The Return of a Grand Master
A Look at Canada’s Storied Heintzman Piano Company
National Post, June 1999

A historic photo outside of the Heintzman factory in Toronto. A carriage drawn by two horses carries what appears to be a piano under a protective cover.

The Heintzman factory in Toronto’s “junction”.

Look carefully and you can still see the faded letters that spell “Heintzman and Co.” on the south wall of an elegant, eight-story building half a block up from the corner of Toronto’s Queen and Yonge. From 1911 until 1971, “Heintzman Hall” was the nerve centre of what had been the most prestigious of all the piano manufacturers that this country ever produced – and there were no fewer than 28 of them in the early 1920s. Those were the days when a house wasn’t a home without a piano in the parlour, and Heintzman met the demand for instruments with a network of 18 branch stores and 13 distributors coast-to-coast.

Today, Heintzman pianos – at least, those whose pedigree dates back to 1860 when Theodore Heintzman is said to have single-handedly assembled an instrument in his Toronto kitchen – are readily found in schools, conservatories and homes throughout the country. Many have been battered about for decades. Some are neglected family heirlooms, receiving about as much attention as the eight-track tape deck packed away in the basement. But the Heintzmans that have weathered the years – that have not succumbed to dry air or humidity or dozens of missed tunings – provide proof of the instruments’ reputation: that their components and sound were of the highest quality, and that the great Heintzman uprights were, arguably, the best produced anywhere. When the company closed its factory doors for good in 1986, one of the last in Canada’s industry to do so, it pretty much ended an era.

So it comes as a surprise to walk into a local music store and discover the golden “Heintzman” stencil staring out off the fallboard of shiny, new, ebony uprights and grands. Although for Casey Siepman, the pianos’ Winnipeg importer, it’s simply good marketing sense to draw on the Heintzman legacy.

“It was a great old name, and I thought if I could take that name, and put it on a piano worthy of what a Heintzman used to be, then maybe we can make something of this,” he says, pointing to the pianos he is importing from the Czech Republic.

The Heintzman Piano Company Beginnings

When Theodore Heintzman arrived in Toronto in 1860, he brought with him the old-world skills he had honed while apprenticing in his native Berlin. Heintzman and Co., incorporated six years later, was a success from the start, but it was son George who was the driving force behind the company’s growth. Legend has it that, to garner publicity, he rode the cow-catcher on the first transcontinental passenger train to Vancouver in 1887. And in 1888, George insisted on shipping pianos to the Indian and Colonial exposition in London, England, where Queen Victoria expressed amazement that such a product could come from the colonies. By 1890, Heintzman and Co. was one of the largest manufacturing firms in Toronto, employing 200 craftsmen and producing 1,000 pianos a year from a factory in the city’s west end.

In 1911, the doors opened to Heintzman Hall, home to what the early publicity dubbed “the most beautiful warerooms in the British Empire”. With brass doors, a majestic, marble staircase that would have been the envy of Norma Desmond, pillars, stained glass windows, Oriental rugs, and potted ferns, the building embodied all the dignity and refinement that the name Heintzman had come to represent.

But all of Heintzman Hall’s opulence was just a backdrop for its raison d’etre: the hundreds of grands and uprights of the finest polished woods, crafted by the best cabinet makers and technicians of the day. Glenn Gould practised on the nine-foot grand in the sixth floor artist’s room. Oscar Peterson occasionally dropped in for an impromptu performance on the showroom floor.

Verne Edquist on Heintzman Pianos

Verne Edquist, head tuner, tone regulator, and assistant manager of the grand piano department at Heintzman in the ’50s and ’60s, is somewhat of a legend himself. He was also Glenn Gould’s technician, and the fastidious pianist’s second set of ears during recording sessions.

“I think”, says Edquist, “that you’ve come to the holy grail of the Canadian piano industry with the Heintzman upright.” His own upright dates from the late ’20s. A basic, workhorse model, it was built to weather the onslaught of music students in schools and conservatories across the country. And when Edquist draws a series of chords from the instrument’s upper register – round, rich, cathedral-like chimes – they seem to hang, miraculously, in mid-air.

The Heintzman sound was no accident. The circular, acoustic rim in the corners of the soundboard, says Edquist, “was scientifically placed to give maximum resonance.” The Agraffe bridge was patented in 1873. A raised bar running across the upper octaves of the instrument’s cast iron frame, its tiny holes guide the taut, treble strings. “The energy went into this bar,” says Edquist, “and the tone would resonate in the heavy cast iron.” He points out the wooden shanks attached to the felt hammers. “You see how these are shaved on the sides? They cut down the mass because you don’t want a great big clunky hammer hitting the string.” Even today’s better grands don’t get it right, says Edquist. “Too much clunk and not enough tone.”

The Beginning of the End

The depression hit the company hard. With only 200 pianos produced in 1934, the most beautiful warerooms in the British Empire saw fridges and stoves added to their inventory. Government contracts to build boxes for telescopes and bomb sights helped get the company through the War, but the novelty of television brought further hardship in the early ’50s. By mid-decade, though, Heintzman piano production – fueled perhaps by pianist Liberace’s spectacular popularity ­­­– was up to about 1,000 annually. But it was still a far cry from the heyday of the early ’20s, when roughly 3,000 left the factory per year.

The big blow came in the ’60s. At the  beginning of the decade, Yamaha was putting out 50,000 pianos a year – and twice that by 1967 – because of cheaper Japanese labour and more efficient production techniques, explains Bill Heintzman, a Heintzman vice president at the time. “And they were making a good product. We, along with a few other remaining piano makers, got swamped.”

The move to a state-of-the-art factory in Hanover, Ontario, in 1962, streamlined production, but cost the company dearly when the older, experienced technicians wouldn’t relocate. As a result, standards slipped to the point where technicians in the Yonge Street repair division, as one former employee says, had to “salvage some of the pianos coming from Hanover. We had to call and say there were parts missing here and there. Quality control was gone.”

In the ’70s, the financial problems became critical. Heintzman Hall was abandoned; an old marble factory, far from the downtown hub, would suffice for office space and grand piano production. The retail chain was sold next. Bill Heintzman, who, in 1964, had taken over another piano firm, Sherlock-Manning, tried to breathe life into the failing family business by merging the two companies under the name Heintzman Ltd. He gave it his best shot for three years. But when he took over, says Heintzman, the company, in effect, was bankrupt. In 1981, it was sold to the Sklar-Peppler furniture company, which hung in for five years before bailing out of the piano business.

The remaining Heintzman inventory and trademarks were sold to The Music Stand, a chain of retail stores then operating in Ontario. When that company started shipping inferior South Korean and American pianos into the country, only to slap Heintzman nameplates on them, a Federal Court judge ruled against the practice, stating that “there was clearly a deliberate attempt . . . to camouflage the fact that a change of source had occurred.” It finally seemed like the end of the line for the Heintzman name.

The New Heintzmans

But about two years ago, Siepman resurrected it. He says the Heintzman name was essential if he had any chance of breaking into an extremely difficult market. “If a good piano was going to be introduced into this country that wasn’t from the Orient, then it pretty much had to be a Heintzman piano,” Siepman explains.

His pianos do attract attention – perhaps even a pang of nostalgia. It’s a pang that becomes more acute upon reading the brochures associating them with the pianos that you “remember when you were growing up,” when “most of the people you knew had a Heintzman piano.” This may be treading on questionable territory, though Siepman, and the staff at Remenyi House of Music, where the pianos are sold locally, make a point of distinguishing these instruments from the stock spawned in Toronto’s west end.

But, are they good pianos? Paul Gilchrist, an independent piano technician in the Toronto area, thinks they are. “I think,” says Gilchrist, “they’re the best pianos made with the Heintzman name on them in the last 40 years. They’re precise, they’re neat, and the construction looks good, with solid maple bridges and solid spruce boards. Even the wood grain orientation gives them maximum strength.”

The upright comes mostly from the Czech Republic, while much of the grand, says Gilchrist, originates in Korea’s Young Chang factory, which has long been making pianos for European and American companies. Siepman looked to a company in the Czech Republic for the pianos’ scales – the design and plan that outline the interplay of the instrument’s different parts – because the craftmanship, although comparable to Germany’s high standards, comes at a lower labour cost. Gilchrist says that the Czech handiwork, as well as the German Renner action, gives the pianos a more European “flavour.”

“Asians tend to go for a hard, dense hammer,” he says, “while Europeans go for a slightly more resilient, softer hammer.” The piano, in general, is slightly less bright and aggressive than its Asian counterpart – more “classical”.

So Siepman went to a company in the Czech Republic, where he says craftsmanship, though comparable to Germany’s high standards, comes at a lower labour cost.

And the end result, says Gilchrist, is a “premium” instrument. The Heintzman name, it seems, shall endure on a fine piano.

10 replies
  1. Arne Sahlen says:

    I saw several Heintzman-branded pianos in a Victoria BC sales and repair-restoration shop within the past year. I was told that they are made in China, supervised with some link to long-ago Heintzman factories and/or family. You may contact meat ths above e-address if you wish to track the issue.

  2. Stewart Hoffman says:

    Hi Arne,
    Good to hear from you. From what I understand, Heintzman sold its machinery and scales to a Chinese company in the late ’80s, and the familiar Heintzman logo was printed on the fallboard. I can’t imagine it was a distinguished instrument at that time. I have no idea as to the quality of the newer ones. I’d be curious whether or not they had Heintzman’s unique Agraffe bridge. Did you play them at all? What were your impressions?

  3. Jacqueline says:

    I find it hard to find much info on the actual pianos themselves as to the production of them over time. Obviously, some years they must have produced better pianos than other years? How can one find out what the differences were and which years were outstanding? I understand that at a certain point the quality declined. Also wondering how many pianos were made each year. Appreciate your help and information, thanks

  4. Stewart Hoffman says:

    Hi Jacqueline,
    This article was written a number of years ago and I’m not as on top of the Heintzman story as I was. This page from Merriam Music, which includes a history and dates with serial numbers, may help: I sent your email to a good friend of mine who is a technician in Calgary. Here is his response:
    “Tuners are rarely huge fans of them, and actually because of that much-vaunted “agraffe bridge.” For some reason, the string does not move very freely through it, and making small, almost imperceptible (and stable) shifts in pitch are extremely difficult. As for which years are best, I’ve found little rhyme or reason, since they’ve been coming out of so many different factories in the past 50 years, some with the old design, some with completely different specs. I never know what I’m going to get until I actually see it!!”
    Sorry I can’t help more. I would call reputable piano dealers who specialize in restoring Heintzmans for more detailed information. My friend’s comments about tuning aside, they did produce wonderful sounding instruments. Best of luck with your research!

  5. Stewart Hoffman says:

    Just a short addendum to my earlier response . . .
    My understanding is that the company was making good instruments up until the ’60s. I spoke with my technician friend since my first response (your questions stirred my interest in the Heintzman saga). He pointed out that there is a fix for the challenges presented by the agraffe bridge. And keep in mind, too, that many so-called Heintzmans – instruments made by companies that simply purchased the name to print on the fallboard – weren’t made with the Agraffe bridge at all. As Verne Edquist pointed out, that unique bridge was key to the Heintzman sound.

  6. Brady says:

    Stewart, I enjoyed your article from 2019 about the Heintzman piano. I too am looking for more information. I have a chance to purchase a 52 inch upright, apparently built in 2014. Your article mentions Remenyi House of Music resurrected the Heintzman name (approx. 2017) using Czech Republic craftsmen. Looking at the Remenyi web site today, there is no mention or access to Heintzman piano. Am hoping to find where the Heinstman piano of 2014 would have been manufactured, and perhaps discover the level of quality at that time. If you have any leads, contacts, or suggestions…I would be most appreciative. Thank You…

  7. Stewart Hoffman says:

    Hi Brady,
    First off, I have to point out that this article was first published in The National Post in 1999. Just this morning I added that date to the title to avoid confusion. Had I written the article today, I would have questioned the integrity of the use of the Heintzman name on Mr. Siepman’s instruments, no matter how good the quality. I recall reading somewhere that Casey Siepman didn’t stay in the piano business. I’ve been told that the scales for the original Heintzman pianos were sold to a Chinese company many years ago, and that you will find those pianos – with the Heintzman name on the fallboard – being imported and sold here in Canada. I suspect that this is the background to the 2014 piano you’re looking at. I don’t know how faithful they remain to the original instruments. I would be interested to know if they are still manufactured with that agraffe bridge. If you’re in the Toronto area, I would recommend you contact Mike Chau at Y. C. Chau and Sons Piano ( Mike worked at Heintzman at one point. I don’t know if he carries Heintzmans – old or new – but he is a very knowledgeable and reputable dealer. Good luck in your search for information, and do let me know if you uncover any updated news.

  8. CHRIS says:

    I am curious I have seen older Heintzman’s from the 1920’s why do some say Heintzman & co on them as opposed to those that just say Hientzman is this a big difference? I thoroughly enjoyed the article!! Mostly because it’s the most famous of the Canadian companies.

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