Watch It Made Blog

The Food of Love
Tuesday, February 12, 2008 | Posted By Karen Axelrod in Factory Tours

"If music be the food of love," begins Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, "play on." For those who are still dieting after a surfeit of sweets during the holidays, music may indeed suffice on Valentine's Day. Lots of factory tours involve music in one way or another. We summarize three below, but see our book Watch It Made in the U.S.A. for many others.

Highly strung

Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton: that's a nice trio for a guitar company to have on its list of customers. Indeed, since C.F. Martin Sr. started Martin Guitar in 1833, Martin acoustic guitars have acquired a loyal following among over a million musicians, whether they perform in arenas or in coffee-shops. On a tour of the facility in Nazareth, PA, you see many of the 300 separate steps—most still done by hand—of making a Martin guitar.

It takes between three and six months to make each instrument. Working in concert (sorry) with a variety of tools, craftspeople bend, trim, shape, cut, glue, fit, drill, finish, sand, stain, lacquer, and buff. Notice how a dovetail neck joint is carefully trimmed and then checked to ensure a proper fit with the body. After the tour, you can try your hand at playing some ax on a current model.

Including Neil Young and Bonnie Raitt, the client list of Taylor Guitar in El Cajon, CA, is equally illustrious. From a humble beginning in 1974, the company now builds thousands of acoustic and electric guitars every year. On the tour, you learn that one of the co-founders accidentally revolutionized the neck-attachment process because he did not know how to make the traditional dovetail to fasten the neck to the body. Instead of using glue, which impedes the transference of resonance and creates a deadening effect, he planed the surface of the body flat and bolted on the guitar neck, resulting in greater stability and a more articulate tone.

Now highly technological and adhering to rigid standards, the manufacturing process includes the use of computer-guided lasers, diamond-tipped cutting tools, and an ultraviolet light that bakes each guitar for 23 seconds to cure its finish. Meanwhile, the company's repair department tries to salvage damaged guitars—whether dropped during air travel or triumphantly trashed at the climax of a punk-rock show.

All keyed up

It takes a year and about 12,000 parts to make a Steinway piano. At the Steinway headquarters in Long Island City, NY, more than 500 craftspeople, trained by apprenticeship, hand-build 2,800 pianos every year.

A high point of the tour is the rim-bending. Six people carry a laminated rock-maple board (often with 18 layers) to one of the piano-shaped presses. They wrestle the wood, bending it around the press, and then hammer, screw, and clamp the wood into place. Each rim stays on the press for a day. Once removed, rims "rest" for at least six weeks in a sauna-hot darkened room.

Soundboards are custom-fit into each piano. Workers hammer in the bridge to which strings will be attached. Saws hiss and the floors vibrate with rhythmic banging and drilling. Cast-iron plates suspended in air wait for installation into rims. In the stringing department, workers attach each metal string to the plate (or “harp”), loop it tightly around the bridge, and then clamp it around the tuning pin. This process is repeated until all strings are installed.

The final stage is tuning. Master voicers in soundproof rooms regulate the key-and-hammer mechanisms (the "action"). To ensure that all hammers rise to the same height, voicers hit each key and watch the corresponding hammer bob like a woodpecker’s head. Once the action is regulated, the voicer inserts it into the front of the piano and tests its musical quality, adjusting its tuning and brightness.

If these tours sound like music to your ears, consult a copy of Watch It Made for more details of each experience and for other tours involving music.

Posted By Karen Axelrod at 12:35 PM in Category:Factory Tours

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