Note: Reporter Rick Rogers visited the Steinway manufacturing
factory in New York City in December, 2000. I thought he did
a good job in making the story interesting and understandable
and also in capturing the essence of how Steinways are built.
NEW YORK - As
Gertrude Stein once stated, "A rose is a rose is a rose
is a rose."
Just don't try
to apply that motto to a piano. You might as well stir up a hornet's
form, a grand piano is little more than a mass of wood, metal,
felt and plastic. But each one is a miracle of invention, technology,
craftsmanship and musical inspiration. And despite the similarity
of their outward appearance, each possesses a distinction all
to think of it in terms of a family with 10 children," said
Leo F. Spellman, director of advertising and public relations
for Steinway & Sons. "There's a family resemblance,
but each kid has his own personality."
During a recent
visit to New York, I visited the Steinway factory in Long Island
City. Each year, the 400,000-square-foot facility produces about
3,000 pianos: 2,500 grands and 500 uprights.
The visit also
tied in with what is being proclaimed as the 300th anniversary
of the piano. Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori
created the first piano some three centuries ago in Florence.
col piano e forte resembled the harpsichord in shape and construction,
but instead of plucking the strings, the new instrument featured
leather-covered hammers that struck the strings.
were slowly introduced during the 19th century. Many were pioneered
by C.F. Theodore Steinway, the fifth son of founder Henry Engelhard
The modern grand
piano has changed little in the past 100 years, and many of the
early Steinway developments are still in use today. Spellman
said people who might have visited the factory in the early 1900s
would notice few changes today.
Some 15 piano
manufacturers build 9-foot concert grand pianos today. The majority
are mass produced, but Steinway still builds its instruments
by hand. The process takes about two years.
the factory, one passes by enormous stacks of wood; Sitka spruce
will be used for the instruments' soundboard, hard rock maple
for the case and poplar for the lid. The wood is left to air-dry
and cure for about a year before construction begins.
From there begins
the meticulous process of shaping, gluing and pressing the wood
into various parts that will eventually encase the mechanical
working parts of the piano.
For a 9-foot
grand, 17 strips of hard rock maple are glued together and then
put into a gigantic press which bends the wood into the familiar
shape of the piano's outer rim.
It takes half
a dozen workers to lift the wood into the press and begin the
process of cranking the viselike sections into place. As they
do so, one hears what sounds like wood splintering. Amazingly,
it never does.
can understand how you can bend this wood," Spellman said.
"The foreman of the department was once asked how many rims
were broken. He said, 'I've been here over 30 years and in my
time, we've broken no more than three.' It doesn't really happen
a lot. Part of the secret is the way they cure the wood."
from the presses, the rims are placed into a temperature-controlled
room where they're left to stabilize for six weeks. In a nearby
room that resembles a sauna, decorous wood veneers made of mahogany,
rosewood, cherry and other exotic woods will someday adorn a
piano's outer case.
20 or 30 years ago, about 80 percent of all the pianos we made
here were ebony - the satin, classic black finish," Spellman
said. "Now that's down to about 65 percent.
these natural wood veneers are becoming popular with sophisticated
consumers who are looking for not only a wonderful musical instrument
but a decorous piece of furniture."
the different areas of the factory, one can view pianos in various
stages of completion: those awaiting the critical positioning
of the soundboard, those ready for stringing and others prepared
to undergo the all-important tuning and voicing.
a master technician from Greece, works in one of many soundproof
rooms where pianos are voiced, a process by which the instrument's
unique sound is slowly uncovered and honed.
pianist strikes the keys, you want everything to work uniformly,"
Poulos said as he demonstrated shaping the hammers for optimum
sound. "We like to make sure the piano has an even sound
throughout. For me, this process takes about 25 or 26 hours for
which involves the lightness or heaviness of the piano's touch,
is another important factor in creating a piano. Artists tend
to have strong preferences when it comes to a piano's "feel."
a famous story about Horowitz and Rubinstein, two legendary pianists,"
Spellman said. "They would have hated each other's Steinways.
piano, which we actually have touring various cities of the United
States, has a touch that is lightning fast, almost uncontrollable.
Whereas Rubinstein really wanted the stiff, heavy action. It's
all very subjective and can be adjusted according to the artist's
With so many
delicate adjustments to be made, all of which affect the touch
and feel of the instrument, one can easily understand why many
artists become so emotionally attached to a particular piano.
Collard performed with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in the
spring of 1998, he was so impressed with the orchestra's Hamburg
Steinway that he offered to buy it on the spot. Rather than risk
having to play on an unresponsive instrument, Van Cliburn always
ships his own 9-foot Steinway wherever he is booked.
when I take people through the factory, they ask if the process
is different when we're making a piano for a well-known artist,"
to that is that the workmen don't know whether this piano is
going to be for Vladimir Horowitz or for Joe Jones. It's exactly
the same. There's no second tier or third tier - the artist gets
one quality and everybody else gets another. It's just one tier
long enjoyed the distinction of being the instrument of choice
among major concert artists. The company maintains a roster of
about 1,200 such artists, who range from Van Cliburn and Alfred
Brendel to Billy Joel and Harry Connick Jr.
purchase of any grand piano, which can range from $32,400 for
a baby grand to more than $100,000 for a 9-foot concert grand,
constitutes a major financial investment. But buyers can rest
assured that a Steinway piano will not only hold its value, but
Two months ago,
John Lennon's Steinway, an upright piano he bought in 1970 for
$1,500, sold in London for a record $2.2 million. And while that
is obviously a special case, most pianos, if properly cared for,
can generally be sold for a handsome profit.
built during the 1930s, '40s and '50s often sell for nearly six
times their original value while those built in the '60s and
'70s typically sell for three times their original cost.
of the workmanship also means that a Steinway piano can last
for generations. Henry Steinway, the 84-year-old great-grandson
of the company's founder, says he's often asked what the life
expectancy of a Steinway piano is. His response is always the
same: the company has been in business for about 147 years so
he doesn't know. Ask him in another 50.
product that in some sense speaks to people and will have a legacy
long after we're gone," Spellman said. "What these
craftsmen work on today will be here for another 50 or 100 years.
as has been true over the past 147 years, enough people will
be interested to keep us in business and keep this treasure alive.
It's a tremendous legacy."
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