The Steinway Factory Tour Leads to Creative Inspiration

Steinway and Sons
Photo by Frank Schramm.
It takes an entire year to build a Steinway & Sons grand piano; three years if you count the time it takes to procure and process the wood and other materials. Or over 100 years if you consider the time it takes for the trees to grow mature enough to be turned into pianos.

That’s what Bob, the retired Steinway piano factory worker who led our two-and-a-half-hour Steinway factory tour, told us. We, a group of 15 musicians, tourists, and curious New Yorkers, donned clear plastic safety glasses so Bob could lead us through a series of floors in the 140-year-old factory in Queens.

We started with the rim-press room, where several workers meticulously bent 20-foot-long mahogany and spruce boards to form the outside curve of one piano’s case. As Bob described the workers’ expert understanding of the direction and quality of the wood grain, I was reminded of a pianist’s lifelong effort to master a classical music repertoire.

Every part of the process we looked in on involved this level of craftsmanship and attention to detail, and each was more mind-blowing than the last. As the tour got underway, I already felt poised to see the piano—and other aspects of my life—in a whole new context.

The next time I am struggling to find the patience to learn a difficult passage of music or complete a challenging piece of writing, I’ll remind myself of the Steinway factory’s hot, humid conditioning room. There, the outer rims of the grand pianos stand in rows like oversized encyclopedias, resting for a full 10 to 16 weeks just to recover from the intense wood-bending process.

If I ever begin to lose my passion for piano music or the written word, I’ll think about the lid of the Steinway grand piano. It’s made of several ultra-thin layers of poplar, mahogany, and maple, all with grains going in different directions to keep the structure from warping over the years. If someone’s love for the instrument impelled them to put this much effort into developing the inner structure of the lid of a piano, surely I can dredge up enough inspiration to sight-read a new piece of music or start a draft of an essay.

When I’m having trouble getting myself to keep working through creative challenges, I’ll conjure up memories of Steinway’s “action department,” where the mechanical parts of the instrument are constructed. A beautifully tapered plank of wood wrapped in wool felt is cut into the slim hammers—each with a slightly different density and size—that will hit the strings. Every piece of the mechanism is individually tested by multiple people to ensure graceful and rapid movement for decades to come.

The next time I feel guilty for investing time and money in my creative hobbies, I’ll call to mind the “belly department” of the factory, where the soundboard is installed. The soundboard and bridge need to be strong enough to withstand 20,000 pounds of pressure from the tension of the strings; yet they can produce the delicate sounds of a sonata. How could such a powerful creation not be deemed important?

If I ever feel bored by the tedium of perfecting a piece of music or writing, I’ll think back to the tone regulation phase of preparing a piano. Workers in this department spend 40 to 60 hours on each piano, transforming it from an intricate mass of wood and metal into a definitive medium of Western music. Their ears are so sensitive that, when they hear someone playing a Steinway piano, they can often tell whether it is one that they worked on years earlier.

We each got a souvenir to take home: a little wood-and-felt hammer the same as those that hit the strings of the piano. I’ve tied a ribbon around mine and hung it from the bulletin board near my writing desk as a reminder to keep pushing. I will likely need more than a ping-pong-paddle-shaped trinket to combat laziness for life, but this tour has inspired me more than anything else on my long list of off-the-beaten-path NYC experiences.

If you don’t have the opportunity to take the Steinway factory tour in Queens (although it’s worth walking a mile from the end of the subway line and taking a day off work to be there on a Tuesday morning), you can see an abridged version of the piano-manufacturing process in this video:

Copyright © 2013 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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