The Legend of Steinway
If classical music had a soul, some might argue, then at least part of it would reside in the northern German port of Hamburg. It’s where the renowned instrument manufacturer Steinway & Sons makes its legendary pianos and grand pianos.
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Wiebke Wunstorf knows exactly what she wants to hear. As chief voicer for Steinway & Sons, Wunstorf has the ultimate say over whether the upright and grand pianos made by the company at its factory in the northern German city of Hamburg produce the sound they're so revered for among pianists and concert audiences around the world and are therefore fit to be released for sale. The tonal qualities Wunstorf is after are, among others, brilliance, power and clarity. To achieve them she only has her two ears and three decades of experience to fall back on. Because voicing a piano or grand piano is decidedly different from tuning it: there are no gauges or measuring devices that one could rely on for help. “The Steinway sound is about tonal colour, and that can't be objectively measured,” Wunstorf explains.
Wunstorf followed her father and her brother into the company: she was the first woman to apprentice as a piano builder at Steinway. Before taking over as chief voicer in 2012, she'd worked as a junior voicer under her predecessor for 30 years and during that time, in her own words, she slowly “grew into her job.” One of the three junior voicers she is training has already been unofficially designated her successor and is acting chief voicer when Wunstorf is away.
After a twelve-month construction process whose meticulous accuracy and millimetre precision leaves almost nothing to chance, the job of the voicer seems abstract and even ethereal in comparison. While the exact shape and size of every single component in a Steinway – as well as its position in relation to all other components – is a matter of specific definition and measurement, its characteristic sound is not. Every instrument is a little different, and each one comes with its own distinct character, as Wunstorf puts it. But they also have things in common. “No Steinway should limit its player,” the chief voicer says in a pleasant and reposeful voice. “It mustn't present him with any boundaries. Be it quiet or loud, ugly or beautiful – a Steinway has to be able behave exactly like the person playing it wants it to.”
A Steinway grand piano in high contrast.
More than 95 per cent of performers playing with the world's most prestigious orchestras chose a Steinway in the 2014/2015 concert season.
In her small soundproofed booth on the top floor of the Hamburg factory, Wunstorf carefully puts the finishing touches on each instrument made by the hundreds of craftspeople working below her. By this stage each instrument will already have gone through the hands of Wunstorf's three junior voicers in their adjoining booths. One by one she strikes each of the instrument's 88 keys a number times, listening intently. If a note isn't to her liking she treats the felt of its corresponding hammer with a tool bearing several tiny needles, softening it until she's satisfied with the result.
It's the tiniest nuances that the chief voicer has to pay attention to, ones that an untrained ear will be unable to pinpoint. Yet, it isn't her ears that Wunstorf says she relies on the most. “My most important assets are my strength of nerve and my courage”, she says. “It takes a lot of nerve to make the instruments produce those unpleasant sounds that I don't actually want to hear but that I must eradicate. At the same time I have to be courageous enough to sign off on instruments that I may not personally like the sound of but that still have the desired sound. I am constantly re-evaluating myself and I always have to put my own work into question – that takes a lot of strength.”
The company was founded in 1853 in New York by the German émigré Heinrich E. Steinweg, under the anglicised name Steinway. The piano maker was a highly creative innovator in his field, winning several prestigious prizes in the firm's first few years. The popularity of his instruments quickly spiralled, and in 1880 – nine years after the death of Steinway – the company returned to its founder's homeland with the opening of a factory in Hamburg to serve the European market. The site in Bahrenfeld, a modest industrial borough in the northwest of Germany's second city, was purpose-built in the 1920s, allowing Steinway to increase production and making it one of the first companies to set up in the area. To this day around 300 employees manufacture 7 grand piano models – including the company's flagship D-274 concert grand piano – as well as two upright piano models at the site. A total of around 1,200 instruments leave the factory every year.
The iconic oval-shaped “Steinway & Sons – New York, Hamburg” imprint that's featured on every instrument made by the company has long been considered the mark of excellence in the field of keyboard instruments. According to figures compiled by the company itself, more than 95 per cent of performers playing with the world's most prestigious orchestras chose a Steinway in the 2014/2015 concert season. Ask them why and there's a good chance they'll say it's the warmth of the instruments' sound and the richness of their tone that makes them second to none.
The iconic oval-shaped Steinway & Sons logo.
Each detail of a Steinway is crafted with meticulous attention to detail.
A grand piano consists of around 12,000 individual pieces, 85 per cent of them made from the finest woods including fir, maple, mahogany and whitewood.
The sound of a Steinway is the sum of many parts: a grand piano consists of approximately 12,000 individual pieces, 85 per cent of them made from the finest woods including fir, maple, mahogany and whitewood. It takes around a year until an instrument is finished, not counting the average 24 months of dehumidification that every piece of wood used in a Steinway has to undergo. More than 125 patents that have been registered by the firm over the years are applied throughout the construction process. 80 per cent of the work is done by hand by highly skilled craftspeople with decades of experience. Fluctuation is exceptionally low among the workforce and it's not uncommon for employees to spend their entire working lives at the firm.
Steinway grand pianos are built from the outside to the inside, meaning that the first part that's made for every instrument is the rim. It's what Steinway calls the characteristically contoured outer shell in which the soundboard, the plate, the strings, the hammers and most other parts are housed. In Bahrenfeld the rims are bent into shape in Detlef Reißig's workshop on the ground floor of the factory. A carpenter by trade, the 63-year-old has been with the company for 36 years. Reißig is a hulking man with a buoyant character, a quick wit, a wide smile and a penchant to joke. His work however is anything but a laughing matter to him – talking to him it quickly becomes clear that he takes a lot of pride in what he does. “I work in the nursery for our instruments”, Reißig says with a conspiratorial sparkle in his eye. “This is where each of them gets its shape.”
The rim consists of an inner and an outer section and is composed of up to 20 layers of maple and mahogany. First Reißig selects the individual sheets of wood and stacks them in the desired order. He makes sure that each layer is positioned so that the grain is set horizontally, a feature that measurably improves tonal projection. Next, the wood receives a final planing. The layers are then separated and individually coated with glue. As mundane as that may sound the task requires all of Reißig's experience and professionalism. It's the part of his job where he can least afford to take his eye off the ball. “The composition as well as the temperature of the glue have to be just right”, Reißig says. “The same goes for the application of the glue to the wood – it has to have a certain thickness.”
After the gluing process, the rims of the pianos are dried upright in a conditioning room.
Once the right amount of glue has been applied the layers are once again stacked up. They are then bent into the desired shape as a single continuous piece in a purpose-built rim bending press. The process is unique to the company and, along with the press, was invented in 1878 by C.F. Theodore Steinway, one of the sons of the company founder. It was patented two years later and turned out to be a genuine revolution in the world of piano making – previously, rims had been made of separate pieces held together with joints. The Steinway method has gone unchanged since its conception and is still strictly adhered to today. “When Steinway came up with this design in the late 19th century, it was already near perfect”, says Reißig. “We are proud of our Steinway. Why change a winning formula?”
If Reißig gets it right then the result is set to outlive him by many years, another evident source of pride for the craftsman. “Our instruments are built to last 100 years and even longer so the rim has to be faultless”, says Reißig. “Any problem that isn't detected here will be carried on through the entire rest of the construction.” Thankfully, mistakes hardly ever happen. Reißig credits his fellow craftsmen. “I work in a great team – there are six of us and we understand each other intuitively. We have a lot of experience between us, and ultimately, that is the most important ingredient in what we do.”
When they leave the gluing presses after three hours the rims are stored upright in a conditioning room, where a constant temperature and humidity are maintained. Depending on their size, the rims are left to settle into their new shape here for up to 16 weeks. The bending process may be very complex, but it results in rims that are under considerable tension, which will later help transfer the vibrations of the strings to the entire instrument without distortion – it's an important contribution to building the perfect resonating body. It's also a vital precondition for the finished instrument to be able to maintain an ultra-high overall string tension almost indefinitely.
The rim also serves as a receptacle for what's arguably the most important part of each instrument: The soundboard. Referred to by some as the instrument's soul, the soundboard is made of the extremely resonant wood of the Sitka spruce. It can be compared to a loudspeaker: it amplifies the vibrations of the strings, transferring them to the surrounding air and thereby giving each instrument its voice. The soundboard is glued tightly onto the inner rim, a prime example for Steinway's “wood to wood” construction method, whereby as few metal parts are used as possible. A significant portion of the characteristic Steinway tone stems from the interplay of rim and soundboard as well as from the fact that each soundboard is custom-made to fit its rim perfectly.
A soundboard is crafted in the workshop.
The beauty outside and in... the cast iron plate sits tightly inside the rim of a Steinway piano.
The quality requirements applied to the wood of the soundboard are unforgivingly high with a vetting process so rigorous that only around one in five boards that come out of storage after the two-year drying period actually make it past the critical eye of Claus Samman. The 57-year old has worked at Steinway for 29 years and he is one of the craftsmen responsible for soundboard construction at the Bahrenfeld factory. Samman goes about his task with a diligence that's instantly visible: this isn't so much a job to him as it is a vocation: “I've become acquainted with what I do to such an extent that I feel that it's my responsibility rather than my profession.”
On a table the same size and shape as the board he's working on, Samman carefully lays out the pieces he is taking into consideration. He's a placid man, a quality that's reflected in the serenity with which he goes about his work. With exceeding care and a meticulous gaze Samman observes the wood before him. Knotholes, resin, minuscule tears, discolorations, or an uneven grain – if a plank shows even the tiniest of imperfections, he discards it with a mercilessness that isn't in the slightest betrayed by the calmness of his voice. “I look for straight grain, fineness of wood as well as colour. The annual rings in the wood have to be as even and as closely spaced as possible.”
The straightness and fineness of the grain allow the sound-producing energy to spread out over the soundboard more efficiently. When a key is struck the resulting tone is projected onto the soundboard, where it spreads out in all directions towards the rim. Once it reaches the hard wood of the rim it is reflected back towards the body of the soundboard, where it resonates. An important factor in this dynamic is the soundboard's unique shape, which continuously tapers towards the edges from a thickness of around eight to nine millimetres at the centre. This way the soundboard requires less energy to vibrate as the energy travels outwards.
Weighing the keys ensures they have equal downweight and that each returns at exactly the same speed.
“Feeling, instinct, a sense of touch, and a photographic memory are what you need for this job”
“Doing this job you have to really know about wood”, Samman says. It's a competence he first learned during his training as a carpenter. But there's more. “You also need a certain eye. What we do here may look easy, but I have seen a lot of people fail at this particular task.” Yet another skill required for the job is the ability to keep a secret. The exact method used by Steinway in the construction of its soundboards remains undisclosed to the present day.
Besides being famed for their sound, instruments built by Steinway are also known for possessing a certain touch – their keys are sensitive and highly responsive, effortlessly supporting every mode of playing from soft and sustained to powerful staccato. The secret behind the unmistakable playing feel delivered by a Steinway lies in the perfect synchronisation of the approximately 7,500 individual parts that make up the key action mechanism, the assembly responsible for turning keystrokes into notes by way of felt-covered wooden hammers that hit the strings. Achieving the perfect setup of this mechanism requires several thousand individual operations, which in their sum are called pre-regulation.
“Feeling, instinct, a sense of touch, and a photographic memory are what you need for this job”, says Ulf Wolter, who is one of several craftsmen and –women working in the pre-regulation workshop on the first floor of the Bahrenfeld factory. Music is deeply ingrained in Wolter, who has been playing the piano since he was 11 years old. Even the frame of his eyeglasses is adorned with a succession of notes and clefs.
In order for all 88 keys to depress and return in exactly the same way Wolter painstakingly weighs each one with the help of small weights. The 52-year-old also tests, and, if required, adjusts, the resistance posed to each key by a tiny patch of felt lining the minuscule slit by which it slides over a metal pin to keep it in place horizontally. The keys and the hammers have to be precisely equidistant and the latter have to impact the strings at exactly the same point. The job requires a consistently high level of concentration. At the same time however Wolter has to use his time efficiently in order to be able to manage the thousands of separate work steps necessary for the task.
A stringed grand piano, ready to be played.
Stringing a piano.
“You need a sharp eye and a reliable sense of proportion. This job is all about laying the foundation for the playing feel and if that isn't right, then nothing is,” says Wolter of the tedious process, in which the tiniest details are of the greatest importance. Consequently, pre-regulation is the department in the Steinway factory where the instruments remain the longest. A veteran like Ulf Wolter, who has worked for the company for 26 years, needs approximately 20 hours, or between two and three workdays to completely set up the key action mechanism in one instrument. “The same task takes newcomers to our department between 70 and 100 hours,” he says. “Only after around six months will that time have come down to the roughly 20 hours that me and my colleagues need.”
Any instrument that is released from the meticulous hands of Wolter and his colleagues has not only gained its signature Steinway touch – it has also received the ability to produce sounds: although it hasn't yet been tuned the instrument is technically playable after pre-regulation is complete. At this stage, the only thing that's missing is the instrument's voice – it's where Wiebke Wunstorf and her team of three come into play.
There are three key elements at play in the construction of Steinway’s instruments: the high quality of the raw materials, the long tradition of the company and its construction methods, and the dedication and experience of its craftspeople. It requires the union of all three for the vision once set out by the firm's founder Henry E. Steinway to be fulfilled: “To build the best piano possible.”