Or, why a Steinway costs such an awful amount of money.
The following information reflects what I have seen and learned when I got a tour through the Steinway factory in Hamburg, and what I've read in the brochures I received. Therefore, this is specifically how grand pianos are built at Steinway. It was suggested that other companies do it differently.
The building of any instrument starts with the building material. In all instruments, but especially in a piano, the whole of the instrument vibrates and has influence on the sound. The better the materials used, the better the sound will be. Steinway & Sons use solid wood. All wood is left to air-dry for at least half a year, up to a year, and then dried further at 70 degrees C. You get a first idea of why a grand piano is so expensive when you consider the wood that is used for the soundboard (more on this part later). The spruce used for the soundboard costs DM 10,000 (something like 5000 EUR) per m3. Of this wood, finally only a fourth part is used, thus multiplying the price of the wood used by four. All of the parts of the piano, including the legs and such 'inferior' components, are made of the best wood, out of parts that are chosen for their matching grain and good colouring. Also, all different components are joined by means of wooden dowels, so that the wooden structure is not interrupted by metal parts that could negatively influence the sound.
The first part of the grand piano that is made is the case. The inner and outer case consist of up to 19 layers of solid, hard-textured, horizontally grained timber, that are glued together with a formaldehyde-based glue and pressed and bent into shape in one operation, without the use of heat or humidity. The case is one of the major components of the entire resonant body and the bending process guarantees lasting stability. After bending, the case is left to condition for six months.
The bridge, which is the component that transmits the vibrations of the strings to the soundboard, is made in much the same way as the case; it consists of vertically glued laminations and is bent into shape.
The most important part of the grand piano, soundwise, is the soundboard. This component is made out of separate pieces that are carefully selected. Only timber with annual rings along the length is used, and the timber is chosen so that the grains match all over the soundboard, as well as the colour (you're starting to understand why only a quarter of all the available wood is used…). The timber is glued together and the soundboard is stabilized with supporting slats that get thinner toward their outer ends. The final soundboard is in fact a wooden membrane, thick and stiff in the middle and tapering toward the edges, the whole curved, so that the edges are free to vibrate.
Each soundboard has its own individual dimensions. Although the variation in dimensions isn't large, still every soundboard is measured individually and a case is adapted to those measurements. Thus, each soundboard only fits into one case. The cases are made to fit with a CNC milling machine that is programmed by the automation department. There is room for two cases in the milling unit, so that while one case is being shaped, another can be secured into place. The milling unit shapes the case, cutting the ends into the final shape that incorporates the keyboard, and cutting a ledge for the soundboard to lay on, all in one go. The system takes one and a half hours for an amount of work that, done by hand, used to take 14 hours. Although this automated system does not seem much, compared to the ones found in automotive factories, for example, I found it rather impressive. As each case and each soundboard is different, the installing of a system that manages to measure them and treat them so that at the end each fits perfectly into the other. With the somewhat unpredictable properties of wood (as opposed to steel or plastic) that is no mean feat.
Wooden dowels are inserted into the soundboard, so that they stick out on the upper side. On these dowels a cast-iron plate is placed, so that it does not actually touch the soundboard. This plate provides much of the strength of the piano; it is needed to counteract the huge pull (20 t tension) of the strings. Apart from that, the lightly curved plate forms a hollow between itself and the soundboard and in these way acts as reinforcement of the existing resonant properties. The cast-iron plate is cast in a separate factory. Even though cast-iron is not as difficult to handle and not as prone to changes in properties as wood, still the manufacture of the plate is a delicate operation. The plate, that is almost as large as the grand piano itself, has a tolerance of 2 to 3 millimeters and care must be taken for it not to warp during cooling.
After casting but before insertion into the piano, the cast-iron plate is sanded very carefully and varnished a nice golden colour, in several layers of varnish. The Steinway logo that is cast into the plate is painted black by hand, by a man with a small brush and a very steady hand…
This way of manufacturing, where the case of the piano is made first and all the other components are built into it, appears to be special and typical for Steinway (correct me if I'm wrong). The cheaper brands tend to build the insides first and then put a case around them. The Steinway method ensures that the case stays under tension, which improves the sound properties.
Somewhere along the line the assembly of case, soundboard and cast-iron plate has also acquired legs, and the strings are put in. Steinway only manufactures the bass strings by itself, the others come from elsewhere. The piano is now almost complete, but still has the natural colour of wood. All parts that should not be varnished are covered with paper and the piano is covered with three layers of polyester varnish, which amounts to a 1 mm coat of varnish. The varnish takes ten days to harden, and after that one man takes a week to remove 0,6 mm of the coat in sanding and polishing, so that finally the piano has that typical gleaming black Steinway look. The golden logo is incorporated in the varnish.
The keyboard mechanism is manufactured elsewhere, but the hammers are attached at the Steinway factory and the careful adjusting of the whole also happens there. When the mechanism and the keyboard are incorporated into the piano, the grand piano is almost finished, except for the last step: the tuning 'voicing'. Four people are responsible for the final tone of the piano. The voicer uses a special fork-like tool to form the felt that covers the hammers. In this way each note can be separately influenced and the tonal individuality of each piano is discovered and revealed. When the voicers are finished, another unique grand piano is ready to be sold…
So why is a Steinway that expensive? Mainly because of two things: the cost of the materials that are used, and the huge amount of time and handwork that is involved in making one. The factory in Hamburg employs 400 craftsmen, cabinetmakers and piano builders, who produce six pianos a day at the most. Each piano takes one and a half years to finish. All components are made with the best materials and the greatest skill and care, most of them by hand… and then after all that hard work all is covered in black gloss and disappears from view! A pity.