November 29, 2010

Inside the Belly: Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour

I took a tour of the Steinway & Sons piano factory today, but my camera didn't get much past the welcome doormat.

You see, all of Steinway's competitors would love to get their hands on the cutting-edge patents that keep Steinway ahead of the piano manufacturing curve. Without some access to the inside (worthy of Willy Wonka-level espionage √† la Slugworth's dastardly attempts at securing an Everlasting Gobstopper), all the rest of the world's manufacturers of pianos - or, as Steinway calls them, "piano-shaped objects" - are 40 years behind Steinway, waiting for their old patents to expire. So for the sake of protecting their trade secrets, photography is not allowed inside the factory.

Actually, it's amazing I got in there at all. Although Steinway does conduct open-to-the-public tours weekly, they're fully booked through March already. But thanks to the Greater Astoria Historical Society, I got a special insider's peek into all of the cutting, bending, assembling, varnishing, and tuning that goes into making what is arguably the best piano in the world.

But first I had to put my safety goggles on.

Unlike most of its public tours, which are littered with tourists, opera singers, musicians, and woodworking enthusiasts, this morning's tour was full of Astoria folk, curious people from the neighborhood that wanted to get a closer look at what put our not-so-little enclave on the map.

The Steinway factory manufactures 2000 grand pianos here in Astoria per year (and another 1000 in Hamburg, Germany), but the Steinway family once contributed so much more to the New York City of the late 1800s. Heinrich Steinweg arrived to New York via Ellis Island as part of the huge migration of Germans to the U.S. in the 1850s (which is when I suspect my father's ancestors arrived), and quickly Americanized himself to become Henry Steinway. He made a good go of it in Manhattan on 14th Street, but in the Gangs of New York era, Manhattan proved to be too volatile for Steinway to continue its operations without constantly arming its workers. So a few years later, Henry moved his facility and his workers across the river to Queens (as many of us do) to seek solace, and to create a utopian community away from hothouse Manhattan.

The Steinway family created an empire in the upper left quadrant of Queens, contributing to the construction of the Queensborough Bridge, the #7 train (once known as "the Steinway Tube"), and even North Beach, the amusement park that once stood where LaGuardia Airport is today. But by the time Henry and his brothers all had passed away (none living past the age of 61), the next generation decided to spin off all of these ancillary ventures and focus on the core of their business: making pianos.

As stable as their 19th century factory still is, standing strong upon the marshland of Upper Ditmars, the Steinway family and business have been anything but inflexible on their journey into the 21st century. Constantly reinventing itself over time, Steinway & Sons has expanded and contracted in this continental climate as much as their wood materials have.

 Bubinga veneer

In the spirit of "continuous improvement," Steinway has constantly sought better, faster, and more efficient ways to manufacture their pianos - as long as, they say, it's not to the sacrifice of quality. That means that walking through the factory, you crisscross between the 1869 original factory and a newer addition, passing original 19th century machinery (some of which was steam-powered) that's situated practically next to newfangled technology that minimizes or eliminates the need for manpower and handiwork for certain tasks to create and piece together the 12,000 components of a single piano.

Saw blades and and sanding belts screech. Steam whistles through pipes. Pins are hammered in with a thud thud thud. The smell of warm, freshly-cut wood mixes with wafts of varnish and drying glue - sweet, toasty, acrid, and burning all at once. The workers, artisans that they are, do not speak to us, nor to each other.

Heavy harps dangle over pianos' empty bellies while their sound boards are fitted in. Elsewhere, empty bodies wait patiently on the sidelines - not yet pianos, only the furniture to encase the keys, strings, and hammers that will eventually make the music.

 bass hammer

 inside the belly

Your head hurts from the deafening sounds and the brain-searing smells that permeate the floors, the hallways, the stairwells and the offices. As you move from the finishing floor, where assembled pianos' keys are pounded upon by a machine to loosen them up, to the tuning floor, the cacophony fades into the tinkling of just a few keys, until finally you hear just one note, repeated softly, imperceptibly fine-tuned with each stroke of its key. This is the last stop for a piano that's been birthed upstairs: a final tuning by Wally Boots.

(The pianos then move to a selection showroom where they are occasionally retuned while players shop for them...)
 Selection Room

I wanted to go this morning to seek some inspiration, and to learn more about my surroundings, but what I got was a closer connection to my neighborhood, which is feeling more and more like home in the months since I moved here. I'm no concert pianist, and Steinway's baby grand and grand pianos (especially the D class, D for "damn big") are a far cry from my grandmother's upright that I learned to play on. But as hard of a time as I had touring the facility without taking loads of photographs, I had an even harder time not touching the pianos, not seating myself in front of them and recalling the basic lessons of my youth, improvising melodies that always evoke the question "What's that song?" whenever I play. It's irresistible, an instrument that is as much a living, breathing being as its player, that can be played both soft (piano) and loud (forté).

It's become a cliche in my life that there's nothing I want to do more than what I'm told I can't, and nowhere I'd like to go more than where it's forbidden. But if I keep meeting the right people, and being in the right place at the right time, maybe there's a way to continue gaining access to the undiscovered, the hidden, and the restricted without climbing fences and risking arrest. After all, it's not danger that attracts me. It's just that I have so much more to see...

[Ed: As of January 2013, Steinway conducts one tour per week on Tuesdays 9:30a-12p from September to June. Each tour is limited to a small group of 15 people, age 16+ only and no walkers, wheelchairs, canes, or pacemakers allowed. And any photography of any sort is still verboten. You can email to make an advance reservation, which is necessary because of the popularity of the tours.]

Related post: 
Photo Essay: Steinway Industrial Business Zone

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