Steinway & Sons Fit & Finish Improvements since 2013 – a photo essay

The first group of improvements concern measures that affect performance, or reduce the amount of musical preparation the pianos need after production — in the factory, by the dealer, or in the field:

Double-pounding
Double-“pounding” to develop hammer tone without lacquer

Problem: New hammers are relatively soft and required saturating with lacquer to harden them before they could be voiced. The use of lacquer in large quantity makes voicing more difficult and the results less predictable.

Solution: Although actions always went through a “pounding” by machine to settle cloth and felt parts, they now go through a second, more forceful pounding to naturally harden the hammer felt before voicing so that little hardening with lacquer is needed. The pianos come out of the factory closer to their final voice, and need less voicing by the technician in the field; and, for the end user, the voicing is more stable over time.

Individual hammer gluing
Individual hammer gluing

Problem: Using a special fixture, hammers were glued to the shanks in groups. This was fast and efficient in the short term, but because hammers slightly shift position as the glue dries, they required a lot of adjusting later on. The twisting and bending of the shanks during this adjustment put potentially damaging pressure on the action parts.

Solution: Hammers are installed individually, just as they would be in a rebuilding shop. This is much more labor-intensive in the short term, but is more accurate and eliminates most of the need for later adjusting.

Institute measures to reduce incidence of sticking dampers
Institute measures to reduce incidence of sticking dampers

Problem: Stainless-steel damper wires sometimes wouldn’t slide freely in the damper guide-rail bushings; dampers would stick in the up position, causing notes to sustain.

Solution: Damper wires are now made of nickel silver, which takes a higher polish than stainless steel, and is more malleable for easier adjustment. They are polished in an ultrasonic cleaner (shown), and the damper guide-rail bushings are impregnated with Teflon powder, which reduces friction to near zero.

Scale-indexed action-part mounting system
Scale-indexed action-part mounting system

Problem: Action parts were screwed to the action frame by hand, resulting in slight variations in the positions of parts on the frame from instrument to instrument. These variations then had to be eliminated by careful adjustment in the factory or the field.

Solution: Action parts and screws are inserted by a machine indexed to the scale of the piano. Installation is uniform and exact, so there is little or no need for adjustment later.

Improved hammer skiving
Improved hammer skiving

Problem: Strips of felt that are to become hammers must first be “skived,” or trimmed, into a pre-hammer shape so that when the strips are bent in the hammer-making molds, the resulting hammers will be of the correct size and shape. This used to be done using unstable wooden fixtures, and resulted in hammer sizes and shapes that varied from instrument to instrument, which required that more hammer filing be done before voicing in the factory or in the field.

Solution: A proprietary skiving machine (not shown) uses CNC technology to shape the felt strips to the exact specifications originally developed for each piano model so that the hammers turn out the same every time. Very little hammer filing is then needed prior to voicing.

Thin high-treble hammershanks
Thin high-treble hammershanks

Problem: Steinway wanted to enhance the tonal sustain in the high treble.

Solution: Thinning the hammershanks of the highest 20 notes to reduce their mass and increase their flexibility allows those hammers to rebound from the strings faster, which increases the volume level of their tonal sustain.

Climate-control action department
Climate-control action department

Problem: Action specifications such as the tightness of action centers and the dimensions of action parts vary slightly with changes in humidity. This contributed to a lack of uniformity among instruments, as well as the need for greater adjustment in the field.

Solution: Humidity control was integrated into the action department’s closed-loop dust-collecting system.

Replace buckskin with Ecsaine
Replace buckskin with Ecsaine

Problem: Buckskin, a natural suede-finished leather made from the hides of deer or sheep, was used in several places in the action where a tough, smooth material is needed, but it varied in thickness and quality from skin to skin. These variations affected critical action dimensions and made a consistent action regulation more difficult.

Solution: Buckskin has been replaced by Ecsaine, a synthetic material with the same tough, suede-like, low-friction properties as buckskin, but which is uniform from batch to batch. Shown here, covered in Ecsaine, are the hammershank knuckles. A side benefit of the change has been reduced action noise.

CNC-machined keybed
CNC-machined keybed

Problem: Although it appears flat to the naked eye, the keybed is actually very slightly curved to optimally fit the key frame, on which the keys move. Planing and sanding the keybed to produce this curvature was done by eye, with much variation from piano to piano. This resulted in additional adjustments in the factory and in the field to properly “bed,” or fit, the key frame to the keybed, and to adjust the key height.

Solution: The keybed is now machined with CNC equipment to ensure greater uniformity from one instrument to the next. Less work is required to bed the key frame, and key height is more uniform.

Adjustable music rack
Adjustable music rack

Problem: The angle of the music rack was fixed and did not suit all players.

Solution: The angle of the music rack can now be adjusted to the player’s preference.

The next group of improvements concern the piano’s appearance:

Rounding of case edges and corners on satin ebony models
Rounding of case edges and corners on satin ebony models

Problem: The sharp edges and corners of the case on satin ebony models didn’t hold the finishing material well, leading, with handling, to premature wearing away of the finish in these areas.

Solution: The corners and edges are now slightly rounded, which better holds the finish and resists wear longer.

Clearcoat case bottoms
Clearcoat case bottoms

Problem: Unfinished case woodworking on the bottom of the piano was hidden by black paint.

Solution: The woodworking on the bottom is nicely finished, and shown off under a clear coat of lacquer.

Improve appearance of trapwork blocks
Improve appearance of trapwork blocks

Problem: Trapwork on the underside of the piano looked rough, and was painted black by brush, which did not create a neat appearance.

Solution: Trapwork blocks are now sanded, given rounded corners, and spray-painted satin black before mounting on the piano.

Satin lustre (semigloss) soundboard finish
Satin lustre (semigloss) soundboard finish

Problem: The high-gloss soundboard varnish showed finish imperfections too easily, and took too much time to cure.

Solution: A satin lustre (semigloss) varnish shows finish imperfections less, looks better, and takes less time to cure, allowing fewer foreign particles to settle in the drying varnish.

High-gloss lacquer finish on fallboard, all models
High-gloss lacquer finish on fallboard, all models

Problem: Over time, the fallboard naturally develops scratches from players’ fingernails. Due to the “grain” of a satin finish, scratches showed up prominently on satin-finished fallboards and were difficult to buff out.

Solution: The fallboard on all models is now finished in high-gloss lacquer. Such a finish has no grain; while it still scratches, the scratches don’t show as much and can be buffed out more easily.

The last group of improvements concern measures taken to reduce the amount of touchup and repair needed after production:

Protective shields during installation of plate screws and bolts
Protective shields during installation of plate screws and bolts

Problem: Plates can get scratched during screw and bolt installation. Plates are difficult to touch up well.

Solution: Protective plate shields made of polystyrene were developed to fit each model. No touchup is required afterward.

Protective “armor” for cases during production

Problem: During stringing and other production work, the case arms, stretcher, and keybed would get scratched and dented, and would have to be touched up at the end of production. Often, the touchup was noticeable as such.

Solution: Plastic “armor,” developed to fit the front end of each instrument, is kept in place during the manufacturing process to minimize scratches and dents. The result is that little or no touchup is required.

Plate protection around tuning pins during stringing
Plate protection around tuning pins during stringing

Problem: The area around the tuning pins can get scratched easily during stringing, and is difficult or impossible to touch up.

Solution: Protective plate shields made of thin sheets of rubber were developed to fit each model. No touchup is required afterward.

Plastic covers to keep strings clean during production
Plastic covers to keep strings clean during production

Problem: Dirt and dust would get into the bass-string windings during production, sometimes resulting in discoloration and tonal impairment.

Solution: To keep dirt and dust out, the pianos are covered with plastic sheeting when not being worked on.

Positive-pressure clean room for soundboard finishing
Positive-pressure clean room for soundboard finishing

Problem: Despite best efforts to keep out dust, invariably it would get into the soundboard varnish as it dried, making for a less-than-perfect finish.

Solution: Create a positive-pressure clean room in which to spray and cure the soundboard varnish, resulting in a near-perfect finish.

 – Larry Fine