s, Oxford    OX1 1DB.   01865 276139.
  3. Colt Clavier Collection, Bethersden,  Nr. Ashford, Kent. TN26 3DD  (open by appointment only)
  4. Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent. TN17 1HH. 01580 211702.
  5. Cobbe Collection of Keyboard Instruments with Composer Associations, Hatchlands Park,  East Clandon, Guildford, Surrey GU4 7RT   01483 211474.
  6. The Benton Fletcher Collection of Keyboard Instruments, Fenton House (National trust) Hampstead Grove, Hampstead, London, NW3 6SP.  020 7435 3471
  7. Edinburgh University Collection of Musical Instruments (Russell and Mirrey collections of early keyboard instruments) St Cecilia’s Hall, Niddry Street, Cowgate, Edinburgh EH1 1UL.
  8. Royal College of Music, Museum of Music, Prince Consort Rd, London SW7 2BS    020 7591 4300
  9. The Royal Academy of Music, Museum,  Marylebone Road, London NW1 5HT   020 7873 7443
  10. Changing Keys”, Keyboard Instruments of America 1700-1830, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, United States.




Historical keyboard instrument course

Broadwood & Sons in association with Finchcocks Musical Museum held an event on the 19th and 20th July 2013 celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Piano Tuners Association.  This two-day hands-on course was, held at Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent, primarily aimed at PTA members.

Finchcocks Musical Museum

Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent

The informal course covered historical keyboard instrument design and regulation and in particular that of the early English and Viennese grand piano.    There was also an opportunity for attendees to assist Christopher Clarke, to recover  the felt hammers of the museum’s  1843 Pleyel  grand piano using a copy of a 19th century hammer covering machine.    Chris Nobbs gave an account for the cataloguing the musical instruments of the National Trust including keyboard instruments.  Chris hoped that the catalogue would be published on the Internet sometime in the future.  There was also an opportunity to take a tour of Broadwood & Sons piano manufacturing and see the fine upright pianos currently being made and their repair shop for historical instruments.  The authentic early keyboard cloth was also available for purchase at this event.

This course complemented the “square piano weekend” held at  Finchcocks in May this year and perhaps it may be possible to continue with some elements this present course with those in the future. Thanks go to Alastair Laurence for organising and managing the event and also to Richard and Katrina Burnett, the Directors of the Finchcocks Musical Museum.

Graham Walker,


John Preston

Music publisher and seller, musical instrument maker but it is doubtful whether he made pianos.  He was probably a piano dealer.  Started business in 1774 at Banbury Court, Long Acre but soon moved to the Strand.  He was at 97 The Strand from 1778   His son, Thomas joined the business in 1787 and the firm became John Preston and Son in 1798 after John Preston died.

William Rolfe

Piano maker and music publisher. Rolfe was a partner with Thomas Culliford making square pianos for Longman & Broderip until the firm became bankrupt in 1796.  He continued in business with Culliford but left the business in 1798 to trade alone at 112 Cheapside.  His early square pianos are noted for their floral painted nameboard decoration and internal music stand that incorporated a second music desk for accompanying musicians. The firm became William Rolfe and Sons in the early 19th century.

A successful square piano event

Finchcocks Musical Museum

Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent.

On Saturday 11th and Sunday 12th May,  36 people attended the 3rd Square Piano Weekend at Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent in the UK.  The major presentation was given by Leif Sahlqvist, who has devoted many years to a study of the pianos of Muzio Clementi  and his talk gave an insight into the makers numbers on Clementi  pianos.   From his work it is possible to accurately date Clementi  pianos  for the first time since the original records were lost.    A PDF file of his study is available on the website:

Finchcocks Square Piano event

Finchcocks Square Piano event May 2013

David Shuker gave a presentation on Organised Square Pianos.  Not many of these instruments have survived that combined a piano and organ in a single instrument.   David gave an overview of the history of these instruments and their construction.  Marie Kent talked about “Prison, Plenius, Scharder and Hartz”.  Marie gave a very interesting insight into the debtor’s prisons in London where a surprising number of piano makers found themselves when in difficult financial circumstances.   Olaf van Hees gave a tale of an “Aladdin’s Cave” of early pianos in Amsterdam some of which are of special merit.  These instruments have been left in storage with an uncertain future.  Although this was presented in a light hearted way it is of concern to those who have a serious interest in early pianos.   There was also a talk on regulating single action square pianos given by Lucy Coad and David Hackett.

On Saturday evening a concert was given by the young pianist Martyna Kazmierczak. The instruments she used were the Walter c.1805, a very small portable piano but with a surprisingly good tone; a Beyer  of 1777, and the bigger Clementi from the early 1820s. These pianos are part of the collection of instruments at Finchcocks Musical Museum.

Thanks go to Richard and Katrina Burnett for hosting the event at Finchcocks, and also to Alastair Laurence of Broadwood & Sons and David Hackett of Friends of Square Pianos for organising the event.  I am sure that everyone enjoyed the Square Piano Weekend and look forward to another event next year.

1808 Joseph Kirckman square piano

1808 Kirckman square piano

The firm of Kirckman is best known for fine 18th century harpsichords but this square piano was made by Joseph Kirckman  who took over the business from his father, Abraham Kirckman in 1794.  It was made a year before the last harpsichord was produced in his workshop.  The nameboard inscription reads:   “Joseph Kirckman,  Maker to her Majesty,  London, 1808”.  It is a well-made instrument in a mahogany case.   The spine (back) of the piano is also in mahogany with line inlay.  It was probably intended for the  instrument to be positioned away from the wall so that the pianist could face other musicians.   It was one of the first square pianos to have six slender turned legs replacing the French frame stand.   It uses William Southwell’s  patent for “Irish” dampers and also the design for accommodating the additional keys from 5 to 5 ½ octaves  under the soundboard.  These patents were subject to legal wrangles until just prior to 1808.    Square pianos by Kirckman are fairly rare and were probably more expensive than the average square piano.

Finchcocks Square Piano Weekend 2013

Following the successful square piano weekend at Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent, on 12th and 13th May this year, a third annual event has been arranged to take place on 11th and 12th May 2013.   This is a social and informative occasion for all those who have interest in square pianos and the restoration of these instruments.  Attendees came not only from the UK but also Europe and the United States to this year’s event.  It is undertaken at the kind invitation of Richard and Katrina Burnett and is organised by John Broadwood & Sons and Friends of Square Pianos.

Richard Burnett addressing the attendees at the event this year.

The full details of next year’s event are not available at present but for further information please contact Friends of Square Pianos,  email  David at

Advice about buying a Square Piano


This article provides a background to the recent interest in square pianos, comments on their musical capabilities and provides guidance on buying an instrument.

Rise to respectability

Many Georgian and Victorian square pianos have survived but until recently they have not been considered serious musical instruments. Most of them have been kept as a piece of furniture and not used recently for their original purpose. They have not been considered to have much value and due respect has not necessarily been given to them. In the early part of the 20th century many were converted into desks or sideboards to give them more use as a functional piece of furniture. Square pianos that were restored were generally not done well and professional standards of restoration were not as high as they are today.

Interest in square pianos was noticed in the 1970’s at which time the major auction houses began to see an increase in the value of very early examples. Kenneth Ullyett F.R.S.A. writing in 1975 said that a 1772 Pohlmann had fetched £400 and a 1777 Zumpe and Buntebart £700 at a major London auction house whereas a decade earlier few square pianos fetched more than £25. He forecast that musicologists and dealers had good reason to believe that this appreciation would continue and collectors would see the same sort of boom that had come to clocks and watches. Perhaps this has not happened to the extent that he anticipated but over the past 40 years there has been a gradual increase in interest and more understanding of these instruments. The provision of online auctions in recent years has provided better visibility to potential purchasers and there has been a further increase in their value. Fine 18th century examples by early makers have fetched in excess of £3000 at provincial auction houses and a Zumpe and Buntebart of 1770 fetched £8,800 in 2011 at a specialist auction house in London. Today they are appreciated for their elegance, musical capabilities and technical merit and are owned by collectors and musicians.

Musical capabilities

Improved standards of restoration and the use of authentic replacement materials have led to instruments being better restored than they were previously. This has influenced our perception of their musical capabilities and together with a growing interest in performance, using period instruments, it is now appreciated that they have a rightful place in the historical performance of the music of their period.

The tonal characteristics of 18th century square pianos are very different to the modern piano and it is easy to appreciate their individual tonal quality. The sound is of low volume and very sweet, having a narrow dynamic range but still enabling a degree of expression. The action of these early square pianos is very responsive and direct. The music that can be played is only up to the early classical period. The limiting factors for playing later compositions are the keyboard compass of five octaves or five and half octaves at the end of the 18th century and the absence of a pedal for sustain. Most 18th century square pianos are not fitted with a pedal but use hand stops to raise the dampers. Therefore it is only possible to raise the dampers when the left-hand can be released from playing the music.

Most Broadwood square pianos of the 18th century and early 19th century up to 1806 do not have the capability to raise the dampers for sustain and are not provided with a pedal or hand-stop but conversely, the very earliest square pianos were played with dampers raised as their normal position, allowing the sound from the strings to resonate through an entire movement of the music. During the 1790’s the square piano began to develop from its earliest form and the harpsichord was finally out of favour. The tonal characteristics took one step forward but still remained very different to the modern piano.

In the early 19th century five and half octave compass was standard and occasionally six octave instruments were seen. A more dependable action was universally adopted known as the “double action” and the pedal for sustain became standard. The sound had become a little more pianistic with a wider dynamic range and most classical period music can be played on these instruments.

The arrival of romantic period music demanded much more from the piano. The iron plate and iron bars were introduced enabling thicker strings to be used that were strung at a higher tension but perhaps for a while an increase in volume of sound was achieved at the expense of tonal quality in the treble. The sound was still very different to the modern piano but by the middle of the 19th century the square piano had become too large to grace a normal size room. The tonal quality of the later square pianos were better than the small upright pianos of the period that was winning favour. However, our familiarity with the sound of modern piano may make it more difficult for us to appreciate the tonal characteristics of later square pianos. This together with the large proportions of later instruments makes them less desirable and consequently their value is considerably less than early examples.

Buying a square piano

Most square pianos that come onto the market, particularly at auction, are in relatively poor condition and will need specialist restoration to bring them into satisfactory and reliable performance standard playing condition. Even an example that appears to be almost in working order invariably will require a significant amount of work.

Examples that were restored in the 1970’s or 1980’s may have been treasured at the time but may not have been played or maintained in recent years and therefore they are no longer serviceable without attention. Restoration standards have improved and more authentic materials are available today and therefore it is not unusual that an example that was restored a few years ago is restored again to meet current standards and expectation for playing performance.

If you are thinking of buying a square piano from auction or privately, you will need to consider the amount of work that may be required to bring the instrument into good playing condition and whether you can do this yourself or will have it professionally restored. If you wish to consider a professional restoration, the work required is likely to take a considerable amount of time and skill and this will be reflected in the cost. The complete restoration of a square piano by a professional restorer is likely to cost several thousand pounds.

Most square pianos can be restored but it is not always appropriate or financially viable to do so. There are some that are of historical importance that should not be restored but conserved in their current state for future study. If you have inherited a square piano you may consider that it has sentimental value and you are prepared to spend the amount of money required to completely restore the instrument. If you are buying from auction or privately it is better to purchase an example in reasonable rather than poor condition. Differences in the condition of instruments are not always reflected in the prices realised at auction.

What to look for when buying a square piano

It is not possible in this article to comment on all factors to look for when buying a square piano and if in doubt it is recommended that you seek professional advice but the key considerations are as follows:

Many square pianos have developed a twist in the case over time caused by the tension of the strings. A small twist may not be of concern but avoid buying an example that is severely twisted. To make an assessment, kneel on the floor at the left-hand side of the instrument and look to see whether the opposite end is parallel. If there is a twist you will see that the right-hand side front corner is higher the left-hand side front corner. Also if there is a twist, the instrument may not sit firmly on the floor with a gap under one or more legs. It is not usually possible to correct a twist in the case and a severe twist is likely to have related internal structural issues.

Look at the condition of the soundboard and bridge. Observe whether the soundboard has sunk and is split and whether the bridge is lifting from the soundboard or is split. These issues are more likely to occur with earlier instruments than later examples. It is usually possible to restore the soundboard and bridge but remember that these issues are structural and require skill and knowledge to restore yourself. In the past, soundboards were often replaced by professional restorers but every effort is made today to repair and retain a damaged soundboard.

Hammers and dampers are sometimes detached but often remain loose within the instrument. It is not difficult to make to pattern any that are missing but assess how complete the instrument is internally. Often the pedal is missing, if the instrument was fitted with one, and therefore a pedal from another instrument will be required or a replacement made to pattern.

Another common issue is that the tension of the strings has caused the wrest-plank to rise up (if the wrest pins are fitted on the right) or the hitch-pin plank to rise up (if the wrest pins are along the spine of the instrument). This will require structural repair including the removal of the soundboard. Sometimes it is advisable to replace the top of the wrest plank and re-drill for the wrest pins. If you wish to restore a square piano yourself, it will be more easily achieved if you buy an example that does not require structural repair unless you have the necessary knowledge and skills.

Most square pianos are not found in their original state and have received some form of intervention, particularly over the past 50 years. Not all intervention has been good and generally the most desirable examples are those that show a minimal amount of intervention unless the quality of the work undertaken is very good.


Square pianos made from about 1795 to 1820 may be considered to have the most favourable attributes. These include a dependable double action, a reasonably pianistic sound that it noticeably different to the modern piano, a pedal for sustain and acceptable physical proportions with elegant case decoration. This is not to say that square pianos from other periods are not worthy. Your choice of instrument will depend on the music you wish to play and your preference for case style and appearance.

If you are buying a square piano, you will need to appreciate the true condition of the instrument and assess the amount of work required to bring it into playing condition. If you intend to restore an instrument yourself, you will need to know that you have the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve the restoration. If you intend to have an instrument professionally restored, you will need to budget several thousand pounds for a complete restoration.

Graham Walker

April 2013