He started work as a carpenter in 1822, and later he became an apprentice to an organ builder. He developed an interest for music and became an organ player in the church.
He began building instruments, though hidden in the kitchen of his house because of the strong rules of the guild. In 1835 he made his first square piano, which he gifted to his bride Juliane as a wedding present. In 1836 he built his first grand piano in his kitchen. This piano was later named the “kitchen piano”, and is now on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with a Steinweg 1836 square piano.
Because of the political climate following the revolutions of 1848 in the German states and the limited job opportunities for a man working outside a guild, Steinweg decided to leave Germany. He emigrated from Braunschweig to New York City in 1850 with five of his sons.
Later in New York, he anglicized his name to Henry E. Steinway upon advice from friends, who concluded that the German surname Steinweg would be disadvantageous for doing business. In the early 1850s, Steinway and his sons worked for other piano companies until they could establish their own production under the name of Steinway & Sons.
Important among these were the overstrung scale, a design in which the bass strings cross over the higher ones, permitting longer bass strings and improved tone; and an improved cast-iron frame that bore the tension of the strings without twisting as wooden frames tend to do. The overstrung scale in a square piano earned the Steinway Piano first prize at the New York Industrial Fair of 1855. In 1862 they gained the first prize in London in competition with the most eminent makers in Europe; and this victory was followed in 1867 by a similar success at the Universal exposition in Paris. According to pianistic giants such as Franz Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, and other high authorities, the Steinways have done more to advance the durability, action, and tone-quality of their instruments than any other makers of Europe or America.