Normally, only adults are admitted into the Steinway & Sons Piano Factory in Astoria, NY, however, once a year they open their doors to admit children. Last March, I jumped at the opportunity to invite my students and their parents to the factory tour.
First we watched a film about the history of Steinway & Sons Company. The “Steinweg” family immigrated to New York City from Germany in 1850. Initially they apprenticed under other piano manufacturers and then in 1853 the Steinwegs opened their own factory on Varrick Street. Their family business grew and moved to Chinatown and later to Park & Lexington Avenues between 52nd & 53rd Streets. In the 1870s the Steinwegs began to create their plant in northern Astoria, where it continues to produce the finest pianos to this day. In fact, this plant currently supplies all the pianos for North and South America.
After our history lesson, we visited the lumber processing room where we saw machines that measure with lasers, identify weaknesses in the wood, and saw it into manageable pieces. We went to the sound board room next and learned that Steinway pianos only use the highest quality of spruce from Alaska for their diaphragmatic, crown-shaped sound boards.
One of the highlights of the tour was witnessing the lamination and bending of a hard rock maple rim for a grand piano. It took five strong men, several three-foot long torque wrenches and about ten minutes to coax the wood into its U-like shape. Naturally, trees have some flexibility and can bend with the wind without breaking. Steinway and Sons over the years experimented with the flexible property of wood and through trial and error determined the thickness the maple needed to be cut in order for it to bend to their exact specifications.
Next on the tour was a visit to the action department. The sophisticated mechanism inside of the piano that connects the keys to their resonating strings, is called the “action”. The action supporting just one key is made up of 57 moving parts. That means for the entire 88 keys, over 4,500 parts are needed! That’s incredible. Steinway & Sons pianos have “accelerated action”. This means that the system of hammers and levers inside are so organized that they allow you to replay a note up to 14% quicker than on other pianos. All the action’s intricate parts are made of wood, never plastic. Special pear-shaped hammers are used for their superior tonal quality.
After the sound board is fitted into the rim, they place an iron frame into the piano. Across this, hundreds of steel and copper strings are stretched. The frame supports up to 20 tons of string tension. The action and the keyboard are put into place and the piano takes a trip to the “pounder”. A machine with 88 “fingers” strikes the keys, breaking in the action and conditioning the hammers. Sensitive technicians sound test each piano and adjust the hammers to ensure evenness of tone. The entire process from beginning to end to make a Steinway takes nearly one whole year.
At the end of the tour, the students were allowed to test drive some new pianos. For some, that was their favorite part of the trip.