Brass instrument making
The making of brass instruments such as trumpets, cornets, trombones, horns and tubas etc.
|Historic area of significance||London and Manchester|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||15th Century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||11-20 (across all brass instruments)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||11-20 (across all brass instruments)|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Before the invention of valves, most brass instruments were custom made. However, with the development of valves in the 1920s, Vincent Bart introduced the assembly line mass-production of instruments. After that, smaller makers stopped making valves themselves as it was very to reliably craft these bits buy hand and compete on quality with precision-engineered valves. Today, nearly all makers buy in valves and build the instruments around them.
It is not entirely clear how much brass instrument manufacture there ever was in the UK. Boosey & Hawkes was a major manufacturer of brass, string and woodwind musical instruments, but stopped manufacturing in 2003, and today there are only small manufacturers left in the UK. As with many musical instrument crafts, there are many more people doing brass instrument repair than there are making instruments. There are also more amateur makers than those earning their living from the craft.
Elsewhere in the world, the USA has quite a lot of amateurs but only a handful of people who make their living making custom instruments. Bavaria is the centre of custom-made brass instruments, and is the only place in the world with a recognised apprenticeship for brass instrument making and with a journeyman scheme.
UK brass bands have always been supplied by mass producers.
- Metal spinning, for making the bells (the flared part of the instrument)
- Drawing tubes to specific measurements to ensure a good fit with other parts
- Bending tubes in such a way that preserves the internal dimensions of the tubes which is critical to the acoustics of the instrument
- Softening sheet/tube brass or nickel so that it can be worked and then becomes hard enough to withstand day to day use
- Jig making to allow assembled components to be consistent in length and therefore tuning
Military fanfare making
Trombone making – requires the drawing of tubes to very exact measurements which requires a draw bench and specialist tooling. Slide legs must be straightened by eye with a perfectly flat surface plate, this is one of the most difficult things to teach an apprentice.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Training issues: The School of Musical Instrument Crafts at Newark does teach brass instrument making, but not to the standard desired by experienced makers looking to take on new staff, and the course mainly focuses on how to service and repair instruments, rather than make them.
Training issues: The rise of videos on YouTube etc. showing how to make instruments has both good and bad sides – some videos are very good and some are very poor and it is hard for the inexperienced maker to distinguish between the two. There is also no major book on the subject.
Manufacture versus assembly: Many makers buy in all the parts need to make an instrument and then assemble them, rather than manufacturing at least some of the components themselves. It is very difficult for the consumer to distinguish between makers and ‘assemblers’.
Dilution of skills: There is a danger that if too many less talented makers become well known they dilute the talent pool and reputation of the craft, and it then becomes much more difficult for those who are really good to stand out. However, the ones that do stand out are the ones that are making exceptional instruments.
Dilution of skills: Like most musical instrument crafts, the sector is dominated by people with the skills to repair instruments, rather than with the higher level skills needed to make instruments from scratch.
Loss of skills: A lot of makers subcontract work to the Far East so skills are disappearing. Furthermore, the standard of manufacture worldwide, including in China, has improved, so it is no longer the case that a foreign-made instrument necessarily means a low quality instrument.
Loss of skills: While there are plenty of people able to make brass instruments, there are not many people who are able to design an instrument from scratch.
Shortage of skills: Very few makers have the acoustic understanding to make bells (the flared part of the brass instrument, made using metal spinning techniques); Rath Trombones, Andy Taylor and Richard Smith do.
Market issues: In order to make a living, you need to make 30-50 instruments are year – anything less than that and it’s a hobby rather than a living.
Market issues: Handmade instruments are far more expensive than mass-produced instruments – e.g. £3,000 versus £100 for a trumpet. Therefore it is important to find the right market, which tends to be part-time players with plenty of money who are looking for something exclusive (perhaps 70% of the market). Professional players do also buy custom made instruments, which give the brand the credibility for ordinary people to want one.
Market issues: Smith-Watkins make fanfare instruments for the armed forces, with a full set lasting about 10 years and costing about £30,000. The Ministry of Defence requires instruments from specialist instrument makers but is not looking to the future or considering what they will do if/when the company closes.
Market issues: Instruments manufactured in the UK, and particularly those by London-based companies, suffer from the cost of rent etc. which means that the instruments have to be more expensive to cover this.
Market issues: Few trombone players want to pay for high quality, handmade instruments. The UK orchestral market is extremely conservative and has been dominated by one US brand for many years. Things do appear to be changing though. The UK Jazz and banding scene is much more open minded.
Marketing issues: The internet has made it much easier to sell internationally and market oneself.
Material characteristics: In many ways, a brass instrument is much more complicated than a wooden instrument – it has moving parts which need to work reliably. Metalworking is noisy and expensive and requires a workshop – hence there are far fewer custom metal instrument makers than wooden instrument makers.
- Covid 19 has posed a significant threat to brass instrument makers. One company has reported a 50% drop in orders and the loss of 5 members of staff.
Craftspeople currently known
In the UK, brass instrument makers tend to specialise in particular instruments.
Denis Wick, London – specialises in mouthpieces and mutes.
Andy Taylor (Taylor Trumpets), Norwich – specialises in trumpets.
Richard Smith (Smith-Watkins), Yorkshire – specialises in trumpets. Richard is in his 70s and his colleague is in his 50s.
Paul Rigget (Sterling Musical Instruments), Bedfordshire – specialises in euphoniums, basses and trumpets.
Businesses employing two or more makers:
- Michael Rath Trombones, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire – specialise in trombones. Has at least one trainee.
Paxman Musical Instruments Ltd, London – specialise in horns. Build around 150 instruments a year, and also sell student line (made in China) and instruments made by other makers, and do maintenance and repair. Have four skilled craftspeople but no trainees.
Eclipse Trumpets, Luton, Bedfordshire – specialise in trumpets.
Given the number of enthusiastic players who enjoy tinkering and go on to make their own instruments, brass instrument making is not considered to be critically endangered.
The demise of Boosey and Hawkes (Besson) has really opened up the market (banding particularly) and allowed the smaller manufacturer to come to the fore. The consumer has more choice which has pushed ups standards and allowed more modern designs to flourish.
- British History Online, Industries: Musical Instruments