Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tour of the Steinway Factory

Recently had the opportunity to tour the Steinway factory in Astoria.  They offer tours every Tuesday morning.  You can reserve a place by calling 718-721-2600.  The tour was led by Bob Singleton, the Exective Director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.  He was a fantastic guide, and I learned a great deal about pianos and the history of Steinway.   Here are my notes from that morning - not in much of any order, I'm afraid:

  • Some excellent violins were made in Astoria by George Gemunder
  • Steinway made the first cars in the United States - right in Astoria!  The family was friends with the Daimler family, and they started making hand-made automobiles in 1896.  But they only made a few and decided to focus on their core business and not get distracted by that side venture.  We might have ended up driving Steinways today.
  • The origin of the piano is the harp.  First harps were seen around 1000 BC.  Harp could be played in two ways: plucking it with a pick, or hammering the strings.  Another ancestor of the piano is the pipe organ, which started to be seen in late Roman times
    • Closer ancestor to the piano is the clavichord
  • The piano has the widest tonal range of any instrument
  • A piano has 15,000 parts, and is thought to be the most complex hand-crafted device available for widespread purchase today
  • The piano paralleled the development of society: with the industrial revolution there came a social revolution: lots of middle class folks with time on their hands to learn how to play an instrument.  Piano became the ultimate status symbol.  Everyone wanted to have one in their music room.
  • The earlier pianos were designed for chamber music.  As they grew in popularity, they were thrust in concert halls.  The pianos were not meant for the kind of beating they took, and would get demolished in the course of the concert.  
  • Steinway was a German immigrant; half of the artisans were German
  • In the 19th century there were dozens of firms competing in the piano building industry.  Steinway had a brilliant marketing idea: they made the concert hall their virtual showroom.  In the age before recordings, when the only music was live music, Steinway invited a bunch of top classical musicians over from Europe and paid for them to tour around the U.S.  To small cities all across the country.  At every concert they of course played on Steinway pianos.  Anyone in the audience naturally wanted to buy a Steinway piano - an early use of celebrity endorsement.
    • Steinway also build Steinway Hall on 14th Street, which lasted from 1868 to 1892.  It was half the size of Carnegie Hall.
    • So from an early point Steinway had the insight to build relationships with the top artists.  Today, 98% of classical recordings are made on a Steinway
    • Some artists require that the program state "Piano by Steinway"
  • Steinways were originally manufactured in Manhattan.  But the labor unrest in the 19th century caused problems.  At one point they stockpiled weapons and were threatened by unions that threatened to burn down the factory.  They decided to move to the swamps of Astoria across the river.
    • Steinways bought hundreds of acres in Astoria
    • They created a community; moved all their workers out there
    • One of the first kindergartens in the city
    • They built a trolley to a ferry that crossed the East River
    • They built all the services a community needs: police, fire department, etc
    • In some ways, they helped create the modern borough of Queens
    • William Steinway was the subway commissioner of New York
      • The tunnel that carries the 7 train from Manhattan to Queens is called the Steinway tubes
      • William Steinway also pushed for the tunnels carrying the railroad to New Jersey
    • Even though the founder of the Steinway dynasty was himself illiterate, he started a lending library for any employee to use.  This lending library was eventually absorbed into the Long Island City library system, which was eventually absorbed into the Queens Public Library system - the most-used public library system in the country
  • La Guardia Airport was built on land once used as an amusement park by the Steinway company for its employees
  • Bob's term for pianos made by a company other than Steinway: "piano-shaped objects"
  • We get ready to tour the factory.  Bob gives us the warning to take no photographs (protecting their processes from rivals) and to touch no wood (the oil in our fingerprints can stain it)
  • All employees originally had to learn German
  • Child labor was used until 1915.  A small crawl space where children were sent to fetch items is called the chicken coop.  One of the tasks performed by children was "rushing the growler."  At lunchtime they had to run to one of the local breweries and come back with the worker's pots of ale filled up.
  • We meet Walter Boot.  He has been named employee of the year so many times that a permanent sign is now above his workspace.  He does the final tuning and adjustments.  A sign on his door say, "Pianos enter this room looking like a piano, and leave sounding like one."
  • We tour the "Selection Room" - a set of about 10 concert-quality pianos, specially tuned.  We are forbidden to play them since the tuning is so particular.  The room has special speakers so that it can be made to imitate concert halls with a wide range of acoustics.  Microphones pick up the piano and play it back with a micro-delay to imitate the echo you would get in a big hall.
  • We observed the rim-bending machine - one of the most impressive operations on the whole tour.  We learn how the piece that curves around the outside of the piano is made:
    • Many very thin layers of wood are soaked in water to make them pliable
    • Then the pieces are covered in glue and stacked together to make a stack about three inches high, 14 inches wide, and 20-30 feet long.  They call this a "book"
    • This long stack is carried by 6 men (they hoist it and carry it like a crew team carrying a shell) and place it in the cold press
    • They manually clamp it down in one place to get started
    • Then they bend it around and clamp it at each end
    • The wood has no knots or imperfections: only 2% of wood passes inspection for this purpose
    • It is all clamped by hand.  Steinway experimented with automated clamping by machine, but found that they didn't get the same quality results.
  • In World War II, Steinway made wooden gliders for the troops that landed in Normandy
  • In the conditioning room, they store over a million dollars worth of veneer: exotic woods from all over, including:
    • macassar
    • santos
    • figure sapeli
    • pommele sapele
    • E.I. Rosewood
    • walnut
    • bubinda
    • mahogany
    • They take great care to do "flitch matching" for the top of the piano: all the pieces on the top of a piano are from the same tree so the grain has the same characteristics
    • poplar is used for the core of the top of the piano because it doesn't warp
  • Modern technology is used where it makes sense.  In the furniture side of the house, where all the legs of the piano and other structural elements are made, computer controlled routers drill every hole
    • The Steinway has been willing to use technology when it makes sense, and they stick with hand-craftsmanship when it is necessary to produce the quality they want
    • Interesting mix of artisanal craftsmanship and highly automated mass production under the same roof
  • We visit the Rubbing Department
    • (How would you like to be the Rubbing Manager - put that on your resume.)
    • The pianos get 6 layers of laquer to produce the Steinway satin finish
  • Pianos are designed for their particular environment
    • This was news to me: they add different structural elements depending on whether you plan to use the piano in Miami or New York
    • Pianos made for concert halls in Europe (smaller, darker) are different than the ones made for US halls
  • The White House has Steinway piano number 250,000.  Story about the White House piano:
    • Henry Steinway was invited to the White House during the second Bush's presidency to receive an award - Medal of Freedom I believe
    • President Bush approached Henry, who was over 80 years old, and asked him, "Is there anything we can do for you Mr. Steinway?  Would you like to see the White House Steinway?"
    • Steinway replied: "I hope you are taking better care of it than you are of the economy!"
    • When you are over 80, and wealthy, I guess you can say whatever you want, even to the President
  • The most expensive Steinway ever sold (new) was $3.4 million, sold to the Martin Beck Theatre
  • They produce a variety of limited editions, like the John Lennon piano (70 made)
    • Or the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue piano (it is blue)
    • fancy pianos with intricate carvings are called "art case instruments"
  • We tour the Action Department - what a great name
    • I wouldn't mind working in that group.  "Yes, I'm the Director of Action."
    • 90% of the parts in a piano are in the action
    • Takes 60 parts to make one note
    • Keys are no longer made out of ivory: they are made out of "ivoplast" which is made by a Steinway subsidiary
    • I'm impressed by the charts in the visual management error.  One indicates that the cost of scrap has been reduced from $438K in 2000 to $20K in 2008.  Nice work by some continuing improvement professional
    • Meanwhile, rework has gone from $50K to $5K
    • Also I like the visual management board by each worker in this department: they have goals for each 2 hour period and keep track of their progress against these goals 4 times per day.
  • Favorite statistic from the day: Fully one-third of Steinway grand pianos are sold in the New York metro area

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