A Steinway piano begins its life as a tree, in the rainforest of Queen Charlotte Islands at the far western edge of British Columbia. There rugged loggers cut down ancient, skyscraper-high Sitka spruce trees. The tree trunks are transported to the continent and floated down Frazer river to Tacoma, Washington, where Steinway & Sons wood expert selects and buys the best of them. It takes lumber three weeks to arrive on tractor-trailers to a mill where, through the process called “quarter-sawing”, they are transformed into boards, which are then stored at Steinway lumber yard in Astoria, New York, behind the company’s parking lot. Other types of wood are brought from mills in New Hampshire and Connecticut, and rare decorative woods from China and South America. Wood is 85% water, and it needs to be dried for at least three months before a piano can be made out of it. The drying process continues in a dry kiln inside a building known as “white elephant”. The dry artificial climate throughout the entire factory is provided by the recently installed solar heating and air-conditioning system – largest in the world.
Meanwhile, Steinway piano plates are shaped by fire from molten steel at the Kelly foundry in Ohio, painted “Steinway Gold” and brought to Astoria in a truck. They dictate the shape of a rim that is bent from 18-layer maple “book” by a crew of seven workers – a suspenseful process allowing no mistakes and urged by the ticking clock.
The soundboard – the amplifier of the piano sound, and the most important part of the instrument – is made of the thin slices of Sitka spruce wood. Steinway soundboards are slightly thicker in the center than they are at the edges, which produces louder and longer sounds than that of other pianos. A bridge is glued to the soundboard – it will transfer the vibrations from the strings to the soundboard. Even though a piano soundboard is less than a fifth of an inch thick, when it is fitted into the piano, it can hold the weight of a “bellyman” – a worker who climbs into the piano to make microscopic adjustments to the soundboard.
After the soundboard is fitted, the plate is mounted on top of it, and the strings are fixed to the plate. In the meantime, the workers in the action department assemble the subtle mechanics of the piano action – hammers, dampers and keys (delivered from Kluge, a Steinway-owned key-making plant in Germany). The action is inserted, and the piano then is tuned and “voiced” (the process that takes almost a week, and involves meticulous work on every hammer and every string).
Then a robot, known as “the banger”, pounds on the piano keyboard, playing super-fast scales in a special sound-proof “pounding room”. The goal is to test the new piano for any possible weakness: anything that wasn’t done right will break under the banger’s “fingers”. The broken parts are replaced and tested again. In a nearby room, another robot makes piano legs and other similar primitive “furniture-type” wooden parts that do not have to be hand-made. The rest of the manufacturing process is kept within the XIX artisan tradition, maintained through the institute of apprenticeship. Throughout every stage of the working process foremen and specially assigned quality inspectors maintain strict control, and everything is logged in special logbooks. The piano is tuned and voiced again, and then disassembled, checked, painted, reassembled and tested again – sometimes this is repeated several times, to assure the highest quality of the final result. Finished pianos are loaded into Steinway & Sons truck and shipped to dealers or, on rare occasions, to Steinway Hall’s piano bank, where Steinway & Sons’ head technician will re-tune and re-voice it again.
It takes a year – and in some cases, several years – to make a Steinway piano.