Buying a Used Steinway

Excerpted from The Piano Book, Fourth Edition, by Larry Fine


List of Steinway Models

As an aid to those buying a used Steinway, I have listed below all models of Steinway pianos made in New York City since the firm’s inception in 1853.* Since this list has never before been published, I have, for the record, given a much more complete list than most piano buyers will ever need. Hopefully, piano technicians and historians will also find the list useful. (Square pianos and other pianos made before about 1880 are listed for academic purposes only; see pages 173–174 for information on buying square and antique pianos.)

Note that entries in the list refer to models in regular stock manufacture only, as they appeared in catalogs and price lists. There are no listings here of the different furniture styles available in each model, or of custom cases or experimental variations that were made from time to time. During the formative years of Steinway & Sons, an immense amount of experimentation and development was in progress. Hence, some details are elusive, especially concerning pianos built during the first twenty-five years of manufacture. This list is based on the best available information to date, but should not be considered infallible.

The keyboard compass (range) began at seven octaves (eighty-five notes, AAA to a””, unless otherwise indicated) and was gradually expanded to seven and a quarter octaves (eighty-eight notes, AAA to c””‘). Because most of the dates listed here are from catalogs, whereas the serial numbers are from production records, dates and serial numbers may not match each other exactly, and dates may differ by a year or more from other versions of this list in circulation. Also, a given model may have been manufactured or sold in limited quantities after the time it was officially discontinued.

Steinway & Sons piano manufacture officially began on March 5, 1853, but the first illustrated catalog did not appear until 1865. Until 1859 piano styles were identified by name (plain, fancy, double round, middle round, prime, and so on). In that year Steinway began to assign style numbers to some of their pianos and by 1866 each piano was designated in this way. These early style numbers, however, referred to both differences in scale design and differences in furniture styling. Furthermore, the style to which each number referred changed from year to year, and so the numbers cannot be relied upon for identification. An 1878 catalog lists pianos by style letter as well as style number for the first time, and letters and numbers appeared together in the catalogs through 1896, after which letters were used exclusively. During the nineteenth century some letters, like the numbers, were used to designate more than one scale design or style, but in the twentieth century a given letter has been applied to only one scale design regardless of the case styling. In 1932 the term style was replaced by model in price lists and catalogs. In the list below, to avoid confusion, only the word model is used and, as I said, furniture style variations are omitted.

*I gratefully acknowledge Mr. Roy Kehl, piano technician, of Evanston, Illinois for generously sharing with me the results of his research into the history of Steinway scale designs, from which this list was largely developed.


Steinway (New York) Models — 1853 to Present






Teflon Bushings and Verdigris

Two issues that frequently arise with respect to used and rebuilt Steinways are Teflon bushings and verdigris.


Teflon Bushings

All moving action parts pivot on small metal pins, called center pins, that rotate in tiny holes in the wooden parts. Traditionally, these holes have always been lined, or bushed, with wool cloth. These cloth flange bushings (flanges are the hinges to which action parts are attached) are amazingly durable and resilient, and it is not unusual for a hundred-year-old piano to have flange bushings that are almost as good as new. The only problem with them is that, like the wood around them, they respond to humidity changes, swelling up in damp weather and shrinking in dry weather, causing the attached moving parts to become alternately sluggish or loose.


To minimize the servicing that its pianos needed from one season or climate to another, Steinway in 1962 introduced its “Permafree” action, in which all the cloth bushings were replaced with Teflon bushings. Teflon, created by DuPont, is a very slippery inert plastic, immune to temperature and humidity changes. The bushings were tiny, hollow cylinders of Teflon; the center pins would rotate in these instead of in cloth (see illustration). Switching to Teflon bushings involved changing more than just the bushings themselves, though. To accommodate the new bushings required manufacturing the wooden parts differently, making a new kind of center pin, supplying new tools and supplies, and teaching new techniques to technicians who had to service these actions.


Several unforeseen problems with these bushings eventually caused their downfall. First, although they themselves did not respond to humidity changes, the wood around them continued to expand and contract with the seasons. This had the unexpected effect of causing some of the bushings to become loose in their wooden parts during the humid season (the opposite of what one might guess), resulting in a clicking sound whenever those particular notes were played. The remedy was to replace the offending bushings — not particularly difficult, but with approximately a thousand bushings in a piano action, there were plenty of potential trouble spots. The wood could also squeeze the bushings in the dry season, causing the action parts to become sluggish, which completely defeated the purpose of the Teflon bushing.


A second problem — annoying but not as serious — was that Teflon, unlike cloth, was an “unforgiving” material: when dented it did not bounce back, but remain dented. This meant that the slightest mishandling of an action part might cause the center pin to dent and ruin a bushing. The technical problems of Teflon bushings were magnified by bad press and the conservatism of piano technicians, and Steinway finally gave up and began a return to cloth bushings in 1981.


If you are buying a used Steinway made between 1962 and 1981, you may not need to be as concerned with the presence of Teflon bushings as the previous discussion might suggest, especially if your piano will be receiving only average use in the home. According to technicians with extensive experience servicing these pianos, there are usually few problems with these bushings after those that give trouble during the first few seasons are replaced. But the bushings (or, rather, the wooden action parts into which the bushings are inserted) are very sensitive to humidity changes, and the technician, when servicing these bushings, must be very careful to take into account the humidity conditions at the time of servicing. Because of the bushings’ sensitivity, and the fussy service they require, pianos under heavy use or in adverse conditions, such as in some schools and concert halls, will probably benefit by changing to cloth-bushed action parts. Also, if a piano with Teflon bushings is in the shop for rebuilding, it would make sense to rebuild the action with cloth-bushed parts. Note that it is not possible to replace the Teflon bushings with cloth bushings without replacing all the action parts as well.


Verdigris

Verdigris (pronounced VER-di-gree) is a green-colored substance produced by a chemical reaction between the metal center pins and chemicals in the bushing cloth or in lubricants applied to the cloth. The effect of this green “gunk” is to make the action parts move sluggishly or, in the worst cases, to prevent their movement altogether. Although certainly not unique to Steinways, the verdigris problem is frequently found in Steinways from the 1920s and to a lesser extent in pianos made during the several decades before and after that period. If you encounter an older Steinway with an extremely heavy touch or one in which the keys and hammers appear not to return to their rest position quickly, there is a good chance the piano has a verdigris problem.


Technicians have attempted many solutions to this problem, using chemical, mechanical, heat, and electrical methods, and some of these methods appear to provide at least temporary relief when the problem is not severe. But because verdigris may penetrate the wood as well as the cloth, the only really permanent solution, especially in severe cases, seems to be replacement of all the action parts affected. This makes verdigris an expensive problem to correct, so be aware of it when inspecting a used Steinway prior to purchase. (Note: A chemical treatment called Protek appears to be effective in solving the verdigris problem in many, though not all, cases.)


Ages of Steinway Pianos

Researchers studying the historical Steinway serial number books have found them to be a nest of inconsistencies. First, with the exception of the years 1898–1903 and 1916–1931, pianos were not always shipped in the order in which they were manufactured. Second, the point in the manufacturing process at which the serial numbers are assigned has changed over the years. Research suggests that, at times, serial numbers may even have been assigned at the time of shipping, rather than at the time of manufacture. For these reasons, pianos with consecutive serial numbers may differ by as much as two years in the time they were made. When combined with the fact that it takes months to build a Steinway, it becomes almost impossible to say precisely when any particular Steinway was “manufactured.”


Note: Serial numbers represent rounded-off count at year-end. A few of the early years are spanned.