One by One: Boutique Piano Builders in the 21st Century
Steve Brady, RPT
THE FIRST PIANOS WERE MADE in workshops, one instrument at a time, by small teams of craftsmen. In the early days, a piano's case and frame were assembled using traditional cabinetmaking techniques, and the action mechanisms were relatively simple. With the instrument's increasing popularity in the 19th century, however, and the advent of continuous-bent-rim case construction, the one-piece cast-iron frame, and the relatively complex double-escapement action, the piano entered the realm of industrial-age mass production.
These innovations, which collectively define the modern grand piano, also made it difficult for small piano workshops to flourish — they couldn't afford the cost of tooling up for iron-plate casting, for instance, or manufacturing the many small parts that make up a modern piano action. By the beginning of the 20th century, workshop-based piano builders had virtually disappeared.
For several decades in the 20th century, most of the larger piano makers cast their own plates, bent their own rims, glued up their own soundboards and pinblocks, and manufactured their own action parts. Some makers took such vertical integration to the point of owning their own forests and sawmills. Now, however, in the 21st century, specialization has once again become commonplace. Although a few of the largest piano manufacturers still produce virtually all parts for their pianos, most purchase action parts and hammers from companies that specialize in such components, soundboards and pinblocks from a wood-products firm, plates from a foundry, and so on. Along with this specialization, a remarkable breed of craftsperson has begun to build high-quality grand pianos in a workshop setting, defying the conventional wisdom that pianos must be made in large quantities by large corporations.
One of the earliest of these maverick piano makers was Mark Allen, who, starting about 1970 in Philadelphia and then Portland, Oregon, built three concert grands. What drives a person to venture into a world as risky and difficult as piano building? “I came to build a concert grand,” Allen said in a 1982 Connoisseur magazine interview by Gary Graffman, “because I spent all my adult life working with pianists. In my own way I became a connoisseur of this thing, the piano. And I decided what the ultimate instrument was. It was an even, balanced scale. It must be unobtrusive and subtle when you want it so, and powerful and brawny when you want that. It would have the singing quality of the human voice.” Although he enjoyed a small measure of success after being featured in a few magazine articles and when noted pianist Cyprien Katsaris bought one of his instruments, Allen ultimately left piano making, and today runs a piano-restoration business in North Carolina.