One of the extras available through Sibylle’s conference was a chance to take a tour of the Steinway & Sons Piano factory in Queens. Not knowing what our schedule would be like we didn’t sign up prior to arriving at the conference. The bus ride to and from the factory and the tour combined to last about 4 hours, and Sibylle wasn’t willing to give up that much conference time. On the opening day of the conference we bumped into two of her MAMTA colleagues who had signed up for the tour but who weren’t going to go. They offered their reservations to us. After a day or two of thinking it over I decided to go. I’m glad I did as it was very interesting.
The plant employs about 270 people and produces around 6 1/2 pianos a week. The tour guide was a bit cagey as to exactly how much effort (man-hours) it takes to complete a piano, but said that it’s roughly nine months from start to finish. Some portion of that time is waiting for wood to dry, glue to cure, and other processes to finish.
Like McDonald’s Steinway is vertically integrated. They no longer do the casting work to make the metal frame that goes inside the piano but they own the Ohio company that does do the work. They also own the Germany company that makes the keys.
Much of the work is done by hand – in fact all the parts (with the exception of the action) that go inside the piano are hand made or hand fitted to each piano. No two cases (the outer wooden surround that we all see) are identical, and so the sound board, braces, bridge, et cetera, are all custom fit to each piano. The legs and wooden assembly that holds the pedals are made on a computer controlled milling machine.
Steinway holds several patents on construction details that they feel make their pianos unique. When the case is laminated both the outer case and the shorter inner case (which supports the sound board) are done simultaneously. The layering of the pinboard (where all the tuning pegs go) is done in such a way as to have all sides of the pegs against end grain wood.
What was impressive to me about the whole process was the sense of making fine furniture as much as making a musical instrument. The cabinetry alone was exquisite – indeed, as our guide said it’s almost a shame to cover the beautiful wood in lacquer or high gloss (poly) finish. Most European finishes are the high gloss reflective ones. In American some of both are sold.
Once the piano is strung it is tuned, regulated, and voiced. Tuning is tighten or loosening the strings to achieve the proper pitch. Regulation is adjusting the action of each key so that it is in perfect alignment. Any sideways movement not only causes wear on the parts, it makes the performer work that much harder. Voicing is adjusting the hardness of the wool felt hammers. Shaving a bit of wool off the hammer makes it harder and therefore brighter in sound. Needling the heads (literally sticking fine needles in to the felt) softens the felt allowing for a mellower sound. As each piano is unique the voicing, tuning, and regulation all must be done with an awareness of that particular piano and what will be best for it.
It was a wonderful tour and a lot of fun to see. I liked the old world craftsmanship represented in all the hand work. These instruments aren’t stamped out on an assembly line, they are build piece by piece over months of effort.