The image of a tuxedoed concert pianist tickling the ivories of a shiny Steinway grand piano could not be any more disparate from the scene at the Steinway factory, located in the Long Island City section of Queens, N.Y. Here, the floors are coated with wood shavings and the air—humid to keep the wood from cracking—reeks of fresh ebony lacquer. From 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., tattooed men in tank tops wrestle wood rims into shape, and rows of women in colorful smocks assemble intricate felt hammers.
Never mind their informal appearance—these are expert artisans, some of whom have seen the trade of piano-making handed down through their families from generation to generation. Henry Z. Steinway, the 91-year-old great-grandson of Steinway & Sons' founder Henry E. Steinway, has been known to attribute his family's success to the many talented craftspeople who come from all over the world to work at the New York City factory.
"America provided the opportunity to attract the best and the brightest," says Bob Singleton, president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society and Steinway factory tour guide. "The artisans and the artists inspire one another. That's the magic of the Steinway."
Old World Skill
If the Steinway family had stayed in Germany, Steinway pianos—played today by more than 90% of concert pianists—may have become just another high-end instrument brand. Heinrich Engelhardt Steinweg (Henry Engelhard Steinway) was an illiterate cabinet maker when he left Seesen, Germany, in 1853 for a loft on Varick Street in Manhattan. It was here that Steinway & Sons began manufacturing pianos using cutting-edge scientific research and Henry's master woodworking skills.
In 1866, Steinway & Sons opened Steinway Hall, a 2,000-seat auditorium on 14th Street that housed the New York Philharmonic until Carnegie Hall opened in 1891. By this time, the Steinway factory had been established in the Astoria section of Queens. An entire community called "Steinway Village" subsisted on the availability of factory work.
When Henry died in 1871, sons C.F. Theodore and William took over. C.F. Theodore, an accomplished pianist, earned the company 41 patents, including one in 1875 for the modern concert grand piano. William established a showroom in London and opened another factory in Hamburg. Both the London showroom and the Hamburg factory are still operational today.
"Steinway was ahead of its time as a multinational company," says Singleton. By 1880, the company was taking wood from the U.S., shipping it to Germany to be assembled, and then sending the finished products to London to be sold.
New World Business
Today, Steinway & Sons is a unit of Steinway Musical Instruments (LVB), a publicly traded company with annual revenues of about $375 million. The parent company, which also owns orchestral and band instrument manufacturer Conn-Selmer, is constantly looking for ways to improve its instrument-making, whether it's investing a few million in a new machine, or offering extra training to its workers.
Some things, however, haven't changed in a century. One hundred years ago, Steinway manufactured about 2,500 pianos a year at its New York factory; today, the factory produces about 2,200. Worldwide, the company crafts approximately 4,000 pianos a year from 12,000 components. All told, it takes about a year to handcraft and assemble these components into a piano.
The finished pianos are sold by a select number of exclusive authorized dealers. Most fall in the $40,000 to $100,000 price range. The Alma-Tadema Steinway, a re-creation of the original piano by that name created more than a century earlier, retails for $675,000. At auction, pianos fetch even more outrageous sums: The most expensive piano ever sold at a public auction was an upright "Model Z" Steinway that once belonged to John Lennon. The former Beatle is said to have composed the song Imagine on the piano, which was purchased by pop star George Michael for about $2.08 million.
Quite an Appreciation
Of course, Steinway insists its pianos are wholly worth the steep cost. The meticulous manufacturing process creates both impossibly perfect instruments and a scarcity (4,000 made per year) that drive up prices. So if you pass on a Steinway for its sound quality and aesthetic beauty, you may want to consider one for its investment value.
If you bought a 9-foot concert grand Steinway in 1975 for $25,000, for instance, it would sell for more than $100,000 today, says Leo Spellman, senior director of communications at Steinway & Sons. The very oldest Steinways command as much as 13 times their original price, and many are still in good condition—the durability of the instruments makes them very hard to damage.
"We have pictures of Steinway pianos having survived earthquakes," Spellman says. "It's a tremendous investment. And it's not like you won't get some use out of it in the meantime."
Click here to see a slide show of the making of a Steinway grand piano.