Posts tagged factory
I wandered through the halls of the Vienna Music Museum the day after visiting Sauter Piano in Germany. It seemed incredible to me to view keyboard instruments from as old as 1750. By the early 1800’s, the piano had already undergone dramatic improvements. Two famous builders ~ Nanette Stein (earliest known female piano builder and company owner) married Johann Streicher (famous Viennese piano builder) and together they became a formidable force manufacturing pianos of excellence, having clients and becoming friends with both Beethoven and Mozart. In 1813, a young carpenter from Germany named Johann Grimm joined the Streicher business as an apprentice. For 6 years he worked and studied the art of piano making until the political climate changed in Vienna in 1819 whereupon he returned to Spaichingen to begin building pianos on his own. Having no heir, the company was inherited by his nephew Carl Sauter and thus the lineage of Sauter pianos began. Six generations later, Carl Ulrich Sauter together with economist Otto Hott continue to lead this nealy 200 year old company. In fact, it is the oldest continuously running family-operated piano company in the world.
The company remained in its original location adding on to the buildings from 1819 until 1974 (the earliest building located in lower right). Moving literally 500 meters up the road, Sauter built a state-of-the-art location between 1974-1983 and is presently located there.
“Have you heard of Sauter?” I’ve asked several people over the years. Most people I know haven’t had the privilege of seeing or playing a Sauter piano. Nestled in the Black Forest in Germany, Sauter remains a well kept secret, manufacturing pianos of excellence.
Sauter is one of the few companies that are truly 100% made in Germany. What does that mean? Traditionally, Germany has the highest grades of materials in the world. Sauter’s materials are locally sourced, their labour is local, their manufacturing has occured in the same location for just shy of 200 years. When I sat to play a few of the pianos in the Sauter factory, the tone was very soft and velvety at lower volumes. Not muffled by any means ~ instead, it was focused, clear but never offensive. This continues up until forte (loud) dynamic levels and then when you really play into the piano at fortissimo (very loud), the tone blossoms into this bold sound filled with an array of beautiful overtones. The control is extremely balanced and lovely to the touch ~ incredibly silky. My perceptions of the piano were that of “comfortable to the ears” and I truly enjoyed the fact that you could play the piano with lots of color and control. Voicing a melody line is a beautiful experience. Sauter has some unique and interesting design concepts: Historically they were the first company to introduce steel as a reinforcement into piano actions, providing rigidity and excellent transference of energy to the soundboard. Renner action parts are used throughout. Solid, low altitude spruce is used for their soundboards and they even manufacture their own cast iron plates. Titanium parts are used extensively for termination string points on their larger instruments.
As a company, I have to say that in keeping with German stereotypes, Sauter is efficient in production flow, innovative in their tools and beautiful in their designs. Refined over almost 200 years, their scale designs are well thought through. If you have spent any time in a woodworking shop, you’ll know that jigs are vital to consistency. What I enjoyed seeing on the walls are jigs that look like bobsleds – heavily worn with decades of use. Jigs are simply custom made tools that resemble patterns. They might show where to cut out a soundboard or pinblock. Sometimes they’re used for tracing around while at other times, they show where to drill precision holes so that each piano turns out uniformly. What is also interesting is the fact that being a smaller production facility (hundreds of pianos not thousands annually), the Sauter factory workers will often fill the shoes of more than one production station showing them to be a truly multi-skilled workforce. Where efficiency is required, Sauter is ingenius in developing tools for precision and accuracy and yet fully retain hand crafted involvement and finishing. Specialists work laboriously as they continually refine the pianos to achieve what I would deem near perfection in both touch and tone. At the end of the work week, the entire facility shuts down for an intensive cleanup time to make ready for the following week. Sauter is earmarked by cleanliness and organization. Some of the polishing guys (who I jokingly called “the men in white”) wear cleansuits. Wood piles are neatly stacked, floors are immaculately swept and high quality tools are placed at their respective benches.
My tour of Sauter ended up in the showroom. Sauter pianos are visually stunning, incorporating European designs from Peter Maly. Their lines are smooth, clear and sparse. The pianos are modern and incredibly well proportioned. Even their showroom seems more like an art gallery – small, intimate and well planned. If you’ve never played one of these pianos, you should search one out. If nothing else, it will impress you with how beautifully designed, built and well crafted these timeless instruments are.
To view the complete lineup of Sauter pianos, click HERE
Czech Republic, November 18th, 2015
I walk up the stairs of the bell tower in the town of Hradec Králové (“City of the Queen”). The stone steps are worn because many have visited this monument built nearly 450 years ago. Massive beams are used to support the bell that appears to be about 5 feet tall. I think about the challenge of building a tower out of stone and then raising this 8 ton bell to a height of almost 200 feet without modern equipment. I’m sometimes baffled by the human spirit. It must’ve been a struggle to survive back then in everyday life. But what is more interesting to me is that there’s this determination not only to survive, but to build objects of beauty and to express creatively despite seemingly monumental obstacles. Such is the case also with PETROF pianos. Located in the same town, PETROF has been building pianos since 1864. When you think about building pianos back then – milling trees into lumber, casting iron, making thousands of intricate action parts by hand without modern tools, I must say I’m amazed at the human spirit again to feel compelled to build instruments of such rare beauty.
Today PETROF is very different. It quickly becomes apparent that PETROF, the largest European piano manufacturer, is this wonderful mixture of old-world charm and state-of-the-art advancements. Their facilities replicate their ideas. Out of these rough cut stones of old buildings come polished diamonds of beauty – transformations of wood and iron into dazzling pianos that are not only aesthetically pleasing but musically beautiful and expressive.
I started the tour in the milling room where they cut wood into usable lengths and sizes. Adjacent to that is their cabinet making shop. It brings a smile to my face when I smell sawdust. I enjoy wood shops. The mixture of rugged machinery from yesteryear is situated right beside sleek computerized lathes which are accurately notching and drilling piano cabinets. My absolute favourite room in the whole factory though was the next area where grand rims are pressed together. Two workers were preparing layers of the rim as well as beautiful veneers by hand but again, this massive press of brute force joins the layers of the rim together. Without seeing the magnitude of the machine in person, it’s hard to grasp. It looks like it weighs about the same as a tank! Thousands of pounds of pressure are used to push the grand rims efficiently and effortlessly together. The technical savvy to build the machine is staggering to me let alone the grand rims that come out of it.
Moving to the metal shop, we see the cast frames being sanded and finished, again by hand. If you’ve ever been in a machine shop, this smells identical. Concrete and brick with metal filings give this room such a distinct feel. Here the wet sand cast plates are prepared to be sprayed smooth with gold.
We then moved to the assembly area and that’s when I noticed one thing right away: Plants. Yes you read correctly. I was just not expecting to see greenery in the piano factory. Why? It’s a highly technical reason… just kidding. It’s not actually. Here’s what I love about PETROF ~ Each of the assembly stations has been personalized by the workers. So at each station I saw something different that reflected the workers who go there every day – I saw plants, lots of pictures of their kids, memorabilia and collectables, pictures of cars and even sporting events. To others, the inspiration was not visual but audible. Some areas had obvious Czech cultural music playing while other areas were playing popular songs on the radio. Does this detract from the professionalism of the company? Absolutely not. Conversely, I find it telling that many of the workers have made piano manufacturing their vocation and have stayed for years. It speaks volumes to me about employee satisfaction. And with longevity comes proficiency. According to Jan Prostředník, the production manager, he said ‘we actually have people who have been working here for decades. We even have some married couples or other sons and daughters that have joined operations here as well”. So in the midst of the work at PETROF, there’s also a sense of family. I respect that. How I digress.
Back to piano making: It’s interesting to me how companies who have been making a product for the last 150 years choose to modernize some aspects of manufacturing and yet retain other areas by hand. For example, ten years ago, they installed a giant computerized buffing machine to make their finishes PERFECT. And I mean mirror finish. Yet when it comes to things like intuition – feeling how the keys respond as the new bushings are being tested for friction, it’s hands-on labour. There’s no replacement for intuition. Again, there’s a machine that plays keys repetitively hundreds of times (or possibly even thousands) to break in or settle the piano but when it comes to voicing – listening to the newly installed voice of each hammer, it’s all done one note at a time. And just watching the master carver with beautiful chisels carve decorative panels is absolutely fascinating to me.
Stepping into the furthest reaches of technology, PETROF is very sophisticated. Aside from computerized advancements in manufacturing, PETROF physically models and designs pianos through software called “Menzurix”. How does it work? Well pianos all have strings of various lengths correct? Low notes have really long strings while the top notes in any piano are really short. How do you know what thickness or gauge of wire to use on any note? This is where the Menzurix software comes in. Providing the length you require and then typing in a hypothetical gauge of wire, it will mathematically compute and graph out the potential sound for that string. Rather than installing one string after another and listening, the engineers at PETROF can mathematically compute and optimize the strings before a single wire goes into the piano. This is cutting edge technology. PETROF can pre-determine body of the tone and harmonics. But it doesn’t stop there. PETROF also has a very large an-echoic chamber (meaning there is almost no echo in this room. You can almost hear your own heart beat it’s so close). It’s large enough to house a grand piano and test their results. Also in the facility is a Feutron machine. The Feutron tests materials that go into a piano and pushes the envelope for both temperature and humidity. According to Jan Prostředník, every substance from glues, adhesives to finishes get tested at extreme temperatures and humidity. Practically what does this mean? It means that if they’ve tested materials in such an extreme way, there’s very little chance of it going wrong elsewhere in the world. They know all of their materials and how they will react. That translates into confidence knowing that they’ve done environmental “stress tests” with everything that goes into the instrument.
But what about the music? Ahhhh this is the enjoyable part. At PETROF you see almost every stage of construction. (Everything is made locally with the exception of German Renner actions and German hammers). Everything comes together in this one factory and when you finally put your fingers on the keys, it translates into the most wonderful tone. Their pianos truly feel like an extension of your fingers. The keys are responsive and quick, and the tone contains a gradual crossover from soft and felty with a tinge of sparkle to bold brazen power.
At the end of the tour, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Zuzana Petrofova (English ~ Susana Petrof). What a delight to meet a living legend – CEO of this company 5 generations later! That evening we drove through the town and passed the old bell tower. Across the street from this church is the family PETROF home. As central as PETROF is to this town, I believe musically, they have become central to the world stage over the last 150 years and I suspect will continue to strive to build pianos of excellence and serve the musical community at large.
Coming soon – the dynamic virtual PETROF tour. If you haven’t yet seen our piano factory tour chapter, you can see it HERE
Three weeks ago I was in a discussion with Basilios Strmec of Vienna International (North American distributers for Hailun, Petrof & Sauter) regarding the creation of virtual piano factory tours on Piano Price Point.
After a slight pause his first response was, “Glen, how flexible are you?”
“Pertaining to what exactly?” was my reply not having any clue where he was headed.
“I’m leaving for China in 10 days and if you can clear your schedule, I’d like to invite you to Hailun Piano Company to do your first tour”.
Knowing I was planning a trip to Toronto for that week I said “Let me call you within 24 hours”. I managed to shuffle some dates to make this happen as I deemed it an exciting new adventure and opportunity.
With new-to-me technology of panoramic photography I started to explain to Basilios during the shuttle from Shanghai what it is I hope to achieve. “I want to bring the masses to the factory” I said, knowing that it is an impossibility in reality but plausible with virtual technology. “I would like to give people the opportunity to look around – to see the stuff of every day life – to see the sawdust and the chisel shavings, to see the rough cast iron frames before they get sprayed beautifully in gold, silver and rose. I’d like consumers to begin with lumber and iron, leather, cloth and felt and end with a finished product ~ to show from inception to creation this process of making the piano.” OK I wasn’t quite that poetic but… you get the point.
In usual enthusiastic manner Basilios replied “Well let’s make this happen! Hailun is transparent and I’d like you to feel at home – to photograph and walk around as you would like.” It wasn’t until I started shooting panoramic images that his eyes lit up. “Wow this is fantastic! It really shows the factory as if you’re standing right here.” That was my intention precisely. The new chapter called Piano Factory Tours is in editing stage and will be released August 2015.
5 Days Later
Debriefing this whirlwind, it’s simply overwhelming the stature and size of the Hailun Piano Company. They manufacture roughly 38,000 pianos per year. Now if you do the math, that’s just over 3,150 pianos per month in 4.2 MILLION square feet of factory space. The construction of the piano is divided up into stations where each employee is trained in specific tasks. Some work on tone wood – the sound producing elements of bridges and soundboards while others work on action parts and how the piano plays. Some produce beautiful finishes and others are involved in the construction of the frames. At the end of the assembly there are usually at least 3 levels of refinement ~ rough tuning and regulation (making all the parts function evenly), then 2nd tuning and voicing (making all of the notes sound consistent) and then 3rd regulation and tuning. All pianos are inspected along the way at various levels. Oh and when you walk into the factory, the sounds – you can’t even begin to describe this one machine – up until this point I had only seen pictures – The piano gets sent into an extremely well insulated booth where this machine strikes the keys to ‘break in’ the piano. The sound of all 88 keys hitting in rapid succession settles the entire piano; the tuning of the strings settle, the hammers find their strike point and the tone begins to really blossom and not sound so ‘green’. All pianos roll through the factory on what look like train tracks. They move from one section or station to another. There are some areas in the factory with tools not dissimilar to my own wood shop having the reminiscent smell of sawdust and conversely, there are multimillion dollar polishing machines working with exacting precision to achieve that mirror gloss many refer to as “piano black finish” or ebony polish. In order to create a piano however, it’s not simply the sum of the parts – it’s the design team of piano visionaries and engineers working at computers and CNC machines (computerized cutting tools precisely notch and cut down to 1/1000th of an inch). It’s also logistics – transporting parts from one area to another and not get bottle necked at any stage along the way. Imagine if there would be a problem in one section, pianos would just start piling up at over 100 per day! So the entire process needs to flow from one section to another. And don’t forget about packaging – the creation of boxes, pallets and air tight packaging. At the helm of this giant ship is Mr. Hailun Chen – an absolute larger than life personality who despite cultural and language barriers makes everyone feel welcome. The few interactions over dinner and meetings, there were great laughs but you also recognize that he’s a remarkable leader who would be first to tell you that it takes a team to build a piano. Hah… and I thought my 5 day trip to China was a whirlwind – try building an entire line of pianos, manufacturing facilities, installing giant machinery, with hundreds of workers, an entire sales force with global presence, achieving publically traded stock status all in just 15 years. Wow.
Special thanks Mr. Hailun Chen & Basilios Strmec (Vienna Piano) and the entire staff at Hailun Piano for accommodating this photo shoot and for facilitating and sponsoring this entire trip from start to finish. Thank you so much for the tour – halfway around the world and back within 5 days. Cheers to Hailun Piano and may you see continued success and growth in the coming years.
Oh and one last thing… in between meetings, I had the opportunity to sit at a Hailun grand piano ~ model 218 (7’3” long) in a performance venue built within the factory. (You’ll be able to see it on the virtual tour). It was lovely not only to catch my breath for a moment but to also sit at this FANTASTIC piano and remember that it’s the inspiration of music that moves mankind to create and build instruments of beauty for the indulgent purpose of expressing what our hearts feel.
I was in the office of a metal fabricator recently and admired his collection of vintage wooden golf clubs. Not being a golfer I inquired “Are these rare?” He laughed and replied “Not really… titanium and other alloys have all but replaced traditional clubs like these. I just like the look of them.” Having been around pianos most of my life, I’ve often wondered about the traditional use of wooden parts in the mechanical action of the piano. We somehow have managed to romanticize every aspect of this instrument and when faced with the possibility of making more efficient, versatile, stronger and consistent parts out of composite materials like nylon or carbon fiber there are far too many competitive voices that ignorantly refer to these as ‘plastic’. Plastic has this connotation of cheap grocery bags and kid’s toys. If you’re in that camp, think again about how not only golf clubs have changed but how airplanes also used to be made out of wood. Historically, the first bicycle was made completely out of wood and yet the majority of Tour de France bikes are now made out of carbon fiber… and for the record, I won’t be taking my next flight on any wooden airliner. Why have we embraced certain areas of technology and accepted it as the norm and yet reject it in the piano?
“The piano is made for music. It’s not just a machine.” I agree whole-heartedly however, the moving parts of the action – do they create sound? The joints and levers called the whippen assembly – do they make noise? Are they tuned? Most of these parts are inert and inaudible. If you ever get to see a technician take an action piece out of the piano, flex the joint and listen for any kind of noise. They’re incredibly quiet.
So if the joints (also known as the flanges) have a more tactile application, why not fit them with new composite materials? That’s what has happened with parts inside Mason & Hamlin pianos. Wessell, Nickel & Gross (WNG) is the parts company who manufacture such composite parts (same owners as Mason & Hamlin). Composite literally means ‘combined’. It’s the joining of the aforementioned components – usually nylon, carbon fiber or epoxy materials.
When speaking earlier this year with Kirk Burgett, president of Mason & Hamlin and WNG, we touched on various aspects of their pianos that have been re-designed with ‘outside the box’ thinking. One such concept is hammer shanks. The hammer is the lever (that looks like an actual hammer) which strikes the strings with a felt head. To my knowledge, WNG is the only composite shank maker in the world. So what’s the big deal? Why change what already works well for hundreds of years? In this slow motion video provided by WNG, (which is very compelling I might add) it demonstrates how wooden shanks absorb energy like a spring instead of transferring energy to the string. Ideally in a piano action, you don’t want to lose energy from the moment you touch the key. Piano touch should be an extension of your fingers and ultimate transfer equals maximum output of the instrument. So even if you could get wood that was incredibly rigid to match the strength and resilience of composite shanks, getting 88 shanks to operate in the same manner is challenging.
Mason & Hamlin have all but eliminated that variable of inconsistency by implementing these shanks into their pianos. And I must say, their pianos are suitably impressive. Advantages of new composite materials:
1. Strength and rigidity
3. Resilience to humidity fluctuation
4. Reduced mass
Take a moment to watch the video and if you have the opportunity, try a new Mason & Hamlin piano. If you need confirmation that they’re building quality, you’ll be convinced in short order. WNG also offer a wide variety of aftermarket parts for rebuilders of pianos as well.
A special thanks also to Kirk Burgett for his passion in piano design, creativity and innovation. Pictured above, a whippen assembly made out of composite material ~ welcome to the 21st century.
I have to admit, I let out a big sigh 6 years ago when I found out that Bösendorfer was purchased by Yamaha. Why? I have nothing against Yamaha. It’s because like many companies as of late, small piano makers are sold to larger ones and they’re dissolved into bigger corporations and it soon becomes merely a name on the front of a piano. The history, the heritage, the piano making expertise are lost and replaced as a name plate – simply selling credibility on the laurels of a former name.
Regarding Bösendorfer, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Fast forward to 2014: I caught up with Ed Bezursik (Yamaha Acoustic Piano Marketing Manager/ Bösendorfer North American Marketing Manager). We recently had a few brief minutes talking. We spoke of the new Yamaha CX line (see July 2013 blog) and then finally I asked him “So what’s the future for Bösendorfer? Is it going to get moved to Japan?”
(I know… a brazen and bold question but… I was curious) “Nothing of the sort!” he replied emphatically. “We’re keeping it where it is. In fact, we’re making Bösendorfer MORE Austrian”. When queried about this, he said that areas which had been outsourced are now being made in Austria. He referred me to the man who specializes in this at production level, Simon Oss (Premium Piano Market Development Manager for both Yamaha & Bösendorfer). “Yes”, Simon confirmed, “as Ed points out, the cast iron frame was previously made in the Czech Republic and is now a more expensive, higher quality frame made in Austria. Many people wonder how the product changed since Bösendorfer was purchased by Yamaha Corporation. The piano is constructed with exactly the same fundamental principles of Viennese piano making in Austria, since 1828. The production of the instruments is unchanged and we have Yamaha to thank for a much broader service and distribution network. The same Austrian craftsmen who built the pianos before Bösendorfer became part of Yamaha are still working today. With about 120 staff – out of these about 100 are craftsmen and technicians which are producing close to 300 exclusive instruments a year – a major contribution in today’s economy. In 2013 we celebrated our 185th anniversary at Bösendorfer, which makes us the oldest premium piano maker in the world. And we also completed our 50,000th instrument, a model 225 which you surely saw at NAMM”. (see NAMM highlights blog).
For those who have never heard the name, Bösendorfer can be found in many concert halls around the world. The company was started in 1828 by Ignaz Bösendorfer and by 1830 gained the status of official piano maker to the Emperor of Austria. The company has a star-studded cast of owners over the last 185 years from Classical greats like Paderewski to pop icons like Michael Jackson, jazz legends like Oscar Peterson to money moguls like Steve Jobs. If you’re looking for what is called a “Premier” piano, Bösendorfer is considered one of the most prominent, highest ranking, oldest companies in the world. Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP) of these pianos start at a modest $105,000 and range up to $515,000. Whew!
Most times I don’t like being wrong but in the case of Bösendorfer, I’m glad I was and I’m happy to see that one of the oldest surviving piano companies gets to continue to build pianos as one of the godfathers of the industry. Kudos to Yamaha for having the foresight to secure this company and allow the heritage to live on.
For your viewing pleasure – A quick video about the making of serial # 50,000 from Bosendorfer. BTW, that’s 24 carat gold plated statues and frame.
And Bösendorfer has also started a publication recently which can be read online and found here
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