Steinway & Sons: Piano Tradition in Queens

A Steinway & Sons employee works on a piano.

By Amanda Mastrull

Steinway & Sons piano factory is housed in an unassuming building in a far off corner of Astoria, Queens, but the interior of the factory is full of the Steinway history. The factory blends classic piano construction with new technology. It is driven by a close-knit community of employees who take pride in their work and constantly strive to keep to the standards of the world-famous Steinway name.

Legacy is taken seriously at the company which dates back over 150 years to 1853. Photos of famous artists who use Steinways are displayed on the walls of the office area and around the factory banners prominently show the Steinway mission statement to “provide customers with the highest quality pianos and related services consistent with Steinway.”

Steinway pianos are all handmade through an intricate process that begins with the stacking and gluing of wood which is then put into a vice-like device to create the curved rim of the piano. Elsewhere in the five storey factory, skilled technicians do everything from insert the inner mechanism of the pianos to string them. The final step is a four-stage tuning process.

It takes about nine months to a year to complete a Steinway, as it sits in a conditioning room for a few months in order for the wood to “cure” and settle. It must reach the desired ‘equilibrium moisture content’ (EMC), wherein the wood will be ready to be used as a piano.

The factory makes about ten pianos a day when working at full capacity, meaning that at any given moment ten pianos are being worked on at each stage in the factory. Which size piano – they range from S to D – depends on the market.

Steinway is meticulous about keeping to the standards set over the years, right down to the quality of the wood. It comes from the Northwest United States and in order to be deemed suitable for a Steinway, it must have a certain number of rings and no knots or imperfections.

“It’s a very personal instrument and we have standards to make it a certain way,” Steinway employee Sami Shaker said.

It’s not just personal for those who own Steinway pianos, but the employees themselves. Shaker, who has worked for Steinway for 13 years, says that the factory is like a second home for employees, with them regarding each other as family.

Given the history of some Steinway employees, this is understandable. The final tuner of pianos, Wally Boot, has been at the company for 48 years. Boot, not the first in his family to work for Steinway, grew up just blocks from the factory. His work area reflects his personal history there, displaying everything from letters from people whose pianos he’s tuned to a photo of himself as a boy playing near the factory.

“I get to practice all day and I get paid for it,” Boot said of his job, after finishing a spontaneous rendition of a Beethoven selection.

At a company where everyone seems personally invested in the process, that’s about as good as it gets.

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