No pianos have been built in Toronto in 35 years, but it doesn’t have to stay that way

A Steinway concert grand takes shape at the company's factory in Astoria, NY

Stroll down Toronto’s hipper high streets — Dundas in the Junction, Queen in Leslieville — and note how many new businesses are devoted to craft goods, from furniture and home accessories, to clothing and foodstuffs, such cheeses, cold cuts and cupcakes.

I’ve frequently wondered if pianos couldn’t be an option, as well.

Walk along Dundas St in the Junction, and you’ll cross Heintzman St, named after the company that made Canada’s best piano. But pianos haven’t been made in Toronto since the late-1970s, when Heintzman moved to Hanover, then overseas to large, efficient factories where workers make a fraction of what people would earn here — if there were any factories left to work in.

That Heintzman factory, its long-closed music stores, as well as the Mason & Risch factory in Scarborough, left behind a legacy of skilled craftspeople who knew the inner secrets of a piano the way a Geek Squad worker knows a motherboard.

The youngest of these piano geeks are still alive and well and working on pianos around the city. Toronto also happens to be the source of some of the world’s most prized hammers and strings, thanks to a guy called Ari Isaacs. John Schienke, in King City, sends his wound bass strings to technicians and rebuilders across North America.

These people could, if they had time and inclination and faith that someone would actually buy one, make their own pianos, ones as good or better than the Steinways currently coming out of the factory in Astoria, NY.

Making a good piano is not magic; it’s a committment. It also has a price.

I’m writing all this because, thanks to the patronage of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and the let’s-do-it spirit of the largest music store in the north of England, the birth of a new British piano manufacturer is being announced today at a big music-industry fair in Frankfurt, Germany.

Cavendish Pianos is headquartered at Bolton Abbey, the ducal estate of the Cavendishes in Yorkshire. Rather than operating as a factory, it has been set up as a cooperative among a long list of suppliers dedicated to using British felts and leathers, locally grown timber and an effort to source as much of each piano’s materials from within the country.

The last two piano manufacturers in the U.K. closed their doors more recently than those in Toronto. Kemble, owned by Yamaha, moved its production to (I think) Indonesia in 2009. The other, a descendant of Broadwood, which, wth Erard and Pleyel in Paris, gave the world its first modern pianos in the mid-19th century, closed about 10 years ago.

The skilled trades and craftspeople nurtured by these factories can still conceivably pick up where they left off.

The world’s craft piano makers, of which a handful subsist in Europe and Australia, don’t do it for the money, but for the love of the instruments, of which they make 100 to 200 a year. Cavendish hopes to put together 50 in 2012.

The prices have to be higher than for instruments mass produced in China or Indonesia, but one also gets an instrument capable of far richer expression and, for those of us concerned about how even our dusting cloths have become disposable consumer goods, something that is not discarded after a couple of decades.

As Toronto piano technician Jamie Musselwhite pointed out to me recently, most Chinese-made pianos are disposable. “No technician is ever going to want to or be able to justify rebuilding one. It will just get thrown out,” he said.

A piano carefully made from quality materials, on the other hand, “is good for a century, or more.”

You can read all about the Cavendish experiment at their website here.

I’m hoping this serves as local inspiration.


2 thoughts on “No pianos have been built in Toronto in 35 years, but it doesn’t have to stay that way

  1. Very interesting article about an instrument that was in so many homes two generations ago. Perhaps not ‘grand’ pianos, but high quality uprights. I have a Heintzman that has been in my family for over a hundred years, and its tone is still beautiful, although it really should be re-strung. If you can’t have an entire orchestra at home, a piano will do! Thanks.
    P. Zel

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