I sometimes take it for granted that as musicians we have an intrinsic ability to appreciate a truly fine instrument. It is more than just recognizing the mechanical precision or the aesthetic beauty of something that is so well designed. There is this appreciation that runs much deeper than simply knowing that you are playing on something that sonically projects your every feeling and emotion to an accuracy that makes it sound almost effortless to those listening. Rather, it is an appreciation for the craftsmen and women who posses the raw talent and passion for creating something that so brilliantly designed; an excellence in function capable of breaking down physical barriers and allowing a musician to express themselves to the very peak of their ability and oftentimes even beyond. We are profoundly interwoven in almost a co-dependent sense, for we as musicians are unable to reach our horizons without the artisan and the artisan in turn relies on the musician who expresses their genius on the instrument and therefore pushes them to the highest level of craftsmanship, innovation and sound quality.
A Steinway grand piano has over 12,000 parts and it takes in upwards of a year to build by hand. The dedication is to a singular ideal: to make the finest pianos in the world. Quality is a benchmark that is never compromised, whether it is the careful selection of the finest woods or simply the wisdom in not rushing a process that demands patience and acute attention to detail. The integrity is to the quality of the instrument and the result is not just a fine piano, but a Steinway.
The Steinway & Sons Piano Factory was built in Long Island City, NY about 135 years ago. Recently, they gave my son a tour of their factory. Interestingly, it was once its own town called “Steinway Village” complete with its own factory, employees housing, post office, schools, lending library, volunteer fire department and parks. I wanted to share this experience with those of you who follow my page because as musicians owe a great deal of appreciation to the master instrument builder; the one who produces the very thing that allows so many of us to express ourselves through music. The artist’s work can invariably be seen and heard by the listener but who sees the work of the craftsman? How does one even begin to appreciate the time and attention to detail that is put into the assembly of a simple hammer or the marriage of to sheets of wood so perfectly that you cannot find where once piece ends and the other begins. How does one create sound so brilliant that it becomes the identifiable hallmark of the instrument itself? The tradition and history handed down for generations continues to add to the sum of what we play and that in turn is what adds richness and depth to music for without it, we would only have a collection of sounds.
Visitor parking in front of Steinway’s main office building.
A rather humble front entrance to a 135 yr old factory that builds the finest pianos in the world.
This is the original factory building from the 1800′s. The tradition here is rich and the building’s are old! Notice the rings (mounted on the white section) for tieing up your horse?
Throughout the factory you will see these heavy metal doors. They are fire doors… pretty ingenious setup! When you take into consideration that the factory is full of wood, fire is a major concern. So these doors are designed with a weight that pulls them shut when the fire burns the rope at the very top of the door. This place is so hands on old school that even the fire system is not automated!
This is our tour guide Elizabeth… She is quite the pianist, full music scholarship at NYU. She wasn’t able to play for us but I am taking it on credentials alone that she is pretty good. :)
Company mission statement
Ok let’s get started… it’s time to tour!
The Showcase Room. There were only a half a dozen Steinways in here… An A several B’s and a stunning model D.
It was a father and son trip… next time it is my turn!
It’s always a thumbs up day at Steinway!
There is all types of wood stacked throughtout the factory. Steinway is extremely picky about the quality of this raw material. Only the top 2% of what is producted is actually brought in to the Steinway Factory and if that wasn’t stringient enough, they inspect everything they get and toss out the pieces that do not make the grade. It’s top shelf or the recycle bin… no compromise around here!
Just the tought of managing all of the raw materials in their various states is mind boggling!
Steinway only accepts 2% of the finest quality woods and then they use this machine to inspect each piece for imperfections. It was the only high tech piece of equipment that we saw in the whole factory! Hand made is more hands on and less modern machiery involved.
There were 3 of these massive kilns that are used to dry out the wood to perfection. Wood will sit in here for several months. You can’t use wood that has not passed through here first… 200F inside… toasty!
All of the pieces to a sound board are laminated together in this machine.
Then the lamiate sheet get finsh sanded and inspected for consistency
The cross ribs are not glued onto the sound board. Notice the old school way of using your ceiling and curved wood for clamping… ;)
Building components that will become part of the legs.
A rack of legs and footpedal stands
Keyboard covers in raw form
A stack of lids waiting in line to be detailed
No mass production around here! Work on the piano lids must be done by hand because the tolerances are down to the millmeter and no 2 piano lids are the exact same size.
This is the highlight of the tour… shaping. Strips of dense maple are laminated together and then placed into a giant press. Let’s take a look at the process…
All Steinways run through this machine. Long pieces of maple are coated one at a time and then stacked on top of one another. It’s like a long multi-layered piece of pasta.
The glue is a top secret mixture (yes we asked -No, they would’t tell us!) that is poured in by hand.
6 men will pick this baby up and carry it over to the custom made press.
Without a word they procede to work in a coreographed
The tools used here are surprisingly rudimentary but effective.
I always wondered how they got the wood to bend!
That’s it! They will let this dry for 24 hours and then pull it out of the jig.
Here is what comes out of the bending mold. It is still in rough form, they will have to cut and sand the edges.
Notice the extra laminate layers? That strip of lighter wood is a Steinway design feature to stiffen the body of the piano. It is innovation and attention to detail that make all of the difference!
Yesterday’s production waiting in line for cutting and sanding of the edges.
These guys can make some really cool bends!
This is a 95F drying room. There are a lot of piano shells in here! Here is just one row of model B’s… they will stay in here for about 4 weeks or longer.
A temporary frame is mounted inside the body to help maintain its shap while it dries out.
Here is a row of model M’s notice the bracing in the background…
Behind Brehnden is a row of model O concert grands… probably almost $2 million worth of pianos just in that row alone!
Freshly painted piano is ready to head to the next stop… buffing.
Not everyone wants to order a black piano… Not a problem, Steinway offers a nice variety of veneers. Here is a Cherry veneer…
A beautiful walnut veneer… one of my favorites! ;)
Here is a walnut model A… this one is going to be amazing when it is finished!
Back out to the factory floor for some assembly! There is a long way to go before we get to a finished Steinway.
Cut and finished shells are ready for sound boards, plates and strings to be installed… This gives you a nice shot of the difference between an A and a B model.
Cross section of a finished edge… notice the maple laminate layers that are sandwiched on either end with a mahogany veneer.
A cross beam is installed next and now this piano is ready to get racked up for the sound board installation.
Another angle shows the main beams that brace and add rigidity to the piano.
In preparation for the sound board and frame the piano is place into a giant vice to stabilize it.
Each step in the process will incur several inspections. Quality is maintained throughout the entire assembly.
Meanwhile… the sound board is getting the finishing touches and will soon be brought over to be assembled in the body of the piano. That tapering on the ribs, yes it is a Steinway innovation that helps create the distinct sound and not just a decorative feature!
The other side of the sound board that the frame and strings are mounteind over. So much detailing going on at this point because this is the heart of where the sound is amplified.
A finished soud board that has been hand fitted into the body. The tolerances are very tight, due to the uniqueness of each Steinway this particular sound board will not fit into another piano.
Steinway casts its frames in Ohio and then they are shipped back to the NY factory where they are painted.
The attention to detail is constant. Just those things you take for granted… yes they hand paint the lettering on the frames.
Ready for installation!
Installation of the frame into the body of the piano, this is a total custom fit because no 2 Steinways are the exact same size.
After the soundboard and frame are installed the piano is re-inspected several times and then it gets hand-strung.
No automation here! Each string is wound onto the frame by hand.
The finished product is a work of art!
The hammer and keyboard assembly is a top secret operation so we were not allowed to take pictures. It was very interesting to watch the assembly of this most intricate part of the piano. It is worth going out and seeing for yourself.
A hammer assembly… they use sheep’s wool for their hammers because it is super durable and can litterally take a pounding!
A finished keyboard assembly
Keyboards get installled and everything is fine tuned… granted a few inspectios occur throught this process.
After the piano is assembled it gets tested for 1000 hours in this sound proof room.
This machine will play the piano 24/7 for 1000 hours! You can be sure that by the time you receive your Steinway piano, it has been thoroughly tested.
This is Gerald… He has really good ears!
Gerald is “sound tuning” the piano. Every Steinway leaves the factory perfectly tuned.
Step 1 play note… Not happy? Step 2 pull keyboard and poke the wool hammer with a special tool. Step 3 reinsert keyboard and repeat process until Gerald is happy. :)
Sounding is much different from tuning… he is looking for consistancy in tone.
You say you want a “custom” piano? I know just the guy… ;)
Meet Santé Auriti a 40 year Steinway employee Mario. Yes he’s Italian. He can build custom pianos like no one else ;)
His shop is relatively small room in the factory but when you are working on 1 piano at a time, you don’t need a lot of space.
Brehnden is about to get a lesson in workworking by the master…
Musician meets Artisan… Measure twice, cut once Brehnden!
Next time you are playing on a Steinway Brehnden, be sure to notice how we “book match” the grain of the wood…
This leg is actually many pieces of wood that have been glued together. The trick here is that they “book match” the grains together on each peice so when it is finished, you cannot tell that it is multiple pieces of wood!
Custom ball n claw piano leg
Here is an example of “book matching” the wood grains of a laminated piece of wood.
The factory’s very 1st machine is still there on display.
Protective coatings are put on each piano before shipping.
This machine can effortlessly flip a Steinway Grand Piano onto its side so tat it can be boxed for shipping.
A couple of uprights headed to a Steinway Gallery and then ultimately to a happy home. :)
That you Steinway & Sons! That was amazing… now I want a model B!!!