Places that Matter

Steinway Piano Factory

click on image for slideshow
Pianos in Case Department, photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons/Photographer Chris Payne
Pianos in Case Department, photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons/Photographer Chris Payne
Rim Laminations, photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons/Photographer Chris Payne
Sitka Spruce for Soundboards, photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons/Photographer Chris Payne
Stringing, photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons/Photographer Chris Payne
Vintage Building Logo, photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons/Photographer Chris Payne
Front Door, photo courtesy Steinway & Sons
The factory where Steinway & Sons Pianos are made
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The Piano Kings of Queens

The Queens neighborhood of Astoria was founded in 1839 by fur trader Stephen Halsey, and was named after John Jacob Astor, a German-American pioneer in the Pacific Northwest fur trade. Now considered part of Long Island City, Astoria's origins may be associated with the wealthy German pelt salesman, but its heritage has likewise been enriched by the legacy of another entrepreneurial Landsmann, Henry Steinway, the founder of Steinway and Sons Piano company. Steinway opened his Astoria factory in the 1860s, when large Irish, Czech, Italian and German communities populated Long Island City. Henry Steinway Sr. passed away in 1871, but his sons carried his legacy and expanded their market by opening a London showroom and a Hamburg manufactory. As of 2008, Steinway and Sons' Astoria factory annually produces two thousand pianos, including most of the company's signature instruments, which still grace concert stages around the world. Although Steinways constitute only three percent of the world's piano stock, ninety-nine percent of concert artists use Steinway pianos. 

During the 1850s, eight hundred thousand German-speaking immigrants passed through New York City; many of them were skilled craftspeople, working in trades like cabinetry. Born in Germany in 1797, Heinrich Englehard Steinweg immigrated to New York City with his family in 1850. Upon their arrival, Heinrich changed his name to Henry Steinway and settled his family in Manhattan. Steinway initially worked for Bacon and Raven, the company that provided pianos to Stephen Foster. Utilizing the latest technological innovations, Steinway soon began producing his own pianos and dominated the industry for over a century.

In 1860, The Steinway and Sons factory was located on 52nd Street and 4th Avenue (now called Park Avenue). The company achieved quick success. By 1866 they opened Steinway Hall on East 14th Street, and earned the "Grand Gold Medal of Honor" at the 1867 Paris Exhibition. In the 1860s, the Steinways also purchased three hundred acres in Astoria where they developed Steinway Village. The Village centered on the waterfront factory, and included a residential settlement for their employees. The factory itself occupied eleven acres of land that included a foundry for making Steinway's patented cast iron plates. 

Over the years, Steinway and Sons has been in good company, as many of its neighborhoods have been entertainment and music enterprises. The German Gemunder violin-makers operated out of Astoria in the nineteenth century, and in 1920, the Famous Players-Lasky Studios opened, and Long Island City became the East Coast center for television and film production. The studios were briefly owned by Paramount, and were then renamed the Kaufman-Astoria Studios in the early 1980s. Astoria is home to the largest sound stage on the East Coast, which hosts Sesame Street and the Museum of the Moving Image.

The piano factory is located at 1 Steinway Place, between 19th Avenue and 38th Street. However, 45-02 Ditmars Boulevard used to contain another part of the Steinway & Sons manufactory. The current building at Steinway Place was called "Rikers," while the other was known as "Ditmars." Each was responsible for different parts of the piano building process. However, after World War II, the company's operations were consolidated into their Steinway Place site. The Ditmars site was renovated and converted into an apartment complex. 

A Tour of the Steinway and Sons Factory 

A Steinway concert grand piano is composed of twelve thousand parts. Here we will take a tour of the Steinway and Sons factory at 1 Steinway Place with Bob Singleton and Debbie Van Cura of the Greater Astoria Historical Society. We will see how and where all of these pieces are produced and synergized, much like the individual musical notes played on the Steinway pianos. 

To understand the complete process of fabricating one of the world's most complex devices still made by hand, we begin at the end, by walking past the final stage - the soundproofing tuning rooms. It takes nine months of construction before the piano can reach these spaces. After the tuning rooms, the tour leads to the rooms where the pianos' outer rims are made from wood, glue, formaldehyde (to make the wood flexible), and a press. It takes six men to bend the rim (for the larger models), which is one continuous piece of wood. A brass ring protects the veneer of the wood from the metal clamps that hold the rim in place. The rim stays in the press machine for six to twenty-four hours, depending on the type of piano that is being made. On this tour they are making a "Concert D," which is particularly important, as Steinway's big Model D's are played on stages and in recording studios. The company makes six to twelve rims a day, and have been using this unique method since the 1880s.

The Steinway factory was founded in this neighborhood because of its proximity to the waterfront. Log rafts would be floated down from New England, and they would end up in a large lagoon that used to be located behind the factory. Next the wood, and visitors on the tour, enter the Veneer Room, where thin slices of wood (1/32 of an inch) are kept. This room contains expensive and exotic timbers,  like bubinga, also known as African Rosewood. Poplar is kept for the lids because it does not warp easily. For the action parts of the piano, like the keys and hammers, maple is the preferred wood, as it does not have knots or imperfections. The heart of the piano, the soundboard (the large area that vibrates) is made of Sitka spruce from Alaska. At the end of the factory process, the piano will contain about five different types of wood.

Now enter the mill, where the pieces of the piano are created and some are fit together. This area is loud, and there is a constant machine hum. Unlike the previous areas, which were immaculately swept, here sawdust covers the floor, and the woody odor permeates the air. 

The piano parts and visitor now leave the first floor to the upstairs Case Department, where the piano rim is transformed into the piano case, a transition that adds stability to the instrument's structure. This space is even dustier, and the air is thicker than in the mill below. But next door is the much cooler Rubbing Department, where three layers of clear lacquer and three layers of dark lacquer are rubbed onto the piano. It takes an entire day to rub down the whole piano case, most of which is done by hand, so it is a good thing that the temperature in the Rubbing room is bearable. 

The next room is a small, quiet oasis, where carvers create individual pieces of the piano, like the legs. The current sculptor, who has worked in this room for fifteen years, learned his craft from a predecessor whose tenure lasted thirty-nine years. The carvers room is adjacent to the oldest portion of the factory. Built in 1870, it is a large, open loft, where items ready for shipping are stored. 

From the mellow, ancient and grand, we move on the rapid Action Department, which is located next door. Here the insides of the pianos are made. This is a large, loud room with many small tables, where workers create small and intricate parts. Whereas the rest of the factory focuses on producing large pieces, here it is all about mass production.

The journey now skips the third floor, and goes directly to the fourth floor Belly Department. William Steinway, Henry's son, was a bellyman. Here each component is custom-fitted into the piano structure. This is a huge room, filled with shells of pianos with harps in rows beside them. Each one is carved by hand, and all pegs are put in at fifteen-degree angles. These sounding boards are designed from Steinway's nineteenth century patent, and are fit into the cast iron plate so as to hold the forty thousand-pound string tension in the piano. The workers here use a master and apprentice program, a tradition that goes back centuries. They are part of the Furniture Makers' Union, and they are among the most skilled workers in the factory, as it takes years to train and learn this technique. The other half of the Belly Department's room is where the approximately two hundred thirty string necessary for each piano are strung into the instrument. 

Going downstairs to the third floor, one stops at the point where the keyboard is installed along with an assemblage of hammers and keys. The workers listen to the quality of the sounds, and make sure that each hammer directly hits the strings (each hammer covered in felt has to hit a string that is attached to the keys by wood). This process is undertaken against the cacophonous backdrop that permeates the entire factory.

Now that the piano is assembled, return to the first floor, where the piano is tuned and checked for imperfections before it is shipped away. If any are detected, the piano goes to the woodpile. If the piano is perfect, it is packed into a crate and shipped to a lucky customer. Many of Steinway's Astoria-produced pianos go to Manhattan, to the Steinway Hall piano showroom at 57th Street near Carnegie Hall. 

In the past, workers in this factory learned their craft through oral tradition. When the factory opened, there were many German, Irish, Austrian and Italian immigrants, and the factory hired these locals who hailed from far and wide. Although German was the official factory language for the first thirty years of operation, senior coworkers from Astoria's many ethnic communities transmitted their knowledge in various different languages. Approximately thirty years ago, workers began to write the process down. As of 2008, the factory employs approximately four hundred fifty workers, many of whom are from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.