(I took the liberty of posting this interesting Times article in full because some aren't registered to log-in to the Times and the articles disappear after a week or so.)
February 17, 2004
INVENTION FOR 900 HANDS
Taking a Perfectly Lovely Piano and Fine-Tuning Its Personality
By JAMES BARRON
The worker responsible for turning the Steinway grand piano No. K0862 into something — something more than a long, lacquered hull loaded with parts that had been glued, bolted or squeezed in — looks like a scruffy teenager in a rock band, which he was 25 years ago. He wears Emerson, Lake and Palmer T-shirts in his soundproof booth in the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens. He keeps a photograph of Frank Zappa above his workbench.
But after 15 years at Steinway, Bruce Campbell is one of the factory's most experienced workers. He describes himself as "the guy who does the D's" — factory shorthand for the largest of Steinway's five grands, the 8-foot-11 3/8-inch Model D.
Though the foreman who supervises Mr. Campbell says Steinway puts the same effort into all its grands, the company clearly pays special attention to Model D's at the factory, in part because the D's are the pianos on which Steinway's reputation was built and on which it still largely depends. Unlike smaller grands that end up in living rooms or music school practice rooms, Model D's are more likely to be played on concert stages and in recording studios.
So a lot was riding on Mr. Campbell. He is a tone regulator. His job is to gauge the promise of pianos that need to sound large and appealing when they leave the factory, and to do everything to make them that way if their first sounds are disappointing. His job, over a couple of wintry weeks, was to size up the personality of No. K0862 and develop it.
The word he used to describe No. K0862 after he had played a few chords was metallic.
That was a first-rate diagnosis, it turned out.
No. K0862 had been wheeled into his soundproof booth after being tuned by Athanasios Kotsis, a factory worker known as Tommy. His boss, Mark Dillon, listened long enough to say that No. K0862 was coming along fine. "If I was to determine that this piano didn't have the body to be a concert piano," Mr. Dillon said, "we'd take the hammers out and do them over again."
The felt hammers came out anyway, as they normally would when Mr. Kotsis had finished, not to be redone, but to be turned upside down on Paul Salvodon's workbench for sandpapering — the first step in voicing and for their first taste of "juice." That is the lacquer hardener that some pianists maintain Steinway overuses on hammers, and that doing so can make pianos sound brittle.
"The bass section, I can make it better," Mr. Salvodon said after playing No. K0862 with one finger, hitting each note twice.
But he had heard No. K0862 for only 15 or 20 seconds. How could he tell?
"When the sound is O.K., I know it's O.K.," he said as he dribbled a drop or two onto each hammer.
In a couple of hours, when the juice dried, No. K0862 would be ready for Mr. Campbell.
Tools of the Trade
On a shelf in Mr. Campbell's booth was a plastic bucket, a Father's Day present. "Dad's paino tools," his son Aaron, 10, wrote on the front.
Mr. Campbell smiled sheepishly. "I didn't have the heart to tell him that's not how you spell piano," he said.
The tools are for tiny adjustments he hopes will correct something he hears or feels: a brassy note, a sluggish key.
His work involves tapping and twisting and tinkering with the keys and the action, the complicated mechanism that transfers the pianist's touch to the hammers that strike the strings. He works by feel, by instinct, more important, by experience, and his goal is to make everything uniform: the spaces between the hammers, the gaps between the dampers, the distance between each string, the angle at which the hammers rise and fall, the speed at which the keys descend and return. He may slide a tiny bit of paper under a hammershank to change the angle or burn it with an alcohol flame so he can bend it.
Then he slides the action into the piano and tries the notes. More often than not, he hears something else that needs work.
"I'm pretty much known for hearing things in a piano that other people don't hear," he said.
And for being meticulous. "Not everybody has Bruce's feeling of perfection," said Victor Madorsky, a tuner who works in a soundproof booth near Mr. Campbell's. "He will not leave a piano if he feels it's not good enough."
At first, Mr. Campbell said No. K0862 did not need much work. "I was very lucky with this action," he said. "It was nice."
Then came a step known as sanding the keyframe, the bottom of the wooden tray the keys ride on inside the piano. "The slightest splinter, someone like myself will hear a little scraping," he said.
That was when things bogged down. Mr. Campbell ended up planing the keybed inside the piano and expressing doubts about No. K0862. "This is definitely one of the more difficult ones," he said after an hour's work. "Usually, this is about 10 or 15 minutes."
As he brushed away the wood shavings, he talked about his training at Steinway. "The way they taught me was basically the old-fashioned way, apprenticeship," he said. He spent long years voicing pianos — shaping the hammers on uprights and smaller grands — before he started working on the concert grands. He also learned regulating, which involves adjusting the many tiny moving parts in the action.
"At first, regulating was difficult," he said. "Voicing, it was more objective. You could hear it. Regulating, there's no taste involved. It's got to be the way it's got to be."
Another task Mr. Campbell performed on No. K0862 involved adjusting the piano's touch by placing small weights on the keys — 51 grams at the bass end, 47 grams at the treble end. The keys were not supposed to spring up as Mr. Campbell laid on the weights. He marked the ones that rose so small lead plugs could be added to hold them down.
"The tiniest little weight makes so much difference," he said as he lowered the 51-gram weight onto No. K0862's lowest F. With a shrug that said he knew just how arcane an outsider might find what he does day in and day out, he added, "This is really the most exciting part of the job."
A Punch That Satisfies
No. K0862 was pushed into Mr. Madorsky's booth for another tuning. He said it sounded flat. "I'm making it a little bit sharp on purpose," he said. "It's going to drop."
Then No. K0862 went back to Mr. Campbell who started regulating the piano all over again, putting paper punches under a handful of keys that seemed particularly loud — a low G, an F, a C-sharp and D-sharp. The punches would level the keys, even them out.
His workbench is stocked with several kinds of punches — circles of almost microscopically different thicknesses with the holes punched out. They are color-coded so he will know which is which. He can also insert smaller scraps torn from the dry end of strips he puts in his mouth. "I look like Huck Finn," he said.
The green punch he put under the low G did the job, he said. The F needed two, the sharps one each.
Satisfied, he announced, "It's juice time."
He had decided to end the day by putting more lacquer on the hammers. He used almost a full bottle, eight ounces. "I could put 12 ounces in there, but I don't want to overdo it," he said, because No. K0862 did not need that much work.
"It's got the power that I'm looking for," he said. "The brightness is pretty much there. This is going to be a good piano."
Taking a Careful Look
The next morning, there was that metallic sound again.
With the hammers dry and back inside No. K0862, Mr. Campbell said he heard "something that to me sounds like hitting a garbage can."
He checked — again — to make sure each hammer was hitting all three strings of each note. Then, still saying he heard "an excess of metal," he sent No. K0862 to Mr. Dillon for inspection.
Mr. Dillon marked 4 hammers, 5 strings and 10 notes as needing more work. He also stuck a Post-it note on the No. K0862 that said "touch in treble." It was too shallow, he explained: "If somebody played it, they'd feel like they were running uphill."
Mr. Campbell was surprised by how many keys Mr. Dillon had marked. "He really went to town," Mr. Campbell said. "I thought he liked me."
Mr. Campbell spent another couple of hours on No. K0862 before it passed muster with Mr. Dillon. Then it went to the piano world's equivalent of an auto body shop, 62 people who do cosmetic touchups to get rid of nicks, dings and blemishes that pianos pick up through the factory.
"This is a critical area," said Michael Mohr, one of Steinway's manufacturing directors. "The guys here are dealing with what the customer is going to see. The very first thing when the customer takes it out of the box, they're not going to play it, they're not going to hear the voicing, the regulation. The first impression, it's cosmetics."
Not everything that was touched up on No. K0862 had to do with its well-polished case and lid. One worker, Mario Villalobos, noticed tiny cracks in two keys, the D and the A two octaves below middle C. They could have been caused by almost anything, he said — changes in temperature and humidity, even the key-pounding machine that broke in No. K0862 before Mr. Kotsis tuned it.
Mr. Villalobos repaired the A but had to replace the D, using heat to separate the original plastic top from the Bavarian spruce base. Then, using a router, he trimmed the replacement top, sending white plastic flakes flying like artificial snow.
"When I started here 16 years ago, there were a lot of guys working around here with one finger missing," he said, switching off the router. "It was one of the first things I noticed, guys missing a finger. Safety's moved up as a priority. Guys have accidents. When I was in the action department, there were some big machines. One of them caught me." He held up his middle finger. "It only nicked me."
Finding a Loose Screw
A quality-control inspector, Maria Hatzinikolaou, cleared No. K0862 after Mr. Villalobos had finished the D and the piano was loaded into an elevators for the ride to the first floor from the second. One indication of how much trust Steinway puts in its workers came after it arrived. The two workers who are, in effect, the final quality control inspectors on the mechanical workings of every piano are the union men: Dominick Iovino, a tuner, is the shop steward. Walter R. Boot is the brother of the union president.
"These guys, they find anything wrong, boom, we stop it, we fix it," said Ronald L. Penatzer, Steinway's top manufacturing executive. "You can have noise on a note, minor stuff. You just don't want it to go out like that."
Noise on a note was what caught Mr. Iovino's attention — metallic noise, the same kind of noise that had bedeviled Mr. Campbell.
"There's something on the soundboard," Mr. Iovino said.
He called in Mr. Boot, who poked a shim through one of the holes in the plate. A screw rolled into view, and Mr. Boot fished it out.
"It's a common occurrence," Mr. Iovino said as he finished tuning No. K0862. "The piano travels all through the factory."
Mr. Boot did some voicing, punching hammers with a two-pronged needle to make notes he felt were too loud blend in better.
Then he played No. K0862: a snippet of a Rachmaninoff prelude; the opening of the "Moonlight" sonata; a bit of the "Elvira Madigan" concerto; the opening of the second movement of Beethoven's "Pathétique" sonata. After 43 years in a piano factory, he said, he is finally learning to play. He is Mr. Madorsky's only student at the factory.
Jean-Claude Petion would do final cosmetic touchups. Ms. Hatzinikolaou would do the final inspection.
No. K0862 did not pass on the first try. She marked the four of the eight portholes in the cast-iron plate. "They're rough," she said.
Mr. Petion rubbed them with sandpaper and spray-painted them using an aerosol can labeled "Steinway gold."
More inspecting brought more headaches. She told him to repaint the part of the plate where the serial number will go, and the S on a Steinway logo a pianist would not see, but a camera might (it faces away from the keyboard). This meant that No. K0862 could not be finished that day, because the paint would have to dry overnight.
Then someone noticed a little bubble on the arm of the piano. Mr. Petion was certain of the cause: an earlier touchup that did not cure right. And he had had enough.
"She should not have sent the piano down here," Mr. Petion said. "When it comes down here, it should be ready to go."
The next inspection did not go any better. "Jean," she said, "don't forget." She put another chalk mark on the plate, a few inches from the S.
He sprayed the plate. Ms. Hatzinikolaou saw two more tiny nicks. He fixed them.
He closed the lid and pulled the plastic cover over No. K0862.
Done, he said.
Not so fast, she said. Mrs. Hatzinikolaou opened the lid and saw dirt. Mr. Petion swabbed it away. Someone else noticed a scratch on the keyslip. As Mr. Petion rubbed it, he noticed two others.
"If I miss anything," he said, sighing, "it's not because I want to."