Monday, February 27, 2006

Tour of the Steinway Factory

Today I took a tour of the Steinway & Sons piano factory, located here in Astoria. Friends Laura and Jim and parts of their extended family were also there. It lasted about an hour and a half and was extremely informative. Our tour guide started us off in the conference room telling us a little history of the company. Steinway & Sons was founded in 1853 by German immigrant Henry Engelhard Steinway. The Steinway family is really responsible for developing the modern piano into what it is today. In the mid 1850s their pianos started gaining recognition and awards in both the US and Europe, and the pianos became more and more popular in middle-class family homes. At one point in New York city there were 200 piano makers, that's how popular the piano was becoming, although the Steinway was becoming the piano of choice.

The Steinways established a concert hall, which was located on 14th Street in Manhattan. It was a major music and cultural center until Carnegie Hall opened in the latter part of the 19th century. At this point the Steinways moved their factory from 59th Street in Manhattan (where the current piano bank is) to their present location in Queens, and even established a community around it called the Steinway Village, which is now part of Astoria. The Steinways also opened a library, which became part of the Queensboro Public Libary system, which is the largest circulating libary system in the country.

We saw the process of creating a piano, from the raw wood (walnut, pear, spruce), to the veneer of all sorts (mahogony, rosewood, pommele), to the final tuning. The wood, like a harpsichord's, needs to be aged so that the moisture level drops to a very low percentage, something like 5%. It is stacked outside the factory in a way so that air circulates all around it. The wood is used for support beans, the rims, the soundboard and the case. The veneer is cut extremely thin and comes from all places like Africa and Canada. It's amazing what they do with the veneer to give the impression that the wood used is one continuous piece. They keep track of the tree from which it is cut and keep it all together so that it can be pieced together later on one instrument. One note about the woods used for the veneer - S&S is a pretty big stickler about having the proper paperwork in order when receiving these rare woods, and don't want to take any wood that has been harvested illegally.

The inner and outer piano rims are thin continuous layers of wood glued together and then clamped into place. This was one of the revolutionary changes made by the Steinways. Before, the rim was a series of separate blocks of wood held together with joints. I seem to remember that the contraption keeping the wood in the shape it needed to be had electricity running through it.

The action on a modern piano is nototiously complex, and as I'm sure you imagine, there is a room dedicated to creating the action, from the key itself to the hammer and all the little parts inbetween. I found it odd at first to see pretty much only women working in this part of the facility. Apparently, it is women that are more dextrous than men, and therefore can manipulate small objects more easily. And since the action is intricate and full of small pieces, women are more suited for this part of the piano building process. We were all given piano hammers to take home.

One of my favorite parts of the tour was visitng the Louis XV Chippendale art case room. Things like the legs and the music desks are beautifully carved in an ornate fashion and the case veneer is made of exotic woods and decoration. In some ways, a lot like a harpsichord. There is a master craftsman that carves the legs and the ornament by hand, and he has spent many years developing his craft.

When we entered the finishing room, I was assaulted by the chemical fumes, which was a little disconcerting at first, but I got used to it. They still used old fashioned ways of finishing the instruments, using laquers and shellacs. The "ebonized" instruments have 6 coats of lacquer on them - three black and three clear. Apparently wood finish is becoming more popular, hence the wide variety of veneers, and those are well finished, too.

We ended in the onsite showroom, where Steinway artists (and VIPs I imagine) come to see the pianos and play them in amazing acoustics. One of the tour members played some Chopin for us, which was very nice. It was a real treat to be in this same room where so many great artists have been before.

If you are at all interested in pianos or even in local history, then this tour is for you. Also, Forbes magazine voted it one of the top 3 factory tours in the country. I found out about the date and time of the tour by emailing them at info at steinway dot com. I certainly enjoyed my time there and would happily recommend it. I'm also having a good hair day, which makes everything seem wonderful! But seriously, it's an excellent tour. Check it out!


Andrew Bailis said...

Hello Meg,

Thank you for your description of taking the Steinway Piano factory tour. A group of seniors plan to take the tour on Monday, June 5 as part of the LaGuardia Community College ACE Program for Older Adults.

I googled for info and you were prominantly listed.

Yours truly,

1-718-482-5323 (office)

mrwuttinon said...
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