Conversations in Craftmanship: Steinway & Sons
October 5, 2021|Guest Editorials
his week London Craft Week returns to the capital, showcasing exceptional craftmanship from both emerging and celebrated artisans. To mark this exciting event in the design calendar, we are delighted to speak with Craig Terry, the Managing Director of Steinway & Sons. Established in 1853, Steinway are world-renowned for crafting the very finest pianos. Craig shares with us Steinway’s pioneering handcrafted methods, their latest collaboration with the Royal Albert Hall and why music is more important than ever before.
Are you able to provide a brief history of Steinway & Sons?
Henry Engelhard Steinway fled to New York after the European revolutions of 1848-49. Having once built a piano in his kitchen, he and his sons worked in American piano factories, understanding each part in detail before combining their skills to make pianos of intense technical refinement. On March 5th 1853 having already completed 482 models, Steinway & Sons was founded.
A Hamburg factory was opened in 1880 to cope with the European demand for what become renowned as the best concert piano, without the cost of shipping from New York.
The two factories in Hamburg and New York still duplicate manufacturing processes following what are now 127 patents, positioning Steinway as the piano by which all others are judged.
'It takes around 12 months to make a Steinway grand piano and 80% of the production process is completed by hand.'
How long does a Steinway piano take to make and what is the most challenging aspect of this process?
It takes around 12 months to make a Steinway grand piano and 80% of the production process is completed by hand by meticulously trained, often intergenerational, craftspeople.
We still build every piano from outside to inside. The process starts with a choice of timbers – spruce, maple and mahogany. We dry our wood for a few years to allow them to dehumidify and they are then sent to a drying room to bake at 70C for up to four weeks – this process reduces humidity to 6 per cent.
The stabilised wooden slabs are then cut into thin sheets and glued as veneered plywood. Mahogany is used on the faces and centre with layers of maple set between to a thickness of a few inches.
This ‘sandwich’ of sometimes 15ft long and around 1.5ft in width is bent and clamped in the shape of a Steinway to form the outer rim, which can be up to 274cm depending on the model. Although the rim will dry, the glue reintroduces humidity to the wood and needs clamping and kept in controlled storage for around 100 days.
A spruce frame is then used to brace the base of the rim creating a case. It receives a cast iron frame which has the job of bracing 20 tonnes of tension from all the tightened strings. The strings are hand-made in house – we create over 49 miles of strings each year in Hamburg alone.
Next the keyboard is assembled, a complex mechanism of 88 keys each with a wooden arm to lever up the felt clad hammers that strike the strings with a subtle responsiveness. Each key affects the next – getting the balance right takes three days.
'The piano resonated like no other instrument during lockdown – it has a soul and gives people joy.'
Have you seen an increased demand for Steinway piano’s since/during the pandemic
We had one of our best years in our 150+ year history last year – the piano resonated like no other instrument during lockdown – it has a soul and gives people joy.
Music is very important and a piano has a key place in our homes. Even more so now we have launched the Spirio | r technology to join people together and play and record live music in the comfort of their home.
It has been such a challenging time for the entire music community all over the world. With the concert halls and music venues shut – our homes became the venue.
Can you tell us about the Royal Albert Hall limited edition piano
The Royal Albert Hall Edition is an exclusive limited edition to celebrate and honour one of the greatest concert in halls in the world which turns 150 years this year.
The Royal Albert Hall edition features a hand-engraved outline of the Grade I listed hall – one of the UKs most treasured and distinct buildings. Each instrument incorporates the revolutionary Spirio | r recording and self-playing technology, which enables pianists to record, edit, playback, search and save their performances in Steinway’s proprietary high-resolution format.
Steinway will donate £30,000 from the sale of each piano directly to the Royal Albert Hall, a registered charity that has been plunged into financial crisis by the pandemic.
The eight limited edition grand pianos were launched at The Royal Albert Hall during an intimate concert by Steinway artists Igor Levit and Aisa Ijiri on 23 September and will be part of a new concert series – The Steinway series – dedicated to promote up and coming musicians which kicks off on 19 November.
What is your favourite Steinway piano and why?
A Steinway is very personal. Different pianos suit the style of different players. Each one is special to me and I am very lucky to have such a job. A Steinway is so well made, we know that when a customer has chosen their piano from our Steinway Hall, we’ll never see them again so often I don’t get to know the piano’s too well!
'A Steinway is a very special object both musically and aesthetically. It has always been sought-after and is often handed down through families and generations.'
When we design our luxury homes we are often entrusted with showcasing our client’s most treasured ‘investments of passion’. Are you seeing Steinway viewed as a collectible by customers?
A Steinway is a very special object both musically and aesthetically. It has always been sought-after and is often handed down through families and generations. It looks beautiful and is often the focus of a home – the centrepiece – many clients have homes all over the world – each one with a Steinway at the heart.
How much emphasis is placed on sustainability in the design process? Is the wood responsibly sourced for instance?
Steinway is proudly committed to environmentally sustainable manufacturing and we are investing in and creating new ways of working all the time. We have completed a number of high profile sustainability projects including the world’s largest parabolic solar installation. Our manufacturing takes place in the US (New York) and Europe (Hamburg) and are focused on responsible forestry and always look to improve manufacturing and processes – never at the cost of the piano.
Are Steinway’s heirlooms that are handed down from generation?
We do not build pianos for one concert or even a decade of concerts, but to last 80 years or more. A Steinway is a handcrafted instrument, individually unique, built to be best in class, tested by the centuries and designed to be passed from generation to generation.
Steinway is 167 years old – how do you appeal to a new generation?
Steinway is timeless. The introduction of our Spirio | r technology means we can appeal to those who may not play the piano but want to learn or have access to the world’s greatest artists playing in their living room. We continue to innovate and move forward working with the world’s most talented and creative artists and cutting edge technology. We will never stand still.