Over the last decade, an influx of used Yamaha, Kawai, other Asian brands of pianos (and even some European pianos) that have spent their working lives in Asia have flooded the Canadian market. These pianos are often referred to as “Grey Market” or “Wet” pianos. They are cheaper and more plentiful than used pianos that were originally sold in North America. There are significant differences between “Wet” pianos and “Native” pianos. “Native” pianos are instruments originally imported directly from the factory to North America as new instruments, sold through authorized factory dealers, and that have spent all their time in this climate.
A Native piano is protected under what ever is left on the manufacturer’s warranty. Replacement parts for older Native pianos are likely to still be available through the distributor. In some cases, even though a cabinet part is no longer stocked by the factory, they can still be custom made by the factory.
Native pianos destined for North America have, in the past, been built at a lower ‘drying’ standard to protect them from the fluctuations in humidity pianos face in this climate. That is what manufacturers mean when they say that a piano was ‘seasoned’ for North America.
A Grey Market piano–often called a “Wet” piano because it has spent its life in ultra-high humidity conditions often found in Asia, has been brough into North America as a used instrument by an importer who is not associated with the factory. Typically, a Grey Market piano started its life in Asia–Hong Kong for example–and was used for 10 or 20 years in that climate. Prior to being sent here, the piano might go through a refurbishing process using the very low labour rates available in Asia and cheaper, non-factory parts, it might have been given just a quick buffing to make it look good on the outside, or it might have just been put into a container and shipped without any inspection at all. Grey Market pianos can appear to be a reasonable alternative to buying a harder to find and more expensive used Native piano, but there can be problems with this kind of purchase.
The first problem is the warranty. If you buy a Grey Market piano, say a used Yamaha grand, from a used piano dealer, the warranty being offered is only as good as the good will of that dealership, regardless of the age of the piano. The factory will not be able to help you if the piano falls apart or you can’t get the dealer to look after you.
The second problem is replacement parts. In many cases, especially on older instruments, cabinet and sometimes even action parts are not the same on Asian-bound pianos as the ones built for North America. This means that it could be very difficult to get original action parts for the piano, and almost impossible to get replacement cabinet parts.
But what could go wrong with a good piano like a Yamaha or Kawai?
Pianos sold to the Asian market are made by the factory with the same high standards as are the ones sent to North America. The difference is the humidity levels these pianos live in once they leave the factory. And that is the third problem with Grey Market pianos–what happens to them after they arrive in Canada.
When these pianos come to Canada, they are exposed to an average humidity much lower than what they are used to. Add to that the cycle of humidity and dryness we go through in Canada and the Northern U.S., and you create a perfect humidity storm. The stress on the glue joints of both the major structural components and the small action parts, combined with the cracking of the wood soundboard, bridges, and pinblock, can render a Grey Market piano virtually worthless.
The fourth problem with Grey Market pianos is use. Many of the Grey Market pianos come from Asian teaching facilities where they have had much heavier use than has a piano in someone’s living room. This is not much of an issue if all the action parts have been replaced with original factory parts. But if the piano has been re-fit with poor quality parts, the action will not have the endurance of the original system. Further, if the replacement parts have the wrong geometry, the touch will never be right.
Since you have no way of knowing what that piano being sold has been through, where it spent its childhood, and what kind of work has been done to it, buying a Grey Market piano only makes sense if either 1) you feel lucky, 2) you have a technician who is specifically trained in Grey Market issues who can inspect the piano thoroughly before you buy it, or 3) if you get the instrument at such a good price that you can afford to have the piano rebuilt properly.
We have been dealing with the challenges of Grey Market pianos for over a decade, and we know what kind of problems to look for. In our local service area, we will inspect a piano you are considering for about the price of a tuning (provided the seller allows an independent technician to look at the instrument). If you are outside our area we can provide you with the name of a Yamaha-trained technician in your area (coast to coast to coast) who knows what to look for.
However, there are some potential problems that an inspection will not reveal. If the piano is ‘just off the boat’, it may still be at a high internal humidity. It can take a few months or even a year for a piano to dry out to the point where damage is evident.
If you have purchased a Grey Market piano that has run into problems, we will be happy to do our best to make an unfortunate situation have the best possible outcome.
For more information on Yamaha Grey Market pianos, click here.
To check to see if the Yamaha piano you have or are considering is a Native piano (imported new and sold through an authorized dealer), click here.
Be advised that some pianos are sold with false serial numbers that will pass the serial number test. Pianos manufactured before 1990 may not be on the list even if they are Native instruments. Inspection by a technician who is experienced with Grey Market pianos should be done before you buy.