Key notes: The meticulous craft behind making a Steinway piano

Words by
Flora Drummond-Smith

19th September 2018

Each glossy Steinway piano is created over a long period of time using a painstaking process – which takes several years – to ensure longevity and pitch perfection

Established in order to “build the best piano possible”, Steinway & Sons was founded in the US by Henry E Steinway in 1853 — and the founding philosophy is still firmly at the heart of the brand, says Guido Zimmermann, president and managing director of Steinway & Sons.

 

Steinway's One Six Five/One model
Steinway's One Six Five/One model

Steinway's One Six Five/One model

Naturally, creating high-quality musical instruments calls for the finest materials, so the process of building a Steinway piano starts with selecting the best wood from North America, Europe and Africa. The wood is allowed to dry naturally, to retain its quality and longevity — the company patiently waits for two years for it to reach a humidity of 15%. After this, the wood is put into a special “oven” to help  dry it out to a humidity of 6-8%, at which stage production can start. 

“On average it takes one year to build a Steinway piano, each is made up of more than 12,000 different parts and 80% of every piano is hand crafted,” says Zimmermann proudly. As the majority of the piano is handmade, the crafting process itself hasn’t much changed, though modern CNC machines are used in conjunction with traditional techniques to ensure precision. 

Each Steinway piano is mostly crafted by hand
Each Steinway piano is mostly crafted by hand though modern machinery is used in conjunction to ensure precision

Each Steinway piano is mostly crafted by hand though modern machinery is used in conjunction to ensure precision

When it comes to actually crafting the piano, it all begins with the creation of the rim, which consists of 20 layers of flawless maple wood that are glued together before being bent into shape. While the rim dries into position (taking an average of 100 days) other parts of the piano such as the key bed, lid, lid support, key cover and cast-iron plate are produced. “Then we make the soul of the piano: the soundboard,” says Zimmermann, referring to the large wooden diaphragm with a wooden bridge that transfers and amplifies the sound of the strings. Once completed, the soundboard and the cast-iron plate are fitted into the rim before the strings are inserted. 

Finally, the instrument goes through several stages of tuning and voicing (adjusting its tone) before it is lacquered and polished for its signatureglossy finish. “The last step is the final voicing from our chief voicer Wiebke Wunstorf and her team, who decide whether the piano is ready,” Zimmerman explains.

Fine tuning the hammers
Fine tuning the hammers

Fine tuning the hammers

Sought after by music aficionados as well as top musicians and performing artists, Steinway has little reason to pander to fleeting trends, although bespoke pianos can be commissioned. One such commission led the team to create a piano decorated with inlays of 40 different woods representing a Chinese landscape and peacocks. It later sold for €1.2m. Typically, though, commissions extend to colours and veneers. Occasionally the brand will honour special events such as John Lennon’s 70th birthday with a limited-edition model. 

This year, in celebration of its 165th anniversary, the brand launched two new special editions: the modern One Six Five/One and the One Six Five/Two for those who prefer a more traditional style. 

Prices start from £60,120, for a baby grand S-155 piano, steinway.com