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

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"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-firstcentury 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. (The current parent firm, Steinway Musical Instruments, is also owner of this magazine.) 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.

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.

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.”