How Steinway Survived 160 Years Of Economic Turmoil

steinway belly room

Photo: Mamta Badkar/Business Insider

Three years into the recovery from the Great Recession, the Steinway & Sons factory in Astoria is getting back to normal.The company, a subsidiary of Steinway Musical Instruments, has two factories, one in New York, the other in Hamburg. 

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Sales for the company were hit in the New York area and across the world during the recession, with ‘hobbyist’ buyers cutting back on spending.

At the time, Steinway also cut a third of its New York staff, reducing the Astoria factory head count to 215, from about 300.

But the New York market recovered pretty quickly. In fact, in 2011 the company sold 2,013 grand pianos, not including upright pianos, and the New York factory dispatched 1,101 pianos. 

While the company made adjustments to its workforce and cut costs during the recession, Losby said the company did also find opportunities to benefit from. 

“We acquired five retail stores during this, which is a huge amount for us because we doubled in the last three years our retail footprint in the America’s. What this provided was an opportunity for us to secure leases at rates that were significantly less than what they had been two, or three or four years ago.”

In the last decade the company averaged about 3,300 grand pianos a year, a number that President Ron Losby expects the company will return to soon.

In fact, Losby says the New York market has already recovered well and he is optimistic about sales in the future.

We start off at a storage room where wood goes through a 'seasoning' or 'ageing' process.

The wood sits in the storage space for months as Steinway begins the long process of lowering the moisture content in the wood.

The wood is then placed in one of four kilns to reduce moisture content. The amount of time the wood spends in these kilns varies depending on the type of wood and purpose of that wood in the piano.

In an effort to be greener, Steinway uses an $875,000 solar thermal system to dehumidify the factory.

Once inside, the wood is cut and separated depending on the part of the piano it is intended for. This part of the factory has a distinct smell of sawdust.

85 per cent of each piano consists of wood, and the wood is passed through this machine that cuts out scrap wood.

Workers used to do this job but in an effort to become more efficient Steinway invested in the machine. Steinway's staff still needs to mark out imperfections by hand.

Piles of scrap-wood are collected and sometimes sold.

The construction process begins with the rim bending process. First a team of workers laminate and glue together straight grained maple in flat-grained sets.

The roughly 20-foot long sets are then carried over to the press.

Steinway says that flat grained sets gives a 47% improvement of vibrational characteristics over cross-grained plywood style sets.

Once the clamps are in place, the workers begin tightening the clamps from the centre to the outside. This process is extremely loud.

Once this process is completed you have a unified inner and outer rim. This is the rim bending of a Model D concert grand piano.

Rims are removed from the press after about 24 hours and left upright in a warm conditioning room.

The rims stay in this room for months depending on their size.

Each rim has a date written on it which denotes when it was created.

As we move to the next room, my guide and the director of marketing and communications, Anthony Gilroy shows me the oldest operating machine at Steinway.

Prenta Ljucovic started working at Steinway 40-years ago after moving to the U.S. from Yugoslavia. She was one of the few women carrying out inspections.

Sante Auriti, originally from Italy, started working at Steinway about 35-years ago. He came to America from Germany where he worked in textiles.

Auriti started off as a janitor at Steinway but worked his way up. He now builds the company's gorgeous Louis XV pianos.

Next up: the 'belly room'. The name is attributed to both the fact that the workers work on the belly of the piano, and because they are on their bellies while they work.

The sound board and cast-iron bridge are all fitted in the belly room.

Here, a belly-man is filing a bridge is glued to the top of a sound board. The bridge is made of laminated maple, like the rim.

The bridge transmits vibrations from the strings to the soundboard.

Steinway also restores old pianos.

The 'action' department was the one part of the factory that was staffed by women.

The 'action' involves small wooden parts, felt, hammers and so on which are essential to the operation of piano keys.

The process of stringing Steinway pianos involves both manual labour and the use of machinery.

After the pianos have been tuned, they go through the 'waterfall'. These are spraying booths in the coating department where pianos gets an ebony or clear coat finish.

Before the piano's are ready to go they pass through Wally's World for a final tuning.

The finished pianos end up in a display room.

Lynx, Steinway's new artist in residence, personalizes pianos. This one is called 'Tempest Noir'.

Lynx's paintings are inspired by musical compositions.

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