Steinway: Instrumental Royalty Comes from Queens

For more than a century and a half, Steinway & Sons has handcrafted singular pianos in New York City, and the Queens factory remains a place where 19th-century methods mix with 21st-century technology and fine craftsmanship is still passed along generations.

By Bradley Bambarger <2011>

“They don’t make them like they used to.” That has been the refrain about countless things as technology and economics move life and its accoutrements along inexorably. 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, the younger sibling in Hamburg. The process, with 19th-century methods commingling with 21st-century technology, feels almost as organic as the trees that make up some 85 percent of these instruments.

Master pianist Martha Argerich has said that a Steinway can have a “strange magic,” this percussion instrument so engineered that it can yield the illusion of legato, of singing. That elusive quality is why a Steinway was the instrument of choice for Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein, as it is 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, an old urban area that was mostly farmland when the facility was first laid out in 1870, with the East River nearby to float logs downstream to Steinway’s lumberyard.

The Queens facility — first used as sawmill and foundry in the 1870s, then as Steinway’s lone New York production house starting in 1956 — is a heady sensory experience. There is the strong, forest scent of various types of fine wood left to season in hot, humid rooms, as well as the more pungent smell of the glue that binds some of that wood together and the paint that coats a finished instrument. Then there is 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.” It isn’t just 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 a member of the Steinway family — originally the Steinwegs, mid-19th-century immigrants from Germany — since 1972, and it has passed through several corporate proprietors since. (Full disclosure: The current parent firm, Steinway Musical Instruments, is also owner of this magazine.) But Steinway still likes to bill itself as a family company, and it has the ring of truth because there are technicians in Queens who are brothers working together, fathers who have passed skills to sons. There are half-century veterans of the place still on the job, with their pride in the work treasured like an heirloom. Losby says: “When we have our old-timers dinners every fall, the room is full.”

The 2007 documentary film Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 by Ben Niles featured technicians in the New York factory as a rainbow of characters. There are immigrant craftsmen (and women) from Croatia and Haiti, reflecting the new sources of immigration to Queens in recent decades. Yet the accents often heard as technicians banter on the shop floor are those 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.

It takes a year to create a Steinway grand, which is made up of 12,000 component parts. The soul of the instruments 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 580,000 Steinways have been built over the years. The facility restores old pianos to their original specifications, and one old instrument being worked on just before Christmas was number 113,881, meaning the instrument had originally rolled off the line around 1904. There are other amazing bits of history on the factory floor, including an original hand-operated, cast-iron 1870s veneer cutter kept on hand as an evocative curio — a beautiful piece of machinery that now shaves off veneer samples as souvenirs for visitors. The good old days weren’t always so good, of course; the factory is a far safer place to work now, including modern methods for capturing paint to keep workers from breathing in particles (something especially dangerous with the lead paint of the past).

Rim Benders and Tone Regulators

Steinway has registered some 130 patents, more than any other piano builder. The company is always experimenting with new methods and materials at the factory, but rarely is the recipe changed. Losby says: “Ninety-nine percent of the research-and-development experiments aren’t used, like the rubber hammers we tried, but the 1 percent that end up being taken on board make the instrument better.”

Some key processes date back to the 19th 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. Eighteen hard-rock maple layers, each 20-feet long, are used for a piano rim; the layers are coated with glue, stacked, then fused into a single, 350-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. The process is a tricky race as the team has less than 20 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 20th 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. But anything that has to do with touch and tone remains crafted by human hands. Losby says, “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 88 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 worked for Steinway for 30 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 vs. Hamburg Steinways have been minimized over the years. But along with the different hammers they use, the two factories still do some aesthetic things differently — square arms and a standard satin/matte finish for New York models, round arms and high gloss for Hamburg. Sonically, some experts don’t hear much of a difference these days. To longtime Steinway-affiliated artist Emanuel Ax, a classical pianist who plays top halls on both sides of the Atlantic, the musical differences between New York and Hamburg models have more to do with the “mysterious” personalities of 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 extrovert 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 & communications, referring to factory technician and Selection Room maven Dirk Dickten, says, “He 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.”

Valuing “Arcane Mastery”

Steinway pianos are the instrument of choice for 98 percent of the world’s concert artists, according to the company. It is the luxury brand among pianos, undoubtedly (with a model B listing for $84,900 and a model D $133,800), and such products tend to take particular hits during economic downturns. In 2009, sales of Steinway grand pianos in the U.S. fell sharply, leading to wage freezes and layoffs of ultimately about 115 workers at the Queens factory. There were 288 workers at the factory as of January 2011, with 2010 output half of the past 10-year average, at about 1,000 grand pianos and 300 uprights.

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 20 years, could scarcely value the time-honored Steinway method more. He came to the Queens factory in spring 2010 to choose 24 uprights, six model M “medium” grands, 10 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 25 pianos to select the 10 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 his 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 these instruments and the way they are made should be treasured. “Just think about the way things have changed over the decades,” he muses, having just taken his hand off the keyboard of a new Steinway model B in his Fayetteville studio. “Even the toothbrush is different now than it was 20 years ago. But these pianos are almost unchanged from 100 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.”

(Originally published in 2011 in the spring issue of Listen magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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