listen magazine feature

Instrumental Royalty

For More Than A Century and A Half, Steinway Has Handcrafted Pianos In New York City, Passing Craftsmanship Down Through The Generations.

By Bradley Bambarger

 

“THEY DON’T MAKE THEM like they used to,” goes the refrain. But it cannot be said about Steinway pianos. While most pianos today are mass-produced out of expedience, Steinways are still handcrafted to age-old standards in just two factories: the original in New York and its younger sibling in Hamburg. The process, a commingling of nineteenth-century methods and twenty-first-century technology, feels almost as organic as the trees that make up some eighty-five percent of Steinway’s instruments.

Master pianist Martha Argerich has said that a Steinway can have a “strange magic,” this percussion instrument that can yield the illusion of legato, of singing. That elusive quality is why Steinways were the instruments of choice for Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein, as they are today for Argerich, Lang Lang and so many other top pianists.

The American source of this alchemy is located in the Astoria section of Queens, in an old urban area that was mostly farmland when the facility was first laid out in 1870. First used as a sawmill and foundry — logs were floated down the nearby East River to Steinway’s lumberyard — the facility became Steinway’s lone New York production house in 1956. Visiting it is a heady sensory experience. There is the strong, forest scent of wood left to season in hot, humid rooms as well as the more pungent smells of glue and paint. Then one hears the shearing sound of wood being cut, the almost-musical thrum of wire being strung, and the pings of repeated strikes on keyboards as pianos get last-minute tweaks in the Selection Room.

As you trod the well-worn factory floors, there comes a sensation beyond smells and sounds: an overwhelming sense of tradition. Ron Losby, president of Steinway & Sons Americas (and a pianist himself), says that the first time he toured the Queens factory on joining the company in 1987, “it was like voices from the past were speaking to me, voices of great craftsmen, the greatest pianists.” Those voices aren’t just relegated to history, though; even in parlous economic times, the Queens factory remains alive with a craftsmanship that has been handed down and perfected over generations.

Steinway & Sons hasn’t been owned by the Steinway family — originally the Steinwegs, mid-nineteenth-century immigrants from Germany — since 1972, and it has passed through several corporate proprietors since. But it still likes to bill itself as a family company, and that claim has the ring of truth: among its technicians are brothers working together and fathers who have passed skills on to their sons. There are half-century veterans of the place still on the job, their pride in the work treasured like an heirloom. “When we have our old-timers dinners every fall,” Losby says, “the room is full.”

The 2007 documentary film Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 by Ben Niles featured a rainbow of characters, all technicians in the New York factory. There are immigrant craftsmen (and women) from Croatia and Haiti, reflecting the new sources of immigration to Queens in recent decades. But in the technicians’ banter on the shop floor you can also hear the accents of born-and-bred New Yorkers, whatever their ethnic roots. Dennis Schweit played in the factory’s lumberyard as an Astoria kid; now he’s a Grand Finisher, one of the technicians who makes the ultra-fine adjustments that ensure a piano’s hammers line up accurately with the strings.

“Environment matters, especially when making a handcrafted product.”

It takes a year to create a Steinway grand, which is made up of twelve thousand parts. The soul of the instrument isn’t just in the hard-rock maple from the Pacific Northwest that goes into making the rim or the Sitka spruce from Alaska used for the soundboard; the factory’s atmosphere is part of the piano, Losby insists: “Environment matters, especially when making a handcrafted product. There’s no way to prove this, but if we took all the materials, equipment and even the workers from this factory and moved them to a new facility, I’m sure the instruments made there would sound different, maybe a little more sterile. And that would not be good for the piano, for artists, for music, for the brand.”

More than five hundred eighty thousand Steinways have been built over the years. The facility also restores old pianos to their original specifications; one instrument being worked on just before Christmas was numbered 113,881, meaning it had originally rolled off the line around 1904. The good old days weren’t always so good, of course; the factory is a far safer place to work now. It has modern methods for capturing paint, for example, to keep workers from breathing in particles (something especially dangerous with the lead paint of the past). But there are other amazing bits of history on the factory floor, including an original hand-operated, cast-iron 1870s veneer cutter — an evocative curio and beautiful piece of machinery that now shaves off veneer samples as souvenirs for visitors.

“Our Tone Regulators are as much artists as the musicians who play the instruments.”

The Tone Regulation Department is where a Steinway goes from being a machine to a musical instrument. Here, each of the eighty-eight keys is adjusted by hand for evenness of tone; the felt-covered hammers are made either harder (by putting lacquer-like solution on the felt — if the note has to be brightened a bit) or softer (using a needle to open up the felt). Mark Dillon, foreman of the department, has been with Steinway for thirty years, working his way through the factory before coming to tone regulation/voicing. “The right tone has a bell-like quality,” he says. “You don’t just hear it with your ear — you feel it in your body.”

In the Queens factory, the hammers are made in-house; in Hamburg, they are purchased from subcontractors. According to Dillon, the tonal range of a Hamburg Steinway is “a bit more precise than a New York Steinway, but also a bit narrower. The New York pianos are probably more versatile, so they’re good for rock, jazz or classical music, and they can be tailored a bit more. I think there’s a good sibling rivalry between New York and Hamburg. It’s competitive, but we exchange ideas.”

Variations between materials and methods in New York and Hamburg have been minimized over the years. But along with the difference in hammers, the two factories do some aesthetic things differently — square arms [the reader likely thinks of them as ‘legs’ —Ed.] and a standard satin/matte finish for New York models, round arms and high gloss for Hamburg. Sonically, many experts don’t hear much of a difference these days. To longtime Steinway–affiliated artist Emanuel Ax, the musical differences between New York and Hamburg models have more to do with the personalities of the individual instruments than where they are made.

Two Steinway pianos made by the same workers to the same specifications using the same materials and tools in the same temperature and humidity “could end up being like salt and pepper,” Losby says. “One could be extroverted and symphonic, one almost shy and intimate. That is the thing about a handcrafted product; each is going to be different.”

Anthony Gilroy, Steinway's director of marketing and communications, says that factory technician and Selection Room maven Dirk Dickten “knows these instruments inside and out, and he can say to you, ‘This is the best piano in this room.’ But I’ve seen an artist come in and reject that instrument right off, falling in love with a different one. The way a piano sounds and feels is very subjective, and every player’s tastes and needs are different.”

 

Rim Benders and Tone Regulators

Steinway has registered some one hundred thirty patents, more than any other piano builder. The company is always experimenting with new methods and materials, but the recipe rarely changes. Losby says, “Ninety-nine percent of the research-and-development experiments aren’t used, like the rubber hammers we tried, but the one percent that end up being taken on board make the instrument better.”

Some key processes date back to the nineteenth century. Steinway pioneered the seamless, continuous-bent rim, and the rim-bending technique invented by the company in 1878 is done virtually the same way today as it was then. Eighteen hard-rock maple layers, each twenty feet long, are used for a piano rim; the layers are coated with glue, stacked, then fused into a single three-hundred-fifty-pound form of wood. A team of five rim-benders (for a nine-foot model D concert grand) bend the wood on a rim-bending press, the massive, piano-shaped vises custom built by Steinway. It’s a tricky race, as the team has less than twenty minutes to shape the rim before the glue begins to dry, with the work demanding not only strength but finesse.

Yet some elements of Steinway’s piano-building were only perfected well into the twentieth century, such as the fitting of an instrument’s soundboard to its rim. This used to be done visually, but several decades ago, the factory moved to a laser-guided method that enables a more exact fit, resulting in a more powerful piano sound. Still, anything that has to do with touch and tone remains crafted by human hands. “Our Tone Regulators are as much artists as the musicians who play the instruments,” says Losby.


Valuing ‘Arcane Mastery’

Steinway pianos are the instruments of choice for ninety-eight percent of the world’s concert artists, according to the company. It is undoubtedly the luxury brand among pianos. According to Losby, the company resists cutting back on the quality of its materials or the factory’s hand-tooled processes, as maintaining the Steinway standard remains paramount. “Piano brands like Mason & Hamlin ceased to be great because they started cutting corners on the specifications and materials to reduce costs,” he says, “and you can see what happened to Baldwin when they moved their factory.”

Jura Margulis, professor of piano at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and a Steinway Artist for twenty years, could scarcely value the time-honored Steinway method more. He came to the Queens factory in spring of 2010 to choose twenty-four uprights, six model M “medium” grands, ten seven-foot B models (the most popular of Steinway’s grands) and one concert D for his school — a $1.5 million purchase Margulis calls “transformative.” He went through about twenty-five pianos to select the ten B models.

“Like children,” Margulis says, “Steinway pianos are each unique, and when they are new, they are like babies. It’s not only about what they sound like at first — it’s about their potential for growth, the development in their sound. They play in; they grow.”

Margulis is an aficionado of piano-building, fascinated by the physics of the instrument. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he was raised in Freiburg, Germany, and came to the U.S. in 1994 as a student of Leon Fleisher. Margulis’s father and father’s father were concert pianists, with a Steinway always in the house. He often practiced in a piano workshop as a youngster, growing to love the smell.

When Margulis toured the Queens factory recently, it only reinforced his conviction that the instruments within it and the way they are made should be treasured. Now, in his Fayetteville studio, he takes his hand off the keyboard of a new Steinway model B and muses, “Just think about the way things have changed over the decades. Even the toothbrush is different now than it was twenty years ago. But these pianos are almost unchanged from a hundred years ago — they were almost perfect machines even then. You realize in the factory that the making of a Steinway piano is this arcane mastery — just like the playing of the instrument.”

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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