Many other examples can be listed of differences in high-end pianos that make them more expensive and more refined as musical instruments: long-term natural seasoning of soundboard wood; hand-planing of soundboard panels according to the stiffness of each piece of wood, instead of simply trimming it to a specification; sorting or hand-trimming the 88 hammer shanks in a set for the best tone; hand-spinning the copper onto bass strings, to give a fuller sound than possible with CNC-controlled tightness. These processes and many others come together to elevate the musical quality, the touch and tone, of a fine piano to a higher level than can be created when piano production is focused on consistency and efficiency first.
All pianos are, to varying degrees, built using both machinery and hand processes. A piano becomes a "handcrafted" instrument when the skill of the craftspeople building the piano contributes more to the musicality of the finished instrument than does the precision of the tools used. While it is true that advanced machinery and processes can be beneficial for making consistently high-quality pianos, the highest level of refinement cannot be achieved without the contribution of skilled artisans. This skilled handwork process will live on in our industry for the benefit of those pianists who wish to make music at the most refined levels.
Don Mannino is Director of Field Services for Kawai and Shigeru Kawai Pianos.
Computerized Manufacturing Inadequate for High-End Pianos
by Udo Steingraeber
Even as one of the few high-end piano makers, we agree with most of our colleague Frank Emerson's arguments and passionate plea for computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). Let's start with praise for their big contribution: Computer numerical control (CNC) manufacturing has brought efficiency and precision to the piano-manufacturing process. At the same time, I am absolutely certain that the very best CNC-manufactured pianos will never be able to crowd out the market for hand-built pianos.
Which hand-built pianos are we referring to? About which musical needs, and from which customers, are we speaking? I would like to talk about the high end only: high-end players, high-end listeners, and high-end instruments. This small piano market ranges from David Rubenstein's (Los Angeles) one-man show, with his astonishing 12' 2" model R-371, to Steinway & Sons (Hamburg), the world's market leader in concert pianos. But in this tiny market, where hand building is still part of the production process, there are more manufacturers today than there were 20 years ago! Obviously, there is a market and a need for high-end pianos for high-end pianists. It's true that this market is only around 1% of total piano sales, but these are the instruments with which 99% of the world's concerts and recordings are produced; only these few pianos can enable artists to create their very best music and high-end interpretation.
It's always worth checking the processes to learn where CAD and CAM are as good as hand-built — and to know where they are not adequate replacements. Here at Steingraeber & Söhne, in Bayreuth, we would be fools if, for example, we built the lyre of our model E-272 concert grand by hand and not with CAD/CAM — but it's equally true that we would be idiots if we used CAD/CAM to prefabricate the ribs of our E-272 soundboard instead of shaping them after we had glued them to the soundboard. In this example, it may seem as if we are working the wrong way 'round, but with our old-fashioned way, which stretches the board and crown, the wood will get additional inner tension. This is only one example of many in the building of high-end pianos where the application of a master's hand creates dynamic ranges, partials, volume — in a word, music, and not just percussion or, even worse, noise.