Keyboard instrument making
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||5 (harpsichords)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- In the field of early keyboard instrument making the market relies heavily on the availability of second-hand instruments so there is a lot of work for restorers and less for new builds.
- There has been a huge pool of skill and experience built up in the UK in this field, particularly over the last thirty to forty years. There is currently no next generation, so most of this experience stands to be lost. In time this is likely to have a serious impact on players, orchestras, colleges etc.
- Of the few remaining early keyboard instrument makers, most are becoming increasingly reluctant to take on repair work, especially of lower grade and older instruments – of which there are many. This is in part due to the slowing down of the craftsmen concerned due to the age or health.
- Hirers, tuners and conservators are also ageing. London and the South East still have reasonable coverage but it is very difficult indeed to find a properly trained and suitably experienced specialist early keyboard tuner or technician in the north of England.
- Of the established builders referenced above, none are known to have a clear succession plan in place. Many have tried to take on help and/or to train younger people in some way. There are many difficulties to this – legislation and regulation, cost to a one-person business of supervising a trainee, and lack of candidates with suitable commitment, to name but a few.
- The whole training environment is difficult for small enterprises and especially for individual craftsmen. Proper long term training (3 to 5 years is required to gain basic competence as a maker) is financially pretty unsustainable and government schemes like the Modern Apprenticeships etc are just not geared up to this kind of training.
- People who want to ‘have a go’, or even a ten-session college course to produce lots of new ‘technicians’, would be counter-productive. An influx of underskilled newcomers would not benefit customers in the long run. What is needed is a long-term development of thoroughly trained and experienced younger people.
- A maker probably reduces his own work rate by at least 50 per cent and adds a number of additional costs in the early days in order to supervise a trainee who possibly might contribute 10 per cent to overall output. The balance would improve after say a year when the maker might be producing at around 90 per cent capacity and the trainee adding around 20 per cent. And the balance would continue to improve. But if the trainee, for whatever reason, leaves after six months, or even two years, then all that investment of time, energy and trust is lost.
- There is also the difficulty of finding younger people prepared to commit to long training on what is bound to be fairly low financial reward in the early days, but with the very real possibility of a long and fulfilling career later.
- Some trainees have spent between six weeks and six months working with an established maker and then headed out on their own, sometimes using that makers name to validate poor and/or inexperienced work of low standard. This is a big issue and major disincentive to take on and train assistants.
- Specialist instrument making courses at the former London College of Furniture (where many makers once trained) have now all disappeared. There is no equivalent now for early keyboard or early woodwind training. A few bigger harpsichord builders took on trainees in the 1970s and 1980s, but there are no equivalent sized workshops remaining.
- Many pipe organ builders report similar concerns and employment of European trained organ building staff is quite common. A number of students that studied harpsichord making at the London College of Furniture in the 1980s went on to gain employment with organ builders.
- A number of major collections of historical keyboard instruments have been dispersed in the last few years. These collections were an important basic resource of knowledge and inspiration
- Workspace is increasingly difficult to find. The moment one introduces static woodworking machinery (all but essential for economically viable harpsichord or organ production) it is deemed ‘light industrial’ and substantial additional restrictions and costs are triggered.
- British Harpsichord Society – the website provides a list of UK harpsichord makers, as well as a list of suppliers of harpsichords in kit form, accounts of building harpsichords from scratch, availability of technical drawings of historic instruments and sources of various materials and accessories.
- British Clavichord Society
Craftspeople currently known
The Dolmetsch workshop closed in 2010 and the Dolmetsch family now only service recorders. Otherwise it directs enquirers to other businesses for new keyboard instruments, including those run by craftsman who formerly worked at or for Dolmetsch.
William Mitchell has moved to Italy. Peter Barnes has retired from instrument making but still carries out repairs. Michael Johnson and Robert Morley now only repair/restore instruments they made in the past.
Cesar Hernandez is a trainee, undergoing a training with several established technicians.