1. Everybody knows what a grand piano looks like, although it's hard to describe its contour as anything other than "piano shaped." From a birds-eye view, you might recognize something like a great big holster. The case- the curved lateral surface that runs around the whole instrument- appears to be a single continuous piece of wood, but it isn't really. If you look carefully at the case of a piano built by Steinway & Sons, you'll see that you're actually looking at a remarkable composite of raw material, craftsmanship, and technology. The process by which this component is made - like most of the processes for making a Steinway grand are a prime example of a technical, or task, subsystem at work in a highly specialized factory. But Steinway pianos, the company reminds potential buyers have always been "built to a standard, not to a price." "It's a product," says company executive Leo F. Spellman, "that in some sense will have a legacy long after we're gone. What [Steinway] craftsman work on today will be here for another 50 or 100 years." The Steinway process also puts a premium on skilled workers. Steinway has always been an employer of immigrant labor, beginning with the German craftsman and laborers hired by founder Henry Steinway in the 1860s and 1870s. Today, Steinway employees come from much different places - Haitians and Dominicans in the 1980s, exiles from war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s - and it still takes time to train them. It takes about a year, for instance, to train a case maker, and "when you lose one of them for a long period of time," says Gino Romano, a senior supervisor hired in 1964, "it has a serious effect on our output. “Romano recalls one year in mid-June when a case maker was injured in a car accident and was out for several weeks. His department fell behind schedule, and it was September before Romano could find a suitable replacement (an experienced case maker in Florida who happened to be a relative of another Steinway worker). The company's employees don't necessarily share Spellman’s sense of the company's legacy, but many of them are well aware of the brand recognition commanded by the products they craft. "The payback," says Romano.
2. The case starts out as a rim, which is constructed out of separate slats of wood, mostly maple. Once raw boards have been cut and planed, they're glued along their lengthwise edges to the width of 12 1/2 inches. These composite pieces are then jointed and glued end-to-end to form slats 22 feet long – the measure of the piano’s perimeter. Next, a total of 18 separate slats-14 layers of maple and 4 other layers of other types of wood- are glued and stacked together to form a book – one (seemingly) continuous “board” 3 ¼ inches thick. Then comes the process that’s a favorite of visitors on the Steinway factory tour- bending this rim into the shape of a piano. Steinway does it pretty much the same way that it has for more than a century – by hand and all at once. Because the special glue is in the process of drying, a crew of six has just 20 minutes to wrestle the book, with block and tackle and wooden levers and mallets, into a rim-bending press-“a giant piano-shaped vise,” as Steinway describes it- which will force the wood to “forget” its natural inclination to be straight and assume the familiar contour of a grand piano. Visitors report the sound of splintering wood, but Steinway artisans assure them that the specially cured wood isn’t likely to break or the specially mixed glue to lose its grip. It’s a good