Where Pianos Are Made

From Chinese Pianos to German Pianos: Where Pianos Are Made

You will often hear discussions about a piano’s character, either sound or touch, and how it relates to its country of origin. Overlooking the fact that it is extremely difficult to attribute most pianos to just a single country these days, there is, like most popular narratives, some truth and some fiction to the notion that a country can determine the nature of a piano’s sound.

Factors such as cultural preference, national manufacturing standards and traditions, as well as material selection do play a part in a piano’s character. For example, the thick hardwood construction of American pianos does produce a more mid-range, wide projecting tone, than a smaller, lighter piano from Germany. However, Germany’s larger tradition of precision engineering and craftsmanship does tend to manifest itself as a very clean, clear piano tone. An “Asian” sound is really the result of the brassy, uncontrolled harmonics that cheaper woods, felts, and wools produce in a piano, and have much more to do with the price point rather than the region.


There are currently 3 piano producers in the United States, and none in Canada. The most famous of these would be Steinway and Mason & Hamlin. North America nearly experienced complete extinction because of their failure to adequately respond to inexpensive Asian imported pianos. Were it not for Steinway’s meticulously crafted, iconic brand status, and Mason & Hamlin’s sheer will to innovate despite highly unfavourable economics, we may not have had any pianos to call our ‘own’ at this point. The modern piano was unquestionably born in the US, and if current online sentiment can be viewed as statistically representative, the majority of piano owners and shoppers still believe these American beauties to be amongst the best. (Mason & Hamlin had the highest positive post rate on the world’s largest user community, and Steinway consistently cites that 9 out of 10 professional performers choose Steinway.)

As stated in the introduction, American pianos often feature heavier, denser woods than their European counterparts; this is partly due to tradition, and partly due to easier access to high-quality maple. Mason & Hamlin, for example, is the heaviest piano on earth, inch-for-inch, largely due to its extra-thick rim of solid hard-rock maple. Steinway also weighs in amongst the 10 heaviest, again because of its particular wood content. Since both of these American producers are considered to be performance-level pianos, it would be fair to sum up the category as highly durable, heirloom-grade, with a focus towards higher-level performance. The tone, because of its thicker rims, tends to be a little more ‘woody’ and rounder than other instruments, though factors such as voicing, and (perhaps more in Steinway’s case) variation in manufacturing, can easily dwarf the influence of these material characteristics without proper prep or selection.

With Mason & Hamlin’s continued focus on design evolution, and the ‘style’ gap between these two brands continuing to widen, it is quite likely that the term ‘American piano’ won’t have much meaning 10 years from now.

Western Europe (France/Germany/Italy/Austria)

Western Europe is home to most of the world’s most respected piano builders: Grotrian, Bechstein, Hamburg Steinway, Fazioli, Bosendorfer, and Sauter. They all have long traditions of extremely high levels of craftsmanship, design, and longevity. Generally, German piano building is most likely to be cited as being the ‘best’, and at certain times in history that was justifiably accurate. German piano design typically focuses on clarity of the harmonic structure, long singing sustain, and robust but efficient construction (vs. American pianos, which could be argued are over-built for most uses). Particularly with the case of C. Bechstein, Hamburg Steinway and Grotrian, construction times are quite long, with abundant consideration given to the proper curing of wood, fanatic regulation of the action, and general levels of factory ‘prep’.

More recently, newer brands like Borgato and Fazioli have emerged as part of a wave of boutique, high-ticket pianos with more specific tone or touch objectives, utilizing new designs and computer technology to almost ‘computer test’ scale designs and acoustic ideas before they are built. While their purchase price will keep them out of reach of most buyers, their contributions to the industry as a whole are undeniable, and the larger competitors are already incorporating many of the advances that these smaller players helped to pioneer.

Eastern Europe (Estonia/Czech Rep./Poland)

If there is one region in a serious crisis of identity right now, it is the Eastern European piano building industry. 20 years ago, they were seen as a halfway between option, offering up affordable pianos that were more romantic and in some cases truly better than Asian, without the high price of German or American. However, it is now fairly well acknowledged that the highest levels of Chinese assembly and manufacturing is now equal to or surpassing the quality output of most of Eastern Europe’s factories – the strongest evidence being the shift by Western European makers to stop using Eastern European shops in favor of Chinese ones, for their 2nd and 3rd tier brands. Not only that, but their cost structure is less competitive. As a result, there are only two significant players left: Estonia and Petrof. However, even Petrof has diversified into general design and furniture building, as efforts to shore up bottom lines continue.

An emerging trend seems to be the conversion of piano factories into piano REBUILDING factories. Operations such as www.saprenovation.com are becoming increasingly more common. There is now a significant number of older luxury brands being remanufactured in Poland, Czech, and Hungarian piano factories, which has helped to maintain the labor specialization. However, this pool of talent is also being increasingly targeted by Western dealers and distributors who see these artisans as good potential concert technicians – a specialization which the North American scene hasn’t been producing many of in recent years.

Japan is home to the two largest piano companies on earth: Kawai and Yamaha.  Not only do the two companies have a shared history, but they have at times been bitter rivals for the crown of the global sales leader.  As with many products from Japan, their pianos are known as being high-value, high-quality, durable, and well-designed.  Japan’s manufacturing sectors benefited from a number of highly specific factors which lead to very high quality control, relatively affordable labor compared with productivity, and a highly insulated economy with protections against imports and massive exports. In many ways, they formed the same type of symbiotic relationship that the US currently has with China.

Japanese pianos are known for their technical stability, their strong resale value, and high levels of innovation. As other countries catch up with where Japan was in the 1970’s, in terms of mechanical stability and musical performance, both Kawai and Yamaha have turned their sites on the high-end of the market, each producing a world-class concert instrument and accompanying line of pianos.  Of the two, the Shigeru Kawai line from Kawai has received the greatest levels of praise, and have won very high accolades from such sources as Larry Fine’s The Piano Book which for several years listed the Shigeru as the only “Tier 1” Japanese piano.

Unlike many other countries, Japan’s industry is highly consolidated, and so a “Japanese Piano” really only means one of two brands. Both Kawai and Yamaha continue to show high levels of commitment to maintaining operations in Japan, despite rising costs. Kawai currently produces more than 75% of it’s acoustic pianos in Japan.  This number is much closer to 25-50% for Yamaha, who has expanded their Indonesian and Chinese operations in recent years.

Like many Asian countries, the importance and status of piano ownership in the home is also very high in Korea.  Their own piano-building infrastructure began at a very similar time to that of China’s piano industry in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s.  The first two companies, the Chung Eum Company and Soodo Piano Manufacturing Company, successfully produced a line of upright pianos that met with moderate domestic success, by very little recognition outside of the country.  After they both closed in the early 1970’s, Young Chang and Samick rose to prominence, producing the country’s first successful exports.  As their success grew and provided an ‘in-between’ option for Japanese or Chinese, the Korean market flourished, becoming the second largest producers for many years.  However, their pianos never achieved the same level of respect or track record as their Japanese counterparts, as evidenced by a lack of robust resale activity and decades of ratings within consumer guides.

As Korean labor costs continue to rise in line with Japanese, the value that Korean pianos presented in the past has become somewhat diluted, as many Chinese pianos now rank alongside Korean instruments, but still with a significant price advantage.  As a result, much of both Young Chang and Samick’s production has been relocated to countries like Indonesia and China.  Only the most expensive and best-rated of the piano lines are still manufactured in Korea, such as Samick’s Knabe, or Young Chang’s Weber.

Access to reliable and skilled labor, as well as plenty of high-quality cheap wood, has made Indonesia a preferred outsourcing option for EVERY Japanese and Korean piano maker – at least as long as China retains any ‘branding toxicity’ to European and North American customers.  Kawai, Yamaha, Samick, and Young Chang have all manufactured their ‘B’ lines in Indonesia, and by and large the track record for these instruments have been very good.  As Kawai said of their Karawan facility, they were building a “Japanese factory in Indonesia”.  It would seem that the work practices and general approach to work in Indonesia was highly synchronous with the Japanese, and as a result both Yamaha and Kawai have enjoyed success in integrating their factory designs and work practices in this country.

At this point the industry is still relatively young, and generally being driven by three companies – Samick, Yamaha, and Kawai – all foreign to Indonesia.  There is currently no native Indonesian piano companies which export to North America.

China’s path to prominence in the piano industry can be traced to the Chinese government’s decision to create nationalized factories in every major population center in the country.  From Dongbei and Beijing Xinghai in the north, to Sejun and Pearl River in the middle and South, these large factories began producing 10,000’s of pianos for China’s own population.  When Western investment began opening up after the Cultural Revolution waned, these factories were perfectly poised to start producing extremely inexpensive pianos for the North American and European markets, under the guise of hundreds of long-retired brands.  With almost no oversight and very little consumer information out there, the Chinese piano industry flourished as millions of either partially informed or completely uninformed customers purchased these instruments for huge profits, from stores and distributors all around the world.

It is often said that the economic destiny of China is closely linked to that of the United States, and when the US slowed down in the mid to late 2000’s, the explosive growth in nearly all areas of consumer manufacturing slowed quickly – pianos included.  To survive the glut of supply, a few Chinese producers reached to the West to form partnerships involving equipment, technical knowledge, and labor, in order to become more competitive both domestically as well as globally.  Companies like Schimmel, Steinway, and Bechstein were amongst the better known participants of this movement.

Today, China’s piano industry is highly diverse, with 321 listed piano ‘manufacturers’ selling their product through online distribution channels.  There are clearly defined ‘strata’ of factories,with the best in China inline and on par with top Japanese producers, and the worst being amongst the most poorly constructed instruments on earth.  So while the entire country can no longer be painted with the same brush in terms of its quality output, the word ‘China’ should still, at the very least, illicit a healthy curiosity to investigate a little further, and connect with a dealer or technician with considerable experience in the sector.

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