Culture Music

The year-long, meticulous journey to create a legendary grand piano

There are more than 12,000 individual parts to a Steinway & Sons piano, each one playing a critical part, not unlike instruments in an orchestra. They combine to produce the unique musical character the brand is cherished for. We pay a visit to their Hamburg workshop to see just how complicated and arduous the process is.
David Celdran | Mar 07 2019

Selecting the wood

Like the legendary Stradivarius and Guarneri stringed instruments, the distinctive sound produced by Steinway pianos starts with the choice and quality of hardwood used to create each masterpiece. Aware of the critical role the organic material plays in musical reproduction, Steinway & Sons sources only the best solid woods from suppliers around the world, with a preference for spruce, whitewood, maple, and bubinga. For limited edition and custom-made pianos, special and exotic woods such as mahogany, cherry, and walnut are used as veneers.

The selection of quality hardwood is critical for achieving the Steinway sound, the company typically rejects half of the wood sent to their factories.

A different type of wood is used for individual parts of the instrument: spruce for the soundboard and keyboard, whitewood for the top and music deck, maple for the bridge and parts of the case, and bubinga for parts of the pin block. Precious woods like walnut and mahogany are used as veneers for parts in limited edition pianos. Apart from identifying the optimum variety, all wood planks are meticulously screened for quality before these are cut and seasoned in the premises of the Hamburg workshop. 

 

Constructing the rim

Steinway & Sons have developed over 125 patents since founder, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, crafted his first piano in the kitchen of his home in Germany. Many of these patented innovations continue to be used until today, including the construction of the one-piece continuous bent rim that forms the distinctive shape of the grand piano case—a patented operation that has hardly changed since 1878.

Twenty layers of maple wood are meticulously glued together in order to make the rim that provides each Steinway grand piano its characteristic shape.

The rim provides the structural integrity and aesthetic beauty Steinway pianos are known for. Each one is made from 20 layers of hard maple wood, carefully glued to each other and made to dry. The inner and outer rims are pressed together in a single, ultra-precise operation that uses Steinway’s proprietary mechanical machinery and experienced craftsmen.

A patent that has hardly changed since 1880 is still applied to craft the continuous bent rim that forms the grand piano case. The sensitive process employs a combination of worker’s hands and traditional mechanical machinery to mold the case.

 

Handcrafting the soundboard

The soundboard is considered the soul of the piano. The best portion of the spruce wood is reserved to make each, while experienced artisans craft the material by hand and tune the soundboard using their ears.

The soundboard is the heart and soul of the piano. Steinway crafts theirs entirely by hand, from the best quality wood available. To meet the high standards set by the company founders, only Sitka spruce with regular grain and a prescribed number of annual growth rings are used. Equally important is how each one is made, refined, and tuned, by a combination of expert ears and artisanal hands. Under a 1936 patent to achieve optimum dynamic range, the extremely sensitive soundboard is gradually tapered from center to the edge in order to provide the freedom of movement needed to produce a richly textured and nuanced sound.

 

Building bridges

The bridge holds the critical soundboard in place. It transmits the music from the strings to the soundboard to amplify. Each bridge is notched by the artisan’s hand for precise, individual string-bearing.

Applying another key patent from Steinway & Sons, a worker constructs the bridge using individually shaped parts made from choice maple wood. The role of the bridge is to transmit the sound from the strings to the soundboard.

The design optimizes sound transmission from the strings to the soundboard, producing a sustained and resonant note that defines the trademark Steinway Sound.

 

Casting the iron plate

Another patented design, Steinway’s proprietary cast iron plates help absorb the immense pressure applied to the piano, and provide each with the stability and composure required for continuous play.

Cast iron plates function to handle and absorb the huge amount of force that is constantly applied to the piano—up to 20 tons of string tension, depending on the piano piece being played or the individual style of the artist. To support this extraordinary tension on the strings and reduce vibration in the process, Steinway & Sons insists on casting these iron plates itself. It operates its own foundry in order to control quality. The cast iron plate alone weighs approximately 150 kilograms (for the D-grand model).

 

Assembling the piano case

Since 1853, Steinway pianos have been handmade and therefore no two are alike.

Steel strings are laid by hand. Careful attention is given to the length and tension of the string as these transmit the sound from the keyboard to the soundboard.
Steinway pianos are equally cherished for their aesthetic beauty. Workers spend hours sanding and finishing the piano parts before final assembly.

Despite the availability of precision machinery that can approximate the human hand, Steinway & Sons holds on to its tradition of handcraftsmanship to produce instruments unique in ways no automated or computer-aided system can replicate. For components of the piano that require extreme physical force and precision to shape or craft, however, CNC machinery is employed.

 

Tweaking and toning the instrument

Although Steinway & Sons enforces a strict and rigid production process to guarantee consistency in quality, each handcrafted piano made in the Hamburg factory produces a distinct sound of its own.

No two Steinway pianos are deliberately identical. Musically-trained technicians enrich each piano’s musical characteristics by adjusting the hammer heads and tweaking the tension of the strings to achieve the distinctive “Steinway Sound.”

To develop each instrument’s unique quality, a team of technicians under a master tone regulator explores and enriches the individual piano’s musical character by adjusting the hammer heads and tweaking the instrument further until its distinct sonic signature is established.

 

Finishing touches

Basic Steinway pianos are finished in ebony and polished to a high gloss before final packing and delivery to showrooms and clients worldwide.

Black varnish in high polish, with gold detail, is the trademark finish of Steinway & Sons grand pianos. It is an aesthetic signature that has made it a musical icon and the most recognizable instrument in the world. Although the sound is hardly affected by the choice of finish, the company provides a wide range of paint colors and veneers as either bespoke or as special edition pianos. 

 

Signed, sealed, delivered

The grand piano salon in the Steinway & Sons corporate headquarters in Hamburg serves as a venue where visiting Steinway artists and potential clients can experience the Steinway artistry firsthand.

Steinway & Sons Hamburg produces an average of 1,200 grand and upright pianos yearly. Each one is registered and retails at a recommended price that ranges from Euro 28,230 to Euro 136,070 depending on the model and finish. Since its foundation in 1853, only about 593,000 pianos have been produced and sold.

 

 

This piece originally came out in Issue 16, 2014 of Vault. For more information, visit Steinway.com.