Woodwind instrument making (reed instruments)
The making of reed instruments. Single reed instruments include the clarinet and saxophone; double reed instruments include the oboe, bassoon and cor anglais.
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees||1-5 (across the range of reed instruments)|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||21-50 (across the range of reed instruments)|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||21-50 (across the range of reed instruments)|
Until 2003 Boosey & Hawkes was a major manufacturer of brass, string and woodwind musical instruments.
There are several techniques required to make woodwind instruments. Some are common to all the instruments and others are instrument specific.
Keymaking is common to all. It requires using a number of different techniques to create a key. It also requires a lot of experience and skill to design and fit the keys to be functional and aesthetical pleasing.
Traditional techniques require forging, filing and silver soldering skills. In recent years casting has become good enough to create acceptable keys, but they still require traditional key making skills and understanding to design and make the master patterns and to finish and fit the cast keys.
The website of Howarth of London gives a good description of how an oboe is made: the wood is selected, cut into billets and seasoned; the billets are turned; the body is made on a CNC mill; the keys are made, fitted and plated; the instrument is assembled and padded and then tested.
Musical instruments from different countries can sound very different from each other.
Oboe making: Howarth of London (11-20 skilled craftspeople, 1-5 trainees)
Saxophone making: Hanson Music (1 specialist maker)
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Training issues: The School of Musical Instrument Crafts at Newark is a good course run by skilled people but doesn’t provide the necessary skillset to become a maker and existing makers feel that students could do with more work experience as part of the course to make them more appealing. It is a useful course to begin with but it is impossible to learn everything in three years and gain the depth of understanding required to earn a living from the craft – the best anyone can hope for when leaving college is to set up a repair shop. Existing makers would prefer apprenticeships/benchside training to college training. Dan Parker of Canadian Institute of Musical Instrument Technology (CIOMIT) has been suggested as a positive model – originally ran a very busy repair shop, had a great interest in training staff so became a training centre with a repair shop on the side and train people to make and repair as part of his business. Suggested that college training should be linked to industry so that students are employable and the existing business could expand. A few makers do take people on as apprentices. Daniel Bangham established the Cambridge Woodwind makers to encourage people to enter the trade by having a go and then going on to Newark if they like it.
Recruitment issues: Recruiting staff is the biggest issue – although there is plenty of interest, it is nearly impossible to find people with the necessary skills. Ideal trainees are in their late twenties, and have seen a bit of the world and have some work experience – the danger if they start too young and are not completely dedicated is that they are always looking for other things. Howarth of London take on staff from all over the world but they tend to leave after a few years making it hard to sustain a workforce in the UK.
Ageing workforce: The number of makers is getting smaller and smaller and the workforce is getting older and older.
Business issues: In order to take over an existing business (such as one belonging to someone looking to retire) or to start up on your own, you need capital, business skills, and vision and be prepared to endure some financially tough years. Never going to earn millions – need to be dedicated.
Market issues: There is a huge trade in importing instruments and rebadging them. All companies, from the biggest to the smallest, do this – especially on the student ranges. Most people choose ‘built in England’ rather than ‘made in England’, although it can be hard to tell the difference.
Market issues: People like to buy cheap things – affects every industry and is difficult for any high-end retailer, and the quality of products from the Far East is rapidly improving. But usually there is an area of business that doesn’t succumb – a case of getting the balance of pricing right. Many makers have a student line imported from abroad and sold at a cheap price, and then a professional/high-end line made in the UK and sold for a high price.
Mechanisation: Reed instrument making is no longer a ‘craft’ – instead it is more like engineering with a lot of technical equipment.
Loss of skills: A lot of the specialist skills are disappearing, and there soon won’t be anywhere to get advice from until it reaches a point when the specialists will come back.
Lack of support: European trade shows can cost as much as €20,000 – French and German companies might get government support to cover their attendance, but it is very difficult to get any support in the UK
Craftspeople currently known
In the UK, reed instrument makers tend to specialise in particular instruments.
Howarth of London – makers of double reed instruments (oboes, bassoons and cor anglais). Used to make clarinets but gave up about 12 years ago, although still have all the jigs and would like to set it up again as a course. Have 35 people in the workshop, which includes an engineering department, wood department, key department and finishing department, and 25 people working in the shop. Whereas other companies buy in screws, keys etc., Howarth make all the parts and supply screws to other individual makers etc. Train people up – have taken people on from colleges but the college training is very broad and not very useful – but at least it gives an indication of interest. Have recently taken on two apprentices.
Peter Eaton – makers of clarinets, particularly the ‘elite clarinet’ inspired by a Boosey & Hawkes English clarinet, and clarinet mouthpieces. Peter is full time, plus four other part time staff – make about fifty clarinets a year. A handful of parts are imported from abroad, but the keys are made in the UK. Peter is in his 70s and is looking to retire.
Hanson Music – makers of clarinets, saxophones and guitar components. Used to also make metal flutes, but haven’t made one for eight years. Buy in key sets. Also do repairing. Has 3 full time makers, including one apprentice – all can repair saxophones, clarinets and trumpets; one specialises in saxophones, one in brass instruments and one in clarinets. Take on an intern from France/Germany every year for six months.
Pillinger London – makers of clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces
Peter Worrell – embarking on very niche clarinet market, making mechanisms for one-handed clarinets/recorders.
There is also a small number of bespoke manufacturers.