The construction of a piano:
Many parts of a piano are made of materials selected for strength and longevity. This is especially true of the outer rim. It is most commonly made of hardwood, typically maple or beech, and its massiveness serves as an essentially immobile object from which the flexible soundboard can best vibrate. According to Harold A. Conklin, the purpose of a sturdy rim is so that, "...the vibrational energy will stay as much as possible in the soundboard instead of dissipating uselessly in the case parts, which are inefficient radiators of sound."
While many companies make hardwood rims are made by laminating thin (hence flexible) strips of hardwood plywood, bending them to the desired shape immediately after the application of glue, high end manufacturers like Bösendorfer use a solid piece of wood. Bösendorfer, the Austrian manufacturer of high quality pianos, constructs their rim from spruce, the very same wood that the soundboard is made from. Their idea is to concertedly involve the cabinet in the projection and coloration of sound. The loss of energy into the Bösendorfer case alters the instrument's tone, giving it perhaps less power but a complex and unusually resonant sound.
This view of the underside of a 182 cm (6 foot) grand piano shows, in order of distance from viewer: softwood braces, tapered soundboard ribs, soundboard. The metal rod at lower right is a humidity control device.
Theodore Steinway developed the bent plywood rim in 1880 to save manufacturing time and costs. The thick wooden posts on the underside (grands) or back (uprights) of the piano stabilize the rim structure, and are made of softwood for stability. The requirement of structural strength, fulfilled by stout hardwood and thick metal, makes a piano heavy. Even a small upright can weigh 136 kg (300 lb), and the Steinway concert grand (Model D) weighs 480 kg (990 lb). The largest piano built, the Fazioli F308, weighs 691 kg (1520 lb).
The pinblock, which holds the tuning pins in place, is another area where toughness is important. It is made of hardwood, (typically hard maple or beech), and is laminated for strength, stability and longevity. Piano strings (also called piano wire), which must endure years of extreme tension and hard blows, are made of high carbon steel. They are manufactured to vary as little as possible in diameter, since all deviations from uniformity introduce tonal distortion. The bass strings of a piano are made of a steel core wrapped with copper wire, to increase their mass whilst retaining flexibility. If all strings throughout the piano's compass were individual (monochord), the massive bass strings would overpower the upper ranges. Makers compensate for this with the use of double (bichord) strings in the tenor and triple (trichord) strings throughout the treble.
Cast iron plate of a grand piano
The plate (harp), or metal frame, of a piano is usually made of cast iron. It is advantageous for the plate to be very massive. Since the strings vibrate from the plate at both ends, vibrations absorbed by the plate result in energy loss to the desired (efficient) sound transmission channel, namely the bridge and the soundboard. While some manufacturers use cast steel in their plates, most prefer cast iron. Cast iron is easy to cast and machine, has flexibility sufficient for piano use, is much more resistant to deformation than steel, and is especially tolerant of compression. Plate casting is an art, since dimensions are crucial and the iron shrinks about one percent during cooling.
Including an extremely large piece of metal in a piano is potentially an aesthetic handicap. Piano makers overcome this by polishing, painting, and decorating the plate. Plates often include the manufacturer's ornamental medallion. In an effort to make pianos lighter, Alcoa worked with Winter and Company piano manufacturers to make pianos using an aluminum plate during the 1940s. Aluminum piano plates were not widely accepted, and were discontinued.
The numerous grand parts and upright parts of a piano action are generally hardwood, e.g., maple, beech, or hornbeam. However, since WWII, makers have used some plastics. Early plastics were incorporated into some pianos in the late 1940s and 1950s, but proved disastrous because they lost strength after a few decades of use. Starting in 1961, the New York branch of the Steinway firm incorporated Teflon, a synthetic material developed by DuPont, for some parts of its Permafree grand action in place of cloth bushings, but abandoned the experiment in 1982 due to excessive friction and a "clicking" that developed over time. Teflon is "humidity stable" whereas the wood adjacent to the Teflon swells and shrinks with humidity changes, causing problems. More recently, the Kawai firm built pianos with action parts made of more modern materials such as carbon fiber reinforced plastic, and the piano parts manufacturer Wessell, Nickel and Gross has launched a new line of carefully engineered composite parts. Thus far these parts have performed reasonably, but it will take decades to know if they equal the longevity of wood.
In all but the poorest pianos the soundboard is made of solid spruce (that is, spruce boards glued together along the side grain). Spruce's high ratio of strength to weight minimizes acoustic impedance while offering strength sufficient to withstand the downward force of the strings. The best piano makers use quarter-sawn, defect-free spruce of close annular grain, carefully seasoning it over a long period before fabricating the soundboards. This is the identical material that is used in quality acoustic guitar soundboards. Cheap pianos often have plywood soundboards.
In the early years of piano construction, keys were commonly made from sugar pine. Today they are likely to be made of spruce or basswood. Spruce is typically used in high-quality pianos. The black keys were traditionally made from ebony and the white keys were covered with strips of ivory, but since ivory-yielding species are now endangered and protected by treaty, plastics are now almost exclusively used. Also, ivory tends to chip more easily than plastic. Legal ivory can still be obtained in limited quantities. The Yamaha firm invented a plastic called "Ivorite" that they claim mimics the look and feel of ivory; it has since been imitated by other makers.