Fit and Finish Improvements at Steinway & Sons

“Fit and Finish” Improvements at Steinway & Sons: A Photo Essay

by LARRY FINE

DUE TO ITS POSITION for more than a century and a half as maker of America's preeminent concert piano, Steinway & Sons has often been a lightning rod for controversy and criticism. Some of these controversies, such as the Teflon-bushing debacle of the 1960s and '70s and the allegations of cracked soundboards in the 1990s, were played out in an unusually public way — unusual because of the highly arcane technical nature of the issues involved, and because of the relatively small size of the piano industry in modern times.

Overshadowed by these sexier controversies, however, two other problematic characteristics of American-made Steinways were more quietly present behind the scenes. One was that Steinway pianos usually arrived at the dealer needing an excessive amount of preparation before being ready for sale. Although most of the work was of a routine nature — tuning, voicing, action regulating, cabinet touchup — there was always the concern that the dealer might not make good on its obligation to prepare the piano, and the customer might receive an instrument unworthy of the Steinway name. The second problem was that, as musically first-rate as the pianos were, in many small ways Steinway pianos left something to be desired in cosmetics. Among other problems, the sharp corners and edges of the satin ebony models were subject to premature wearing away, dings in the plate and case made when the piano was being strung were sometimes imperfectly repaired, and rough woodworking on the bottom of the piano was concealed with black paint. While not affecting performance, these cosmetic issues did not live up to Steinway's reputation for overall excellence. All of these things are catalogued by the industry as "fit and finish," and for decades it was well known in the business that Steinway had a fit and finish problem.

How did the company get away with this? For one thing, the basic designs of Steinway pianos, and the construction processes the company uses, are so good as to cover up a multitude of more minor sins. When the dealer put in the time to properly prepare the pianos, they could — and usually did — play superbly. For another, many of the items that lacked cosmetic appeal were in places the end user did not normally look (such as the bottom or interior of the piano), or would not likely be noticed for a long time (such as finish wear on sharp edges and corners), and so did not normally affect sales. Last, for most of the past century, Steinway simply had no real competition in the U.S. When one wanted a piano of the highest quality, it was assumed one would buy a Steinway. There being nothing better with which to compare a Steinway, there were few grounds for complaint.

It was against this backdrop that, in response to an invitation by Steinway officials to tour the factory, I stopped in briefly at the company's headquarters in Queens, New York, last summer to see some of its recent manufacturing changes. The tour was conducted by the director of Steinway's manufacturing assembly operations, Michael Mohr. I had known Mohr for many years; the son of the legendary Franz Mohr, Steinway's former chief concert technician, Michael Mohr literally grew up in the business. We were later joined by the company's vice president of manufacturing, Andy Horbachevsky. In the interest of saving time, Mohr decided to concentrate on showing me just the most recent changes, some of which dated back a couple of years, others instituted within the previous few months.

Although I knew that Steinway had made some improvements, too many years of seeing too little change had dulled my expectations. It wasn't long, however, before I realized that what I was seeing was anything but business as usual, and I became energized. There were no new patents with clever marketing slogans, no vague statements about trying harder — but there were dozens of small, practical changes to manufacturing processes, materials, and infrastructure, each specifically designed to solve a well-known, persistent problem regarding the piano's fit and finish or, occasionally, its performance. Whereas some involved proprietary new machinery that replaced inconsistent handwork, others actually increased the amount of handwork. Some, such as covering the strung piano with plastic sheeting to keep out dirt during production, were laughably simple and should have been instituted years ago. Others, such as climate-controlling the action department so that action specifications would not be affected by daily and seasonal swings in humidity, obviously required considerable expenditures for infrastructure. It was as if someone had made up a long list of problems that needed to be systematically tackled; with each manufacturing change I was shown, I could see another item crossed off that list.