A Grand day out: A visit to the Steinway Factory Part I

Passion, ingenuity and experience sing in perfect harmony at the Steinway piano factory in Hamburg

By Nick Scott 10/12/2018

A school-like building set in an industrial zone in the north-west of the city, Steinway’s Hamburg production centre is entirely unassuming from the outside. These red-brick walls, however, are hallowed, and the instruments hand-crafted within them virtually deified in certain circles: “Steinway,” as Russian-born conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy once put it, “is the only piano on which the pianist can do everything he wants. And everything he dreams …”

F. Theodor Steinweg, a carpenter born in mountainous Lower Saxony, Americanised his surname and founded Steinway & Sons in a loft on Varick Street, Manhattan, in 1853. The New York premises continues to manufacture for the Americas, while in this factory, which opened 27 years later, 250 Steinways – each comprising 12,000 parts – are assembled each year by 300 craftspeople, and sent to far-flung corners of Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia.

To tour this building is to explore the varied emotional tributaries that lead to artisanal endeavour at its best. In the lumber yard, patience is not so much a virtue as an imperative. Timber is stacked with a 12mm space between each board so that airflow will season it naturally over two years, reaching a humidity content of 15 per cent; a kiln then reduces it to the optimum six to eight per cent. Steinway shuns the use of the kiln for the whole drying process: it would massively increase production, but their products’ quality and longevity would suffer.

In the rim-shaping room, it’s all about cooperation and dogged adherence to time-honoured methods. For a full-sized instrument, seven-metre-long layers of maple and mahogany are glued together and wrapped around a giant banding press to be set in that sinuous grand piano shape – determined by the lengths of the strings housed inside – with which we’re all so familiar.

Steinway will end up using only 45 per cent of the maple, mahogany, whitewood and bubinga that it orders. In the case of soundboards – Sitka spruce, for superior amplification – they discard around 90 per cent, with ‘qualitats kontrolle’ duties befalling one Claus Sammann, who has worked here for 32 years. “A good soundboard is the soul of an instrument,” explains Sammann, referring to a piano’s large wooden diaphragm, to which a wooden bridge is fixed to transfer the strings’ vibrations. “We make sure the wood is faultless and fine – for example, I make sure it has the smallest possible annual rings.”

Close by Sammann, a group is working on the cast-iron plates which largely contribute to a finished concert grand weighing 450kg. The plate is an entirely functional component, braced around the rim to prevent the piano being weakened by constant vibrations, yet they’re water-sanded to remove even fine scratches.

To be continued tomorrow…

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