Steinway & Sons New York and Hamburg | What’s the Difference?
Question: “What’s the difference between Steinway pianos built at the company’s New York Factory and their Hamburg Factory?”
An American Company
While Charles Dicken’s novel A Tale of Two Cities dealt with the cities of Paris and London, this comparison deals with New York and Hamburg. Specifically, their shared role as the home for Steinway & Sons pianos. This unusual situation has resulted in key differences between the American and European variants of these legendary musical instruments.
Contrary to the belief of some, Steinway & Sons is not a European company and have always been an American company first and foremost. Founded by German immigrant Henry E. Steinway, the New York-based company grew quickly from its modest founding in 1853 to quickly become the leading piano maker in North America. This led to increased demand for their products in both the United States and around the world. As this demand for pianos grew, the decision was made to open a factory overseas and the Steinway name returned to Germany – the City of Hamburg, to be exact.
1880 – A Return to European Roots
The story of Steinway’s Hamburg Factory is a slightly unusual one within the piano industry. The factory was originally founded in 1880 by C.F. Theodore and William Steinway – and at that time was wholly owned by them. This meant that they had nearly complete control of decisions and also the factory’s profits. Having a factory in Europe allowed Steinway & Sons to avoid high import tariffs and also allowed for easier distribution throughout the European market. Today, the Hamburg division continues to serve this purpose and most of the countries outside of North America are supplied with instruments crafted in Hamburg.
The Atlantic ocean between the factories meant that Hamburg Steinway was somewhat cut off from the New York operation. Even today there is visual evidence of this. One example is in the pianos’ cabinet designs. Originally, all ‘modern’ Steinway grands featured rounded cabinet arms. New York switched to a square arm design in the early 20th Century to follow current design trends. Steinway in Hamburg did not implement this change and continues to produce the more traditional round arm design. Asian piano manufacturers such as Kawai and Yamaha also continue to follow the European round arm design.
Hamburg built pianos are most often seen in a high-gloss polyester finish. Although New York built instruments are also seen in this shiny finish, hand rubbed lacquer is still standard. Over the years, Steinway Hamburg produced pianos with an inner rim veneered and finished in natural wood finish. It was not until the late 2010s that New York joined them in following this trend. This can be seen as the latest effort to unify the company’s branding.
The Parts Debate – New York vs. Hamburg
Hamburg Steinway pianos have long used action parts built by Louis Renner GmhB & Co. KG (Renner). This independence led them to never adopt the controversial Teflon action parts that were used in New York built pianos between 1962 and 1982. This choice has been a continued point of contention between the two factories. The New York Factory has continually pushed the idea of using New York built Steinway Parts in Hamburg built pianos. This would allow for more unified production and importantly, branding.
Supplying action parts to the Hamburg operation was a key part of a mid-70s internal report by William T. Steinway after a visit and tour of the Hamburg factory. This proposed change has still not occurred, and Hamburg continues to insist on using action parts of their own choosing with their choice currently being Renner. It was announced in Summer of 2019 that Steinway Musical Instruments (the parent company of Steinway & Sons) had purchased Renner. It remains to be seen how this affects the parts choices in freshly built New York built Steinways.
Model & Tonal Differences
Even though the majority of grand piano models are similar, the Hamburg factory has continued to build grand pianos that were or currently are discontinued by New York. The Semi-Concert Model C is still manufactured in Hamburg and they continued building the Model O when New York switched to the Model L in the mid-1920s. Hamburg never built the coveted 6′ 4 1/2″ Steinway Model A, Style III (Model A-III) and continued the construction of the slightly smaller 6’2″ Model A, Style II (Model A-II).
There is much discussion among Steinway aficionados over the tonal differences between pianos built in New York and in Hamburg. Stereotypically, New York built instruments offer a more powerful, bombastic sound while Hamburg built instruments are known for their clean, more European style of tone. This can be mainly traced back to a difference in hammer felt materials.
New York Steinway hammerheads are formed in-house and are soft pressed. Multiple dosages of hardening solution such as lacquer are used by the tone regulator to bring the hammers ‘up’ in order to produce the required level of tone. Hamburg Steinway hammerheads are provided by Renner, are of a hard-pressed variety and are then brought ‘down’ by the use of multiple strikes of the needle tipped voicing tool. Interestingly, this hammer felt is similar to the style used in early 20th century New York built pianos.
Through this unique factory setup, pianos emblazoned with the name ‘Steinway & Sons’ have dominated concert stages the world over. Although there are differences, it is clear that New York and Hamburg Steinway pianos share a common lineage. Here at Chupp’s Pianos we have restored, rebuilt and retailed a high number of pianos built in both of these factories. Due to their relative rarity in North America, we have found that Hamburg built instruments are somewhat coveted by pianists we have worked with. Which one is right for you? That can only be decided by you, the pianist!
About Us: Since 1975, Chupp’s Piano Service, Inc. has been specializing in the full rebuilding and restoration of vintage grand pianos. Located in the heart of Northern Indiana, our work has grown to become the preferred choice of numerous concert venues, institutions, and pianists around the world. Founded by Master Piano Technician Dennis Chupp, our team is made up of top piano specialists. Our work continues to be executed with a focus on the piano as a musical instrument foremost in mind. For more information about the work we do, feel free to get in touch with us via email or phone. If you are seeking a piano that has already been restored, our facility in New Paris, Indiana features one of the largest selections of fully restored Steinway pianos anywhere in the Midwest.
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