the steinway artisan at work
by Laura Lee Smith
“Machine work was substituted for hand work only in the relatively few operations where quality would not be affected in the slightest — a policy which has never been modified. Even so, the power-driven tool must still be guided by the hand of a man.”
—Theodore E. Steinway, 1883–1957, fourth president of Steinway & Sons
Steinway pianos are built by hand and always have been. Steinway & Sons was founded not by a businessman, but by a gifted piano builder who envisioned a company that would “build the best piano possible.” The company has therefore always placed a premium on the identification and cultivation of craftspeople capable of creating the world’s finest pianos, one at a time, by hand.
For more than one hundred and seventy years, the Steinway artisan has been known as a highly skilled expert, often possessing decades of experience in one particular area of piano building as well as an artist’s sensitivity to quality and beauty. Indeed, they are Steinway’s lifeblood — the foundation upon which the most famous piano company in the world has built its legacy.
The number of employees working at Steinway & Sons was to rise and fall dramatically through the decades, as the company dealt with booms, busts, strikes, recessions, and wartime closures. In 1858, Steinway’s factory employed a hundred workers. In 1860, seven years after the company’s founding, Steinway & Sons opened a new state-of-the-art factory in New York City, and at the opening celebration, guests were treated to a tour during which they watched some of Steinway’s three hundred workers crafting and assembling parts. (The tradition of the factory tour continues today.) By 1925, at the height of the piano’s popularity in America, the roster of Steinway artisans had skyrocketed to two thousand three hundred, an all-time high. Today, around two hundred people are at their stations each morning when the factory whistle blows.
Twenty-First Century Artisans
Santé Auriti, born in Italy, came to the United States in 1979, and, on the urging of relatives, looked up a man from his hometown who was working as a supervisor in the rim department at Steinway & Sons. “I talked to him, I put in my application, and there it was,” he says. “I started working with Steinway on May 14, 1979.” A long journey through the factory ensued, with Santé being moved from department to department — first rim-bending, then veneers, then soundboards — to apply his skills, with each move teaching him more about the year-long process of building one Steinway & Sons piano. “Every time they needed somebody new on the floor, they asked me, ‘Santé, can you do this? Can you do that?’ Whatever anybody asked me to do, I did it. And I tried to do it really well,” he says. Santé retired from Steinway’s casemaking department in 2018.
Prenta Ljucovic has worked with Steinway & Sons since 1973. As the company’s only female casemaker, she is the longest-tenured woman in the Steinway factory. A native of Montenegro, she applies her years of experience in woodworking to cut, plane, sand, and drill the heavy blocks of solid spruce that will become a Steinway piano’s outer case.
Wally Boot retired from his position as final tone inspector in 2014 after fifty-two years with Steinway & Sons. He was born on Steinway Street in Astoria, two blocks from the Steinway Factory. In his role as tone inspector, Wally was the last person to verify the musical quality of every Steinway piano before it left the factory. A self-described hippie, he began working at the factory in 1962 and worked in a number of departments before his retirement.