Why is this happening now? I can speculate several reasons: First, Steinway now has serious competition. The past couple of decades have seen increasing penetration of the U.S. market by high-end pianos from Europe and Asia. While the performance of the Steinway compares favorably to them, its fit and finish has lagged behind. Second, during this same period, Steinway's New York factory has forged a closer relationship with its branch factory in Hamburg, Germany, which formerly was semi-autonomous; the two plants now share a great deal of technical knowledge. The German instruments are paragons of perfection in fit and finish, and some of this is obviously rubbing off on their American cousins. Also signaling a shift in attitude toward quality issues is a change in Steinway management a few years ago that, for the first time, placed officials from its European operations in charge of the New York factory. Last, the sharply reduced production levels of the current recession have given Steinway some breathing room in terms of time and personnel, allowing workers to spend more time on each instrument, while also instituting manufacturing improvements.
Have these recent manufacturing changes brought Steinway's fit and finish up to that of the European pianos? Probably not yet, but the gap has certainly narrowed considerably, and dealers, technicians, and consumers are taking notice. Mohr and Horbachevsky promise that further improvements are on the way.
Just as Steinway is a lightning rod for criticism, it seems only right that its improvements should also be given prompt coverage. In that spirit, the following photo essay, with photos supplied by Steinway & Sons, describe some of the recent changes and improvements I saw at the Steinway factory.
The first group of improvements concern measures that affect performance, or reduce the amount of musical preparation the pianos need after production — in the factory, by the dealer, or in the field:
Double-"pounding" to develop hammer tone without lacquer
Problem: New hammers are relatively soft and required saturating with lacquer to harden them before they could be voiced. The use of lacquer in large quantity makes voicing more difficult and the results less predictable.
Solution: Although actions always went through a "pounding" by machine to settle cloth and felt parts, they now go through a second, more forceful pounding to naturally harden the hammer felt before voicing so that little hardening with lacquer is needed. The pianos come out of the factory closer to their final voice, and need less voicing by the technician in the field; and, for the end user, the voicing is more stable over time.
Online Readers: Click here for video of "pounding" machine in action.