Tuning in with piano makers Steinway & Sons

Tuning in with piano makers Steinway & Sons

Words Kyle Hugall
Photographs Joss McKinley

An unrivalled attention to detail and a process that has hardly changed in 162 years makes each Steinway & Sons product unique – but now this Titan of handcrafted pianos is adapting to meet the needs of a new generation of music lovers… 

I’m standing in a lumberyard in Queens, New York, on a fresh, blue-sky morning in early autumn. Huge piles of sawn timber in shades of chestnut, chocolate, rich golden caramels and coppery blonde fill the enormous warehouse in front of me as well as the yard outside. Woods such as Alaskan Sitka Spruce from Alaska and Yellow Birch, Hard Rock Maple and Poplar from the Northeast have been delivered to this exact site for more than 100 years.

Today they arrive by truck, already milled, but back in the 19th century, the huge logs would have been floated down the Hudson on barges before being dispatched into the huge basin fed by the East River, just a stone’s throw from where the warehouse stands today. One by one the logs would be hauled up to the mill and transformed from enormous felled trees into the world’s greatest pianos.

Steinway & Sons was founded in Manhattan in 1853 after piano maker Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg emigrated to America with four sons by his side and the experience of having already made 482 pianos in his native Germany under his belt. He eventually anglicised his name to Henry E. Steinway – realising it would be better for business if the American market could pronounce it – and built his first piano on American soil with the serial number 483. This year, Steinway & Sons made piano number 600,000 – a breathtaking special edition called The Fibonacci that took 6,000 hours to complete and is for sale at a cool $2.4 million.

A lot has changed in 162 years, but a lot has stayed the same. Meeting director of marketing and communications Anthony Gilroy at the five-storey, 440,000 sq ft factory in Queens, I’m invited to watch the rim-bending process, which begins at 09:50am precisely, with a handful of guys in jeans and T-shirts glueing long strips of Hard Rock Maple to make the rim of a Model B piano. These thin, laminated planks are about a foot wide and, although just five millimeters thick, are incredibly rigid. Each piece is glued, stacked on top of another and then forced around a press that’s instantly identifiable as the shape of a grand piano. Doing this with just one sheet of maple would be impressive; here they are doing it with a glued stack of 16 layers, requiring immense brute force and a robust, clamping system that’s turned by hand and finished with a special torque wrench.

The rim is a crucial part of the overall structure that will eventually be subjected to around 40,000 lb of pressure from the strings and its failure is simply not an option, especially when you’re performing in front of 3,000 people at Carnegie Hall. Watching this spectacle, you regard the piano in a totally new light – the music it creates is a kind of illusion that hides the incredible, supercharged tension within. ‘The rim bending process was patented by Steinway & Sons in 1878 and has remained pretty much the same ever since,’ Gilroy says. ‘You could take someone from a rim-bending team back in the 1800s and put them on our team today and – aside from talking a bit differently – they’d fit right in. We even have video footage from the 1920s of this process and it looks nearly identical to how we do it today.’

All Steinway & Sons pianos – from the 5ft-long Model S to the 9ft-long Concert Grand – are handcrafted in the same way. It’s a massive, complex operation that takes hundreds, even thousands of hours. ‘At 10 months, our baby grands take longer to make than a human baby,’ quips Gilroy as he leads me from one department to another, the delicious smells of different types of wood and sawdust hanging in the air. In fact, only six or seven pianos are completed in a day (in a good year, this factory will only make around 1,300 pianos).

So when ‘handcrafted’ is central to the process, and when that process is so specific and rare, how do the workers learn their skills, or even get a job here in the first place? ‘Generally speaking you start at entry level and work your way up,’ says Gilroy. ‘Maybe you’ll start off sweeping the floors and a certain opportunity will open up. A lot of times it’s like an old school apprenticeship where you’re learning from those around you.’

There’s no school here at Steinway; the knowledge is handed down from one person to the next over many years. ‘Sure, we have books and blueprints and specifications – the “recipe” for making our pianos, if you will – but the recipe without the knowledge and experience of the people is useless,’ says Gilroy. ‘Without them you’d lose the magic. And those who come to work here stay for life. They learn a craft and become very, very skilled. The people are a big part of our pianos, as is the institutional knowledge they possess. We have 350 people on this site and it’s very common to see them working here for 40 and 50 years.’

The pianos themselves are beautiful, monolithic creations, as robust and sturdy as they are fragile and intricate. The workers in every department buzz with a focused passion and a responsibility for quality that can be seen and felt in each of the 12,000 different parts that go into every piano. ‘If you talk to any worker and ask them what’s the most important part of the piano, they’ll tell you it’s the part they touch,’ says Gilroy. ‘Even if it’s something as insignificant as tightening some screws, if it’s not done correctly it compromises the whole piano. There’s a feeling that you’re part of something bigger and everyone is working towards the same goal.’

While every Steinway & Sons piano is made in the same way, no two pianos ever sound the same, and the debate over American-made versus German-made pianos is a complex one. For a long time the factory in New York (which supplies the Americas) and the factory in Hamburg (which supplies Europe and the rest of the world) created products that sounded very different, as Gilroy explains:

‘During World War II there was no communication between the two factories, so the pianos evolved separately. In the 1980s a project was undertaken to bring them closer together in every way. That project is nearing completion, so today they look and sound very similar. The main difference is in the action of the piano. The German felts start out a bit harder, which creates a slightly brighter sound. Our sound is a little more mellow.’ While Gilroy concedes there is some competition between the two factories, he insists it’s healthy and actually adds a unique dynamic to the product offering. ‘Having two distinct factories each handcrafting pianos is interesting to us, because we do get a little variation in there. It opens up the possibilities and diversities in sound and creates more breadth in the choice available to our customers.’

The sheer size and scale of the human element involved in making Steinway & Sons pianos, both here and in Germany, means every piano has its own personality and soul. So when you’re spending $100,000 on a Model B (its most commonly sold piano) for your spacious Manhattan apartment, how do you know if its personality is to your liking? ‘We have ‘selection rooms’ where people will spend hours playing on four pianos of the exact same model. They’re technically the same: They look the same, they’re the same size, they were made in the same way, to the same quality and from the same materials. But they feel so different. That’s the beauty in handcrafting something. Our customers will often narrow it down to two out of four pretty quickly, but will then agonise over the final decision, asking: Which one do I really, truly love?’

If every new piano has a soul and specific personality, it’s almost impossible to describe the feeling of seeing old masterpieces returning to where they were once created and be restored to their original grandeur. While Steinway & Sons pianos really are made to last, those that have been restored make up about 15% of the completed pianos leaving the factory in any given year.

Under a huge sheet of plastic is piano number 49,405, which dates back to the 1880s and is here to be brought back to life. The original plate has been sanded down, recoated and hand-painted, while the soundboard, pin-block and all of the hardware, strings, pins and dampers have been replaced. The end result is that it will play and sound brand new, but in the body of a piano with a rich legacy attached to it. It’s a truly beautiful object, holding over a century of joy and music and stories and memories.

Many of the pianos that return to be restored are steeped in heritage and history; whether it’s an old, dilapidated Model D that Paul McCartney discovered in the Motown museum, or a Civil War-era piano that was hidden inside a bail of hay towards the end of the conflict to avoid destruction by the Union Army. Each piano’s restoration is designed to enhance its history, not simply gloss over it. The Motown piano was rescued on the inside, while its numerous scratches – like wrinkles in an old face – were left untouched. The Civil War piano was completely restored apart from its original ivory keys which, while gnawed at by mice and rats inside the hay over 100 years ago, provide a touching reminder of its remarkable story.

Whether you look at the suite of more than 125 patents from its history, or the ways it continuously tries to improve the process without compromising sound or quality, innovation has always been central to the evolution of Steinway & Sons. But how does a 162-year-old piano maker stay relevant when its products are cumbersome, costly and falling out of fashion? It’s a big question, but one it has a very elegant answer to.

‘Spirio is a high-resolution player system that’s installed here in the factory. It’s our first major new product in over 70 years,’ says Gilroy. And while ‘player pianos’ conjure up slightly cheesy visions of pianos being played by jocular, if not slightly inebriated poltergeists, the Spirio system aspires to be very different. The idea is that you download an app to control the system inside your Steinway piano at home and effectively experience what it would be like to have the world’s greatest pianists playing in your home.

‘Player systems have been around for ages, but what makes this revolutionary is that we’re able to capture the nuances of the player, such as how hard or soft they strike the key. Instead of recording sessions, we have “capturing” sessions that accurately record not just what the artists are playing, but the way they play it. So instead of registering the key depth, the system measures a thousand different nuances of the hammer velocity. We had Lang Lang here recently, who really put the system through its paces. When we played it back you could just see how wowed he was.’

And because of the company’s relationship with over 1,700 ‘Steinway Artists’ (from the biggest household names, to the lesser-known pros – and encompassing both the living and the dead), there is no shortage of content, which is constantly and automatically delivered to your Wi-Fi-connected piano. The Spirio brochure features a photograph of an iPad sitting on top of a Steinway & Sons grand piano. It’s an anachronistic image that somehow makes sense. The piano business isn’t what it once was and although Steinway & Sons pianos are made with the high quality materials, craft and artistry they have always been, the market has never been more different. Their response is a bold one that might just work.

Things could have been different. In the 1800s, Henry Steinway owned 400 acres of Astoria and Long Island City, which in today’s money would be astronomically valuable. Had economic realities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries not forced the sale of most of this land, it’s likely the great entrepreneur in Steinway would have ditched the piano business in favour of being a landowner – and Steinway would probably be one of the great New York real estate success stories. But economics can be a funny beast – and with an unwavering commitment to craft, an unrivalled obsession with quality and an understanding that, instead of bending towards digital technology, it should bend to them, the future looks bright.

steinway.com