“Fit and Finish” Improvements at Steinway & Sons
A Photo Essay
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.
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.
Individual hammer gluing
Problem: Using a special fixture, hammers were glued to the shanks in groups. This was fast and efficient in the short term, but because hammers slightly shift position as the glue dries, they required a lot of adjusting later on. The twisting and bending of the shanks during this adjustment put potentially damaging pressure on the action parts.
Solution: Hammers are installed individually, just as they would be in a rebuilding shop. This is much more labor-intensive in the short term, but is more accurate and eliminates most of the need for later adjusting.
Institute measures to reduce incidence of sticking dampers
Problem: Stainless-steel damper wires sometimes wouldn’t slide freely in the damper guide-rail bushings; dampers would stick in the up position, causing notes to sustain.
Solution: Damper wires are now made of nickel silver, which takes a higher polish than stainless steel, and is more malleable for easier adjustment. They are polished in an ultrasonic cleaner (shown), and the damper guide-rail bushings are impregnated with Teflon powder, which reduces friction to near zero.
Scale-indexed action-part mounting system
Problem: Action parts were screwed to the action frame by hand, resulting in slight variations in the positions of parts on the frame from instrument to instrument. These variations then had to be eliminated by careful adjustment in the factory or the field.
Solution: Action parts and screws are inserted by a machine indexed to the scale of the piano. Installation is uniform and exact, so there is little or no need for adjustment later.
Improved hammer skiving
Problem: Strips of felt that are to become hammers must first be “skived,” or trimmed, into a pre-hammer shape so that when the strips are bent in the hammer-making molds, the resulting hammers will be of the correct size and shape. This used to be done using unstable wooden fixtures, and resulted in hammer sizes and shapes that varied from instrument to instrument, which required that more hammer filing be done before voicing in the factory or in the field.
Solution: A proprietary skiving machine (not shown) uses CNC technology to shape the felt strips to the exact specifications originally developed for each piano model so that the hammers turn out the same every time. Very little hammer filing is then needed prior to voicing.
Thin high-treble hammershanks
Problem: Steinway wanted to enhance the tonal sustain in the high treble.
Solution: Thinning the hammershanks of the highest 20 notes to reduce their mass and increase their flexibility allows those hammers to rebound from the strings faster, which increases the volume level of their tonal sustain.
Climate-control action department
Problem: Action specifications such as the tightness of action centers and the dimensions of action parts vary slightly with changes in humidity. This contributed to a lack of uniformity among instruments, as well as the need for greater adjustment in the field.
Solution: Humidity control was integrated into the action department’s closed-loop dust-collecting system.
Replace buckskin with Ecsaine
Problem: Buckskin, a natural suede-finished leather made from the hides of deer or sheep, was used in several places in the action where a tough, smooth material is needed, but it varied in thickness and quality from skin to skin. These variations affected critical action dimensions and made a consistent action regulation more difficult.
Solution: Buckskin has been replaced by Ecsaine, a synthetic material with the same tough, suede-like, low-friction properties as buckskin, but which is uniform from batch to batch. Shown here, covered in Ecsaine, are the hammershank knuckles. A side benefit of the change has been reduced action noise.
Problem: Although it appears flat to the naked eye, the keybed is actually very slightly curved to optimally fit the key frame, on which the keys move. Planing and sanding the keybed to produce this curvature was done by eye, with much variation from piano to piano. This resulted in additional adjustments in the factory and in the field to properly “bed,” or fit, the key frame to the keybed, and to adjust the key height.
Solution: The keybed is now machined with CNC equipment to ensure greater uniformity from one instrument to the next. Less work is required to bed the key frame, and key height is more uniform.
Adjustable music rack
Problem: The angle of the music rack was fixed and did not suit all players.
Solution: The angle of the music rack can now be adjusted to the player’s preference.
The next group of improvements concern the piano’s appearance:
Rounding of case edges and corners on satin ebony models
Problem: The sharp edges and corners of the case on satin ebony models didn’t hold the finishing material well, leading, with handling, to premature wearing away of the finish in these areas.
Solution: The corners and edges are now slightly rounded, which better holds the finish and resists wear longer.
Clearcoat case bottoms
Problem: Unfinished case woodworking on the bottom of the piano was hidden by black paint.
Solution: The woodworking on the bottom is nicely finished, and shown off under a clear coat of lacquer.
Improve appearance of trapwork blocks
Problem: Trapwork on the underside of the piano looked rough, and was painted black by brush, which did not create a neat appearance.
Solution: Trapwork blocks are now sanded, given rounded corners, and spray-painted satin black before mounting on the piano.
Satin lustre (semigloss) soundboard finish
Problem: The high-gloss soundboard varnish showed finish imperfections too easily, and took too much time to cure.
Solution: A satin lustre (semigloss) varnish shows finish imperfections less, looks better, and takes less time to cure, allowing fewer foreign particles to settle in the drying varnish.
High-gloss lacquer finish on fallboard, all models
Problem: Over time, the fallboard naturally develops scratches from players’ fingernails. Due to the “grain” of a satin finish, scratches showed up prominently on satin-finished fallboards and were difficult to buff out.
Solution: The fallboard on all models is now finished in high-gloss lacquer. Such a finish has no grain; while it still scratches, the scratches don’t show as much and can be buffed out more easily.
The last group of improvements concern measures taken to reduce the amount of touchup and repair needed after production:
Protective shields during installation of plate screws and bolts
Problem: Plates can get scratched during screw and bolt installation. Plates are difficult to touch up well.
Solution: Protective plate shields made of polystyrene were developed to fit each model. No touchup is required afterward.
Protective “armor” for cases during production
Problem: During stringing and other production work, the case arms, stretcher, and keybed would get scratched and dented, and would have to be touched up at the end of production. Often, the touchup was noticeable as such.
Solution: Plastic “armor,” developed to fit the front end of each instrument, is kept in place during the manufacturing process to minimize scratches and dents. The result is that little or no touchup is required.
Plate protection around tuning pins during stringing
Problem: The area around the tuning pins can get scratched easily during stringing, and is difficult or impossible to touch up.
Solution: Protective plate shields made of thin sheets of rubber were developed to fit each model. No touchup is required afterward.
Plastic covers to keep strings clean during production
Problem: Dirt and dust would get into the bass-string windings during production, sometimes resulting in discoloration and tonal impairment.
Solution: To keep dirt and dust out, the pianos are covered with plastic sheeting when not being worked on.
Positive-pressure clean room for soundboard finishing
Problem: Despite best efforts to keep out dust, invariably it would get into the soundboard varnish as it dried, making for a less-than-perfect finish.
Solution: Create a positive-pressure clean room in which to spray and cure the soundboard varnish, resulting in a near-perfect finish.