If there is one thing American craftsmanship can boast of, it is the Steinway piano. Because of its quality, people naturally assume it is European. But the main Steinway factory has always been in New York. Steinway’s Hamburg, Germany plant is an offshoot of the American one, a rare case of Europe imitating an American original. Most concert pianists and piano teachers would choose a Steinway.
What makes a Steinway more interesting is that no two Steinways ever sound exactly alike. That’s intentional. In fact, the last and most critical phase of the process is to “voice” each piano – to bring out its unique tonal characteristic, its personality. If the piano sound is inherently bright, the “voicer” hardens the felt of the hammers to draw out the instrument’s brilliance; if the piano is mellow, he softens the felt to develop its serenity.
It takes nearly two years to make each piano. Each piano requires a lot of wood –Sitka Spruce from the Pacific Northwest, Mahogany from South America, Walnut from Indiana – so much wood altogether that the factory at Queens locale looks more like a lumberyard than a piano factory. Although the firm employs a wood technician to scour the world for best trees, more than half the lumber fails to measure up when it arrives. The rejected wood used to go to make cuckoo clocks, then to make harps; now it’s burned for heat to dry out the wood that does make the grade. Twelve thousand parts go into each piano, ranging from one-inch strips of maple used in the action of each key to the 340-pound plate of cast iron that forms the piano’s backbone. Nearly 400 people work on each piano, many of them second and third-generation Steinway artisans. More than a hundred patents go into the Steinway, including the technique of “over stringing” the bass strings to move them closer to the middle of the case, where they will reverberate loudest, and the trick of thinning the soundboard down toward the edges to force the sound into the room. These innovations have been widely imitated. These elements contribute to the cost of purchasing such a treasure.
This suggests the essence of the Steinway’s distinction. To a pianist, these Steinways aren’t just pianos. They are practically living beings – each one unique, alert, and responsive; and that may explain how they can insinuate themselves into the owner’s life. To the world’s leading pianists, they are loyal friends.