All the Way to Steinway

By Laura Kuhn

Growing up Sami Shaker used to visit his aunt’s apartment. It was fairly small, but in the center sat a Grand Piano. To move around in the apartment Sami had to squeeze.

Now, some thirty-odd years later, Shaker has come to appreciate the piano as much as his aunt. As the factory director at Steinway and Sons Piano, he oversees the 5-story, 200 Acre factory that produces the high-end, hand-crafted pianos.

Steinway opened its doors on 14th street in Manhattan as a producer of hand-crafted pianos. Eventually, it bought the 200 acre lot in Queens where it resides today.

At the entrance to the factory a large banner hangs overhead, listing the mission statement:

“Provide customers with the higest quality Pianos and related services consistent with Steinway’s reputation for excellence.”

High-quality these pianos are. A concert D piano—one of the most expensive—can cost up to $98,000. But, unlike most companies that mass produce their pianos, Steinway crafts each piano individually. This is a time-consuming process; a single piano can take nine months to a year to make.

This is partly because of the high quality of the materials. To control for expansion and warping, the wood, cut from full trees found everywhere from Madagascar to Brazil, can sit in the temperature controlled conditioning room for up to three months.

Quarter inch strips of maple wood constitute most of the rims of the piano. In the airy bottom floor of the factory, workers place the flat strips through a gluing machine. The able-bodied men then use a machine to mash the wood against a piano shaped molding block. After using large wrenches to fully press the wood together, the men pull out a full piano rim.

From here, the rim makes its way through the various levels of the factory. In the next room fans pump the fumes out an open window while workers paint the wood with a licorice colored lacquer.

In the next rooms, workers, who are trained on an apprenticeship system, make the piano functional. With great precision, they attach legs and wheels. They twist metal strings-the bass ones with copper coiled around them—onto pegs. They hammer felt to adjust for sound quality. Each step of the process is complex and requires intimate knowledge of the task.

“I’m always learning something new,” said Shaker of his time in the factory.

But the final rooms are where the true masterwork takes place. The tuners adjust and re-adjust these strings until the sounds are perfect.

The last person to see these pianos before they leave is Wally Boot who puts the final touches on the pianos before they leave. He checks each key to make sure it sounds right, sometimes even playing songs. Boot seems to thoroughly enjoy the job.

“I get to practice all day and get paid for it.”

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