Perhaps the most complicated piece of machinery built by hand in the world today is a Steinway Model D grand piano. The eight-foot-eleven-and-three-quarter-inch grand that is the favorite of concert pianists the world over has twelve thousand parts; it takes a year to make and roughly $60,000 to buy. It is built in a factory in Queens, New York, by a process that has hardly changed in a hundred years. Steinway & Sons more or less invented the modern grand piano, a century ago, and the workings of the Steinway factory still represent a gorgeous apotheosis of nineteenth-century manufacturing technology. There is apparently no other way to build such a fine instrument.
More than two hundred people are involved in making and assembling each Steinway D. The factory is part lumber mill, part fine-cabinet works, part manualcrafts assembly line, and part studio for individual craftsmen and women working at an art acquired by years of apprenticeship. Just as the piano itself reached its present form and stopped evolving substantially by about 1900, so did its manufacture—or at least its manufacture by Steinway. Yamaha, of Japan, produces nearly half as many pianos every year as Steinway has made in 140 years. These are fine pianos, but most of them compare with a Steinway D the way a good mass-produced violin compares with an Amati. Here the twentieth century has improved on the nineteenth in only subtle and limited ways.
In a hallway among the front offices at the factory a seven-foot-long panoramic photograph shows the Queens neighborhood in the early 187Os, just before the plant was built. It is open countryside, fields, marshes, copses, and fences. A long driveway leads to an imposing house —the newly built Steinway mansion. The driveway would before long become Steinway Street, one of the main streets of the Astoria section of Queens; the path along the fence in the foreground would become Nineteenth Avenue; and the fields and marshes would be piled with the factory and worker housing and later urban accumulation. The neighborhood is still known as Steinway; the mansion still stands, and the factory that went up in the 187Os remains one of the sturdiest industrial employers in the city.
The first instrument that could be called a Steinway piano was built by a remarkably industrious young man named Heinrich Steinweg in his kitchen in Seesen, Germany, in 1836. Orphaned by the Napoleonic Wars, he set himself up as a cabinetmaker after almost none of the usual apprenticeship and devoted himself to the growingly popular pianoforte, which broke from earlier keyboard instruments like the harpsichord by striking its strings with hammers rather than plucking them, thus achieving a wide range of loudness. He must have known he was starting something, for he held on to that first piano long enough for it to reside today just a couple of miles away from the factory at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By 1839 Steinweg was winning prizes for his instruments, and in 1850 he changed his name to Henry Steinway and uprooted what had become a thriving family business to move to New York City.
Steinway & Sons began in downtown Manhattan in 1853; in 1860 the growing company built a block-long factory at Park Avenue and Fifty-second Street. By the time of the move to Astoria, during the early 187Os, Steinway was by universal agreement one of the two leading piano makers in America, the other being Chickering, of Boston. Most of the technical achievements that made Steinway the undisputed leader in the field were the work of Henry’s sons Henry, Jr., and Theodore. Some of them were true breakthroughs; many others involved combining and refining innovations pioneered by others. The brothers perfected the design by which the strings for the lowest notes cross over those for higher notes, allowing both to be longer and fuller-sounding, and they moved the bridge toward the middle of the soundboard, creating greater resonance (a piano has a resonating, gently arched soundboard under the strings, analogous to the resonating surface beneath the strings of a violin, and has a bridge that, also like a violin’s, carries vibrations from the strings to the soundboard). The brothers also devised an iron frame that could better withstand the thirty-five tons of tension in a full-size grand piano; they modified the shape of the piano to allow strings to vibrate better at sympathetic overtones, for a richer sound; and they made myriad improvements to the action, the wonderfully complex mechanism that translates a tap on a key into a much stronger hammering on a string quickly, silently, repeatably, sustainably, stoppably, and infinitely controllably. While Henry, Jr., and Theodore were thus improving the modern piano, their brother William was improving its marketing, doing as much as any one man ever did to make a piano a parlor necessity. They did so well that in 1880 the family opened a second factory in Hamburg, Germany, to make pianos to sell in Europe. That factory still operates today and turns out about two-thirds as many instruments as the parent.
The business remained in family hands until 1972, when the Steinways sold it to CBS, Inc. In 1985 it was purchased from CBS by two brothers named Birmingham who own it today, making it once again a family firm. Henry Z. Steinway, a great-grandson of the founder and for many years president of the company, is the last Steinway associated with the firm. Although officially retired, he still shows up for work at the Fifty-seventh Street showroom (across from Carnegie Hall) that is Steinway’s New York sales outlet and home to the forty Model Ds that the company makes available for artists’ use in concert halls. Henry Z. Steinway occasionally surprises buyers by offering to autograph the insides of their instruments.
Throughout the company there are workers whose families have been there for generations, but the bulk of the force is now, as it always has been, a multinational cast of first-generation immigrants. Seventeen languages are spoken in the plant. Near the top of the operation is Michael Mohr, director of service administration. He is the son of Franz Mohr, for years Steinway’s chief technician and as such the intimate of many of the greatest pianists of the century. “My father toured with Horowitz,” he says. “Emil Gilels would come and swim in our pool. I sat on Rubinstein’s lap as a little boy. It’s an experience I appreciate a lot more now.” Still, when Michael Mohr got to Steinway, he played by the old rules and started at the bottom, as an apprentice in the stringing department, and slowly worked his way up. Even Henry Z. Steinway, fresh out of Harvard in 1937, started as an apprentice.
Michael Mohr, a soft-spoken, serious man in his early thirties with a quiet passion for the factory and its product, led me on a tour through the works. We had scheduled it for a morning when a rim, the outside wall of a grand piano, would be bent for a Model D. Since only about 150 Model Ds are made a year, this does not happen every day. (The company makes far more smaller grands and uprights, which start at $11,000.) The one-piece bent rim was a major Steinway innovation about 115 years ago, and it has been made the same way ever since. Before Steinway, it consisted of several pieces joined together.
As we headed for the stairs to the basement level of the factory, where the rim was to be bent, we overtook five men carrying a stack of planks twenty-two feet long. These, Mohr told me, were eighteen laminations of flatsawn maple that would become the rim. The men and the wood went down by a big elevator, and when they reached the workroom, they set to work wordlessly. The eighteen planks were passed one by one through rollers that coated them with glue, and then were carefully stacked; as several men manipulated them and one controlled the glue flow, another worked with a brush at the growing stack to add extra glue where it might be needed. The coated pile gleamed golden; the final piece, which had no glue on its top, was to become the visible exterior veneer of the side of the piano.
The men lifted what was now a single glued eighteenlayer board twenty-two feet long over to a piece of machinery that looked like—and was—a vise the size and shape of a grand piano. They wrestled the wood around it, hammered it down into place, clamped it, screwed in vises on the outside with tools that look like tire irons, and then did a final tightening with a power tool.
Steinway is unique in bending the inner and outer rims as one, the outer rim being the case you see from the outside of the piano, and the inner rim being a shorter wall that wraps around inside it that makes a shelf and supports the piano’s iron frame and soundboard. Making the rim in one piece is difficult and expensive, but it produces a structurally sounder piano and contributes to every Steinway’s sounding different from every other Steinway. The big press on which the rim is bent is made mostly of birch and maple. Because it is wood, it must periodically be rebuilt, but it is essentially the same machine that has been used since 1880. Other presses a few feet away shape rims for the smaller grand pianos. A rim stays on the press for a day and then goes to a warm and muggy curing room to sit for at least ten weeks.
As soon as the rim was bent, Mohr and I walked out behind the factory building into Steinway’s lumberyard. “Steinway has about eleven acres left in Queens,” he said. “Once we had four hundred acres. The Steinway mansion is over there.” Gulls wheeled overhead, and he gestured at piles of wood. “Our lumber is mostly from the United States, some from Canada. We use Sitka spruce for the soundboards, mahogany for cabinet parts like the legs. All this wood needs air and has to dry to very specific moisture contents. It will be left out here several months and then dried further in our kilns.”
We walked past a brick building from the 1880s that looked like something from a movie set; it had STEINWAY & SONS in fading paint high up on it, iron stars capping tie rods on the front wall, a cobbled drive before it, and iron rings near the ground to tie horses to. Facing that were what looked like four big garage doors; they were the fronts of the kilns. “That one there can hold more than 20,000 board feet,” Mohr told me.
We stepped indoors next to the kilns, and I still could have thought the business we were at was simply a lumber operation. Sawdust was everywhere, and men were planing and sorting wood, searching for defects. “We use Sitka spruce for the soundboard because it has the very highest stiffness-to-weight ratio,” Mohr said. “It can support the weight of all the strings and still vibrate the way you want. All this wood over here has been rejected for some natural defect. Forty percent of the Sitka spruce we buy ends up as soundboards; the rest has to be discarded. We burn our scrap wood for steam heat.”
In one part of the big room piano lids were being made of quarter-sawn poplar. In the next room men matched spruce boards for color, grain, and other qualities to make soundboards. Stacks of matching spruce lay along a wall. A man worked at a glue wheel, a device like an eight-foottall Rolodex. Each caul—or Rolodex card—is a frame for gluing the soundboard for a specific piano size. At another big wheel a key bed was being assembled. The key bed is the wooden structure that carries the action and keyboard, the whole mechanism with keys at one end and hammers at the other. A plate on that glue wheel said it was built in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1919, to Steinway patents.
Elsewhere a man was cutting pieces for the pin block—the Hexagrip pin block, a 1953 Steinway patent. This piece holds the tuning pins in place, resisting the terrific tension of the strings. It is made of maple laminations each turned forty-five degrees from the next so that, as Michael Mohr explained, “end grains will face the thread of the tuning pins around the clock.” The thickness of the laminations is carefully calibrated to match the varying tension the strings will exert from treble to bass.
I spotted a man working at a computerized machine. “That’s a computer-aided router,” Mohr said, “and he’s cutting the final shape of the top lid with it. Tools like that are good for parts that don’t need custom fitting—like the pedal lyre or the music desk. We use new technology wherever we can, wherever it fits our needs.” In other words, high technology is most useful for making the simplest, most peripheral parts of the grand piano; the musical heart of it tends to require pure craftsmanship.
The soundboard, for instance, is hand-formed, thinner at the edges to vibrate properly, and pressed in a dished vise to have a crowned shape. A man was locating wooden ribs along the underside of a soundboard and pressing them into place with another Steinway-patent machine. We entered the rim-preparation room, where the laminations are first prepared to be bent into rims, and I noticed at the end of a wooden worktable a sign that said WING TAILS . “I’ve always been tempted to take that,” Mohr said. “It’s from World War II, when we were making glider parts in this room.” That was one of two main military jobs that the factory was conscripted for during the war; the other was making coffins.
Next we entered the veneer room, which has the two oldest pieces of equipment in the shop, both of them veneer edge cutters. The older of the two was built in 1871 and is used every day. It looks like a Victorian iron guillotine, with a five-foot-long arm at the side and a handsome brass ruler down its length. The machines are used to prepare veneers for the rim and other cabinetry. They get no special attention around the factory for their age, nor do they require any special care.
“This next department is really beautiful to look at,” Mohr said as we continued. Indeed, here the shop suddenly looked not like a lumber operation but like a fine cabinetworks (as Mohr pointed out, it is a fine cabinetworks, and all the employees are members of the United Furniture Workers union). Here keyboard lids took shape, and key beds were being milled and precisely shaped, and legs were being turned. Rims were being transformed into cases, with heavy wood braces fitted across them to support the 340-pound iron plate that would hold the strings and the soundboard. Those radial braces, branching out from beneath the center of the piano, are another nineteenth-century Steinway innovation.
Next, the action room, where men and women at two dozen tables work by hand on all the little pieces that go together to translate motion from plunging finger to vibrating string. One man worked at a machine that glued a sandwich of felt around a sort of wood baton three feet long; the baton would then be sliced into all the individual hammers for a piano. “I went to England to buy that machine when I was foreman of this department,” Mohr said. “The machine was built in 1989, but its crucial piece, that long, grooved copper form there that shapes the felt around the hammer wood, was made in America in the nineteenth century. That old piece determines the shape of the hammers on every Steinway piano. It’s a delicate job; the hammer needs enormous resilience to bounce right off the string and not dampen its sound.”
A few feet away a couple of white-tailed deer skins from upstate New York lay on a table. Mohr pointed out the bullet holes in them. They would become tiny parts of the action, as would the wood dowels tossing in a tumbler nearby and the bits of bushing cloth a man was pushing into place. The action on a piano is held by the action frame, a metal bar that runs behind the length of the keyboard. “The action frame is built according to a patent from the 187Os,” Mohr said. “It’s clover-leaf shaped in cross section for stability, and a core of maple runs down its length inside the metal. We bake the maple, insert it while it’s hot, and then it expands. It holds the screws that secure the action.” As we left the action room, we said hello to its foreman, Chris Arena. He was tinkering with a few metal and wood parts and making notes—documenting an innovation he was pursuing, Mohr said.
We passed through a lacquer room, where ebony finish is sprayed, and into the belly room. You hear different stories about why it’s called the belly room—for instance, in honor of the massive German workers who labored there a century and more ago, their stomachs hanging over the pianos they were assembling—but the consensus is that the name refers to the piano’s guts coming together there. The big cast-iron plate, painted gold, is lowered onto the shelf formed by the inside rim of the piano, and the soundboard, with its bridge, is attached to that. Each of these steps involves repeated measuring and fine adjustment; I watched a craftsman adjust the height, or “bearing,” of the bridge, loading the soundboard as if it were strung and then planing the bridge to within fractions of a millimeter to ensure that each string would cross it with just the right amount of pressure and rise. When the adjustments were completed, the soundboard would be permanently fixed in place with hot animal-hide glue.
The keys for a Steinway are made in Germany; ivory was used on concert pianos until 1989, when a worldwide ban put an end to that. Today the keys are made of a mockivory polymer. As we watched a woman perform an action weigh-off, calibrating each key by putting different weights on it and inserting lead inside the keys until the pressure required for an even touch was exactly the same up and down the keyboard, Mohr told me about the final stages of making the piano a musical instrument: “After the keys are on and the instrument is strung, it must be tuned, regulated, adjusted, voiced, retuned, and go through repeated musical mechanical adjustments. Most of this is done by the tone-regulation department, our technicians. They optimize the final tone of the piano and do all the finetuning. Their job is among the most skilled, high-end jobs in the factory. They are like artists.” Before a technician can do his meticulous work to complete a piano’s preparation, the instrument is broken in by the “sounder,” a machine that in forty-five minutes pounds every key 8,000 times.
I remarked that I could hardly think of another consumer product that involved so much old-fashioned mechanical-tech hand craftsmanship at such an uncompromising level; the one comparison that came to mind was a Rolls-Royce automobile. “It’s funny you should say that,” Mohr replied, “because we just had a management team from Jaguar visiting here. They are touring successful highend American companies, to see how they do it, and we were their first stop.”
As he spoke, we passed through a pair of metal doors and into the restoration center. This is where Steinway will fully restore your piano and give it a new-piano warranty. Mohr led me among the instruments. “This grand was built before 1880, but this one here is pre-Model D. I’d say it was built in 1858 or 1859. You see, the rim is in three pieces; it was made more than a decade before today’s rim-bending process was introduced. It could never compare to a D. It doesn’t have the strength, and it can’t play as loud. It was built just before many of the innovations that led to the modern concert grand. But it will probably cost $23,000 to restore.
“Over here is one from 1918 or 1920—the height of the piano craze. You can tell its vintage from the way the bridge is staggered in the lower treble area. This one here is also from around then, the 1920s. It has six legs.” Indeed, the legs and cases gave the only obvious clues of age to my untrained eye; many of the older instruments had very ornate exteriors. The room held about fifty pianos, mostly from the New York area. Restoration is a new service for Steinway; they began offering it six years ago.
“The number of pianos produced each year by Steinway has stayed pretty much consistent since about 1900,” Mohr told me. “Except in the 1930s and early ’40s, when it was way down. Our manpower has stayed about the same too. We can’t use machinery to replace men. We can only use it to aid men.” We headed back through the belly room and the lacquer room, whose air smelled like sweet, warm licorice. Each instrument has five coats of lacquer sprayed on and cured over five weeks, with sanding in between applications. The most visible difference between a New York Steinway and a Hamburg Steinway, if you’re looking down from the balcony at Carnegie Hall, is the Hamburg piano’s high-gloss polyester finish; New York sticks with buff natural lacquer.
Through the lacquer room we entered the purchasing department and another century; it looked like a typical present-day business office. In the engineering department next door we spied a man working on an action part on a computer screen, using CAD/CAM software. “Mostly we can improve the machine tools we work with, to improve the tolerances on things like action parts. We can’t improve the parts themselves very much,” said Mohr. The most dramatic redesign of a working part of the grand pianos in the last half-century was one that turned into a minor disaster. Beginning in 1962, the cloth bushings that lined certain metal pins that served as hinges in the action were replaced with Teflon. The idea was that the Teflon would be immune to changes in humidity, which had caused the cloth to expand and contract. As it turned out, the Teflon was too immune to humidity; when wood it rubbed against swelled slightly, it didn’t adapt, and the result was a faint clicking sound. The company took years to change the design, and the worst period coincided roughly with the years Steinway was owned by CBS, from 1972 to 1985. For the last decade the Teflon has been gone, replaced with a Teflon-impregnated wool that combines the advantages of the old and the new.
Next to his office Mohr showed me the official record of Steinway’s accomplishment: the leather-bound logbooks that hold the vital information on every piano built there since the company began, in 1853. The pianos are numbered consecutively, from 486 to 523,000 and some (Henry Steinway skipped the lowest numbers to avoid appearing too green when he started). “For each piano,” he explained, “it gives the day it was completed, the style, who worked on it, and where and to whom it was sold. Every Steinway in existence has a number stamped on its frame, and we can look up that number here. We even have the books for all the Hamburg Steinways, which Hamburg itself doesn’t have. They lost their books when the factory was bombed during World War II. Now they have to call us whenever they want historical information on one of their older pianos.
“Look at this earliest book, from 1853. The belly men were all members of the Steinway family.” The entries are in faded script handwriting. “We have the same information for all the 523,000 pianos we’ve made in a hundred and forty years. When you think that a company like Yamaha makes a quarter of a million a year, you see that that’s a very different business. They make a less expensive piano; we’re making the very best piano we possibly can.”
A couple of months after my tour I returned to the factory for its 140th birthday celebration. A big factory room—the polishing room—had been cleared for the occasion. At one end long tables were laid with cakes in the form of grand pianos; in the middle of the room a dais had been erected with a lectern and a piano on it—one of 140 anniversary-edition Model B seven-foot grands, with a lovely mahogany finish. Having gathered the company’s several hundred employees during an extended lunch break, Robert Birmingham, the president of Steinway, said a few words about the company’s long past, its difficulties in the just-ending recession, his confidence about the future, and his pride in Steinway’s craftspeople as the enduring heart of the operation. Two high city officials followed him on the podium, offering praise for Steinway and proclamations from City Hall. Then a Brazilian jazz pianist, Eliane Elias, who happens to own six Steinways, went to the anniversary piano to perform.
Now Steinway spoke for itself. Under Elias’s hands a rich torrent of sound cascaded from the piano, now delicate in the right hand, now pounding in the left, now sustained, now crisp and dry, now rushing, now lilting. Going into her second number, she kicked her shoes off, and she rocked and smiled as she played. After a climactic end to her final number, a suave and rollicking set of variations on the Gershwin song “Liza,” she bowed to applause and cheers. With the applause rising, she gestured to the piano, and then she extended her arms toward the crowd of Steinway workers around her, the way a conductor reaches out to his orchestra to thank it for its work. She knew how much it really should be they themselves, and what they carry on, that the workers were applauding.