Making music in the U.S.

February 23, 2012

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If music is the universal language, then metal fabricators who make musical instruments and their components must be the masters of the universe. OK … that might be a stretch, but at the very least they are creators of products that can bring pleasure to many. (Sorry, but following my own personal tastes, this excludes banjos, accordions, and kazoos.)

My fellow blogger, Tim Heston, recently wrote an article for The FABRICATOR® magazine about a brass instrument manufacturer, Getzen Co., Elkhorn, Wis.  Another of my colleagues, Eric Lundin, just returned from visiting Branch Guitars in Sheep Ranch, Calif. Eric wrote an article that appeared in the TPJ-The Tube & Pipe Journal® last summer about Gordon Branch's guitars.

While Getzen and Branch make finished instruments, others make components for instruments. Among these is Mapes Piano String Company, Elizabethton, Tenn. An article in the Elizabethton Star about this company resonated with me on many levels. It appeals not only to my love of music, but also to my deep appreciation for companies that choose to manufacture their products in the U.S., even when being bombarded with siren calls to outsource.

According to the article, "Mapes, which is currently marking its 100th anniversary, got its start in 1912 with Steven Mapes, a prominent piano string manufacturer in New York City. Six years later the company was purchased by John Adam Schaff, great-grandfather of the present Mapes owners. (The Elizabethton facility was established in 1950 and all production was moved there in 1972.) 

"During its 100 years the company has upheld a tradition of quality. It's a tradition that has been passed down through five generations of family and is being carried forward by present family members Bill Schaff, his two brothers, Frank and Bob, and Bill’s three children, Mark, Regina and Stephanie.

"Although musical component wire can be bought anywhere in the world, Schaff takes pride in producing an American-made product. 'We get calls almost every week wanting us to outsource our operation or move it completely to somewhere like Mexico, Indonesia or some other place overseas, but we intend to stay right here in Elizabethton and employ local people. Our employees have a good work ethic, are loyal and have an accumulative 2,000 plus years of experience.'" 

While the company also manufactures high-carbon steel wire for mechanical spring makers that are used in the automotive, home construction, music, and defense industries, its other product that interests me most is guitar strings. Two of my sons are accomplished guitarists, and I love to listen to them play.

Mapes' guitar string wire is "sold to virtually all companies that make guitars. In the 1960s the company began producing core wire for guitar, mandolin, and banjo strings. In 1992 the company upped its guitar string ante, becoming a major player in the production of guitar wrap wire.

"The company produces a variety of guitar string types including round and hexagonal guitar core wire in both tin-coated and its signature International Gold brand as well as guitar wrap wire in varieties including nickel-plated steel, stainless steel, phosphor bronze, 80/20 brass, pure nickel and silver-plated copper. Mapes works closely with many of the manufacturers to establish unique specs and nuances not only in the makeup of their music wire, but in the way their strings are wound and produced."

Making 'musical' wire is a very complex business that requires both machinery and strong, steady human hands. "'Many of our employees have been doing this for years. They are very skilled at what they do,' said Bill."

And there you have another aspect that resonates with me—an appreciation for the workers who produce Mapes' products. "'We have machines that will make loops and cut strings to length and do all that for us automatically and they’re good, but some of it is a handcraft and we want to keep it that way. We make the loops by hand and wind the copper by hand,' Bill explained. Each piano string is wound by a craftsman, usually with over 20 years of experience."

I don't know if Branch uses Mapes' strings on the guitars he creates, but I like the thought of that combination. Sounds really good to me.

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