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The Steinway Dilemma

The Steinway Dilemma

The Steinway Dilemma

Steinway pianos are beautiful, brilliant instruments that have defined the industry standard for 170 years. Steinway advertises on their website that their pianos are "Built to be Rebuilt", and that is without a doubt true.

For over a century, Steinway has crafted world-class pianos, a legacy that extends beyond just new instruments. Choosing a used or properly restored Steinway should not be thought of as a compromise, but a smart investment. These pianos, often ranked among the finest instruments in the world, and can carry the same quality and heritage as new Steinways. Like Steinway says, their pianos are "Built to be Rebuilt". This is true of the new Steinway pianos; in fact, I think the new Steinways represent the pinnacle of their craftsmanship.

However, if you can't afford to purchase a new Steinway, (the new Steinways cost between $86,600 - $433,900 in 2023), one restored by a respected rebuilder is a wonderful alternative.

But what about the 'Stein-was' story that the Steinway dealers will tell you? Please read on...

The Steinway Dilemma


While compelling, Steinway's 'Stein-was' story should be understood from the standpoint that Steinway's biggest competitor is their own previously built piano. Keep in mind that over 600,000 Steinways have been made over the years. They would like you to believe that you can only purchase a genuine Steinway piano, new, restored, or used, from Steinway & Sons. If you accept that, you could be missing out on some incredible pianos.

How can you trust that a restored Steinway is still a real Steinway? This is an important question. Poor craftsmanship or inferior parts can harm a previously great piano. And there are plenty of shysters out there who will take advantage of you.

A Steinway dealer will often raise two issues. First, does the restoration only use materials purchased from Steinway? Second, was the restoration done by them?

Addressing the second question first, it's worth noting that Steinway entrusts its restorations to a skilled technician based in Iowa. I had the pleasure of meeting him when he visited my shop to learn about crafting custom keys and keyframes for his restorations. His dedication to his craft and the quality of his work, are a testament to the high standards upheld by Steinway, and the importance of craftsmanship in piano restoration. So, are we to believe that the only skilled craftsmen qualified to restore Steinway pianos work for their company?

So, back to the question, how can you trust that a restored Steinway is still authentic? Consider, does every single part need to come directly from Steinway for a piano to be considered a genuine Steinway?

Understand that many components in new Steinway pianos are not all made by Steinway. For example, Steinway doesn't make its own strings or tuning pins, instead, it buys them from independent suppliers.

Since Steinway's parts are not all manufactured in-house, it is clear that a Steinway is not made genuine by where the parts come from but by the part dimensions, the materials used, and the craftsmen installing those parts to Steinway standards. We choose the highest-quality parts for our restorations, including the soundboard and pinblock. That's an important point because Steinway no longer produces parts that fit their older pianos, particularly the actions. The geometry of their actions has changed over the years. They only use components designed for their current production in their restorations. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily.

Genuine Steinway Parts?

Does Steinway manufacture its own action parts? For over a century, the Louis Renner company in Germany manufactured action components for many different piano manufacturers, including the Steinway factory in Hamburg. The New York Steinway factory made its own action components up until 2019, when it purchased Renner.

So, does Steinway manufacture its own action parts? I guess it depends on how you look at it. Up until 2019, the answer would be no, at least in regard to Hamburg Steinways. Since they now own Renner, and depending on your point of view, you could now say they do make their own parts.

But the question remains: Does Steinway sell action parts for its older pianos? No, they stopped doing that many years ago. So, if you own a vintage Steinway and need replacement parts that match what's on your piano, you have to turn to other companies that manufacture actions specifically for your piano. And understand, most piano manufacturers don't make their own actions. They never have.

Once, when I was at the New York factory for special technical training, I sat in on a training session for salespeople. They were talking about how the Boston piano was designed by Steinway but built by Kawai in Japan. They used an illustration of a recipe and the kitchen where it was made. The Boston piano was their design (or recipe); it's just being made in someone else's kitchen. Good point!

When it comes to the action in your piano. it's not about whose kitchen you make the recipe in. It's about the ingredients and the care in which it is made. As I said earlier, it's about the part dimensions, the materials used, and the craftsmen installing those parts to Steinway standards.

Proprietary Soundboard

Proprietary Soundboard

We agree with Steinway's statement that "no single part of the piano is more responsible for the “STEINWAY Sound” than the soundboard. They're quick to say that "STEINWAY & SONS does not sell its soundboards, and other manufacturers cannot replicate them." While it's true that Steinway does not sell its soundboard assembly to other manufacturers or rebuilders, can it be said that it cannot be replicated?

To say that an individual or company cannot buy Sitka Spruce from the same place that Steinway does and cannot use the same woodworking techniques to taper the soundboard to a 'Diaphragmatic' shape is misleading, to say the least.

What is a Diaphragmatic Soundboard?

Steinway defines their Diaphragmatic Soundboard as follows, "The STEINWAY Diaphragmatic Soundboard was designed and patented to act like a true diaphragm. The greatest thickness is in the middle, from which point there is continual tapering in all directions toward the outer edges. This design reduces the energy needed by the soundboard to vibrate, an efficiency that permits a greater variance of tone, color, and richness." Independent and skilled piano craftsmen have been tapering soundboards as described in their restorations for decades. Not only do they duplicate the original soundboard, but they can correct any errors that they observe that existed in the original board. Note this comment from someone who built soundboards for Steinway for 30 years and is now doing the same thing for an independent company, Play video clipPlay video clip.

Did you notice that he said many technicians use the same materials, but they don't always know how to use those materials? He's right. But thanks to the Piano Technicians Guild and its local, regional, and National conferences and seminars, many qualified craftsmen have acquired the knowledge and skills to replace not only the soundboards but also the keys, keyframes, and action assemblies in these wonderful instruments.

Proprietary Soundboard

So what makes a Steinway a Steinway?

Simply put, the rim or case. Steinway’s continuous rim is known for its strength and durability, giving it the clear and resonant tone that Steinway is known for. How is the continuous rim constructed, and why does it make a Steinway different?

The piano’s rim, a marvel of craftsmanship, is a multi-laminated piece of wood that encases the soundboard. It's a feat of engineering, designed to withstand an incredible 46,000 pounds of tension. This strength is achieved through a single section of layered maple laminations, meticulously crafted to form a continuous rim. This continuous rim, akin to a rigid box, provides the perfect housing for the soundboard, thereby elevating the piano's sound quality.

The rim of a piano is not just a structural component, but a key player in the instrument's sound production. In a Steinway piano, the rim’s function goes beyond encapsulating the soundboard. It actively contributes to the instrument’s tone by bouncing sound waves back into the belly of the piano. The specific materials and processes used by Steinway to create the continuous rim are meticulously designed to enhance these functions, resulting in the distinctive Steinway sound.