Last week I watched a movie called Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. It is the story of a piano. More, it is a story of hope for all of us woodworkers. I recommend it highly.
A brief synopsis. This is a film about the making of a piano, and of the people who made it. The movie begins with the glue-up of the rim of a Steinway concert grand piano, and follows the piano – and the craftsmen and women – through the yearlong build. If you’ve ever played piano or any other instrument, for that matter, you’ll appreciate this movie even more.
For woodworkers, though, the movie carries a few special and powerful undercurrents. From the buyer who travels to Alaska to select the spruce for the soundboard to the cabinetmakers who carefully assemble the case and frame to extraordinarily tight tolerances, this is the story about craftspeople who care about their work. They have an obvious and personal investment in every single piano that Steinway builds.
The pianos that come from this factory are handmade. Machines help with the grunt work, to be sure, but there is a ton of handwork in these musical instruments. Keys are adjusted to within fractions of millimeters to be the same height. Tuning is done over a number of weeks and months to permit stresses on the cast iron plate to gradually equalize. The rim and frame are set aside after glue-up for a month, allowing the glue-up to cure before any additional work is done. It is an amazing process to watch.
How does all of this translate to hope for us? Simply this: all of the work on these magnificent creations is done by people just like you or me. One fellow used to play in the Steinway yard as a child, running around the stacks of stickered maple and spruce. Now he works there. The managers and supervisors at this company make a point to stress that the skills that are needed to work there are handed down from the old-timers to the new-comers. Generation after generation, the skills are passed along. Most of the important work is done the same way today as it was one hundred years ago. Here’s the point: very few of the folks who put their hearts into these pianos were cabinetmakers, sound technician, or piano tuners – let alone piano players – when they walked through the doors of the plant for their first shift. The skills they have today, they learned. Time, patience, and hard work. They started out as novices, and turned into craftsmen building the finest pianos in the world.
If they can do it, we can, too.
See the movie. It’s on DVD, and it isn’t new (2007) so there shouldn’t be a long wait for it. Let me know what you think.
Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor at the Northwest Woodworking Studio in Portland, Oregon.