By Sally Phillips
In 1984, Steinway & Sons began a project to reduce the many long-standing differences between the models, materials, and manufacturing processes used at its factories in New York and Hamburg, Germany. The goal was to make the instruments produced by the two factories more alike by adopting the best practices from each factory, at the same time making small, incremental changes to improve the quality of all Steinway pianos. This project is now nearing completion — today, the models, scale designs, rims, soundboards, bridges, actions, wood species, and countries of origin of materials are all the same. The only remaining differences are in the manufacture of hammers, how the pianos are voiced, and a few cosmetic features that have yet to be harmonized but will be in the near future.
Steinway grands being prepared in the New York selection room. Note the pianos’ new rounded arm profiles.
The differences that Steinway & Sons sought to reduce through this project have complex geographical, cultural, and historical roots. German immigrant Henry Engelhard Steinway founded Steinway & Sons in 1853, in New York City. In 1880, one of his sons, C.F. Theodor Steinway, returned to Germany to open a branch factory in Hamburg. Today, the Hamburg factory is still wholly owned by the New York–based U.S. firm, and serves the market for Steinway pianos in Europe and Asia. At first, the instruments from the two factories were designed to feel, sound, and look the same. But gradually, over the next century and through two World Wars, the Hamburg pianos acquired a somewhat different tone, touch, and look from their New York cousins, and included a few models that were unique to the Hamburg factory.
The physical distance between the two factories undoubtedly played a part in their divergence. International shipping was inconvenient and costly, so each factory sought out its own local sources of supply. Particular wood species and other natural materials that were abundant on one continent were scarce in the other, necessitating the use of alternative materials and resulting in different effects on touch and tone. Hamburg rims were made of beech, and the soundboards were of Bavarian spruce, both indigenous to Europe, whereas New York used maple for the rims and Alaskan Sitka spruce for the soundboards, both indigenous to North America. For the same reasons, Hamburg used hornbeam for action parts, while New York used maple. Communication was slow in general and virtually nonexistent during the wars. Each factory had an exclusive market area, and as long as each factory was successful in its market, there was little reason to synchronize their offerings.
However, with the increase in international trade, shipping, and travel following World War II — i.e., globalization — the inconvenience and cost of maintaining two product lines built to different specifications became a burden, as developing economies of scale and sharing inventory were impossible. These trends eventually created an incentive for Steinway & Sons to begin merging the offerings of its two factories.
Another early reason for the divergence of the factories was cultural, mostly in the realm of tonal aesthetics. American concert halls tended to be larger than European venues, and sometimes had inferior acoustics. From the early days of New York Steinway, and especially after World War II, the tonal goal was the “big-orchestra piano,” with the focus on Steinway’s famous bell-like tone, and huge projection of sound that could cut through a 100-piece orchestra and fill a large hall. Hamburg Steinways, on the other hand, were still being played mostly in smaller, more intimate halls with better acoustics, for which a tone with pristine clarity and greater tonal variety was more desirable. The Hamburg pianos also more closely conformed to the European ideal of “the piano as orchestral substitute”: a gradual change in tonal color from bass to treble, with a clean, crisp clarity distinctive in timbre several octaves apart. The most striking element of this type of sound is the articulated round-tone voicing in the tenor and mid-treble regions. In contrast, the New York pianos were designed for evenness of timbre from bass through treble. These differences could be heard not only between New York and Hamburg Steinways, but more generally reflected differences between American and European concepts of piano tone maintained by many brands on both continents.
World War II had an enormous disrupting effect on piano-making expertise and sources of supply, particularly for the manufacture of hammers. The postwar search for suppliers for the dense wool felt used in piano hammers was frustrated in part by the sudden reduction in demand for felt — and thus felt suppliers — by auto makers, as wool components such as insulation were replaced by such artificial materials as fiberglass and foam. Piano makers struggled to find the hammer felt that was best for the tone they desired, often having to settle for felt that was less than ideal. Each manufacturer developed voicing techniques to compensate for these challenges and thus satisfy the tonal taste of the market they served. By the 1960s, Europe and America had gone in entirely different tonal directions, and on both continents, it took a generation to recover the high-quality felt supply and manufacturing expertise lost in World War II.
Although the action parts for the two factories have been standardized, the manufacture and voicing of hammers remain slightly different.
Nineteenth- and early 20th-century New York Steinway hammers were generally soft after pressing, as a consistent hardening process had not yet been developed in the factory. After World War II, a general desire for a brighter sound put pressure on manufacturers to harden their hammers during production. In response, New York Steinway increased its use of lacquer as a hardener, and employed a method of repetitive blows of the hammers on the strings to harden the hammers’ surfaces and settle the piano into its ideal tone. In Hamburg in the late 19th century, Steinway hammers were similar in construction to New York hammers, but after World War II, the felt available to European piano makers was more dense than that used in America, and the hammers were voiced with needles to soften them to the desired tone.
 The addition of a chemical hardener such as lacquer is often thought of as a 20th-century American idea. However, in a letter to his family from Germany in 1859, C.F. Theodor Steinway discussed his experiments in chemically treating hammer felt for stability and improved tone with gutta percha, a tough latex plastic made from the sap of Malaysian sapodilla trees: “Such a hammer gives a soft and at the same time a lively tone that does not compare with anything else.”
Recent changes at Steinway have resulted in New York hammers that are a little denser and harder, and thus sound brighter, than before, and so need less hardening with lacquer; and Hamburg hammers that are a little softer and sound more mellow, therefore needing less voicing with needles. Both hammer types are very adjustable in tone, with most of the few remaining tonal differences between pianos made by the two factories being the results of differences in hammer voicing. Hamburg Steinways have a classically clean European sound with a focused tonality, meaning that, when voicing them, there’s a sweet spot where they sound best. New York hammers still produce the great wash of sound that pianists expect from New York Steinways. Both hammers are flexible and resilient, which contributes to the production of a stronger fundamental (the lowest harmonic) from the strings, and creates the bell-like tone for which Steinways are known. To my ears, Steinways have come full circle, back to the clean clarity of a pre–World War II tonal ideal, with the modern addition of increased projection. [See below for a demonstration of the tonal journey that New York and Hamburg Steinways have made from between the World Wars to the present day.]
By the late 1800s, Steinways were being shipped far and wide, their big sound the result of the company’s development of rim presses that could simultaneously press the massive inner and outer rims in a single operation. The importance of this advance cannot be overstated. The ability to both project to the back of a large concert hall the quietest pianissimos, and to be heard above a full symphony orchestra, is directly related to this method of pressing rims that Steinway has used since the 1880s. Today, both factories use this system to make rims of hard rock maple, with a layer of sapele mahogany on the inner rim. New York has always used maple; about 15 years ago, the Hamburg factory switched from beech to maple, giving the German instruments a more powerful sound.
Steinway rim presses bend the inner and outer rims at the same time. Both factories now make their rims of hard-rock maple with an inner layer of sapele.
In addition to changes that have made instruments from the two factories more alike in tone, other changes have made them more alike in looks. Today, 95% of the pianos made at the two factories are finished in high-gloss polyester. This finish has been used for many years in Europe, but only recently has it been extensively used in the U.S., replacing lacquer as the preferred finish. Steinway worked with the supplier of the polyester to develop its highly polished Steinway DiamondGloss™ finish, whose ebony version has a deeper, darker black than other ebony finishes. Pianos from both factories also now have a clearcoat on the underside, for a more finished appearance.
The New York factory has also adopted a number of other appearance features of the Hamburg pianos: Rounded instead of squared-off edges on the piano’s arms, as well as a rounded arm profile, reduce damage to the arms, because the finish better adheres to a rounded surface than to a sharp edge. The music desk folds back, rather than forward, and is more adjustable than the old New York design. On the ebony-finished models, the innermost rim layer of sapele is finished in a natural wood finish instead of being painted black. Both factories also now use the larger brass casters on the concert grand, eliminating the need for a spider dolly (piano truck), whose rubber wheels absorb sound. A few final cosmetic elements, including the lyre design and the shape of the dampers, will be standardized in the near future.
The merging of the two factories’ outputs has been further aided by Steinway’s practice of protecting its supply chain by acquiring critical suppliers as they become available. Keys come from Kluge Klaviaturen, which Steinway bought in 1999. The cast-iron plates used in both factories come from O.S. Kelly, in Springfield, Ohio, which Steinway acquired in 2006. In 2019, Steinway bought the Louis Renner company, near Stuttgart, Germany, which produces action parts for Steinway and many other piano makers. Renner action parts, formerly used only in Hamburg Steinways, are now used in all Steinways, and are made to the same Steinway specifications and touch weight — another step in uniting the two factories. Hammers, however, are still made for each Steinway factory separately, to its own but similar specifications.
Largely handcrafted from natural materials, no two Steinways are exactly alike, even instruments made in the same factory. That said, the tone and touch of New York Steinways have long been distinguishable from the tone and touch of Steinways made in Hamburg. With the harmonization of the two factories’ production methods, materials, and piano designs now nearly completed, these two distinctive sets of recognizable qualities have been merged into a single set. Most of the remaining differences between instruments are the results of the highly malleable hammers, which provide enough latitude in voicing to accommodate any artist, venue, or repertoire — a quality that has always made Steinways so well suited for concert use.
These recordings, all posted on YouTube, demonstrate the tonal journey that New York and Hamburg Steinways have made from between the World Wars to the present day. To hear the subtle differences in tone, you’ll need high-quality speakers or headphones.
These pre–World War II recordings portray a Steinway sound that is sweeter and, while clean in the attack, lacks the power of mid-century and later Steinways. Edwin Fischer plays J.S. Bach’s Concerto in A Major, in 1936:
Edwin Fischer plays Beethoven’s Sonata No.31 in A-flat Major, Op.110, in 1938:
The postwar tonal gulf between European and American Steinways is already audible in a 1949 recording of Vladimir Horowitz playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 on a New York Steinway at the Hollywood Bowl. Horowitz artfully pushes the piano to its tonal and physical limits:
By 1947, New York Steinways were getting bigger in volume, tone, and projection. Here, at Carnegie Hall, Arthur Rubinstein makes short work of Chopin’s Polonaise Op.53 (“Heroic”) and De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance:
Compare that with Rubinstein’s 1966 Warsaw performance on a Hamburg Steinway, in which he’s absorbed in the minutiae of highlighting and contrasting each beautiful voice and line. He uses the articulated warmer tenor area to a great extent in Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat, D.960, and in Schumann’s Carnaval, Op.9:
The differences in these pianists’ approaches notwithstanding, the synergy between pianist and piano maker that has existed since the 18th century, shaping the history of the piano and its tone, continues today. Piano makers try to realize the artistic desires of musicians, who must adapt to and create within the capabilities of the instruments they are given.
The next two recordings of New York Steinways are from the mid-20th century, with the “big-orchestra piano” tone mentioned in the main article. Notes explode off the strings in the big passages, but still have a bell-like tone in softer passages:
Leon Fleisher, in 1958, performs Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op.24: Fugue:
Gary Graffman, in 1964, plays Rachmaninoff’s Preludes in G Minor, Op.23 No.5, and G-sharp Minor, Op.32 No.12:
Two recent recordings show the current similarities in tonal approach between Hamburg and New York Steinways:
Henry Kramer, 2021, Hamburg Steinway: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op.58:
Wei Luo, 2021, New York Steinway: Rachmaninoff, Vocalise, Op.34 No.14: