From the February 2017 issue of DRUM! | By Rick Van Horn | Photos Courtesy of The Vic Firth Company
A singular and remarkable icon within the percussion industry, Vic Firth passed away on July 26, 2015. However, the company that bears his name is alive and well. In fact, drummers who may not be familiar with Vic’s personal history will likely still recognize his name, thanks to the millions of drumsticks, mallets, and other percussion products that bear it. Drum recently had the opportunity to visit the Vic Firth factory in Newport, Maine, as well as the warehouse in Massachusetts.
There we learned how the products are designed, manufactured, and marketed. Here’s what we saw.
In The Factory
The Newport, Maine factory that makes Vic Firth sticks was founded in 1865 as a family-owned woodworking business. According to director of operations David Crocker, “The skilled craftsmen here got into the drumstick business many years ago after the last member of the founding family sold the company.
“Now, we’d never made sticks before,” Crocker continues. “But we hand-made some samples for a former client who liked them. So then we had to gear up to produce drumsticks for the first time. I had seen some centerless grinding machinery at a trade show, and I thought that would be a good way to make a drumstick. We made more samples using that technology, and that’s what got us into the stick business.”
The Newport factory made sticks for about four years. “Then one day I got a phone call,” Crocker says. “The guy on the phone said, ‘Hi, this is Vic Firth. Do you know who I am?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re the competition. I make sticks for another company.’ And he said, ‘Well, if that changes, call me; I’ll give you an order for 100,000 pairs.’
“Two weeks later the client informed us that they had opened their own plant down in Alabama. So in July of 1990 we started making sticks for Vic. Initially we just made nylon-tipped models; Vic had another supplier for wood-tip sticks. But four years later Vic bought this factory outright and transferred all stick manufacturing here. Then 11 years ago Zildjian asked us to make their sticks. That was a nice boost for us, because it gave us two leading stick-product lines under one roof.”
Today, in order to meet product demand, the Vic Firth factory runs two ten-hour shifts per day, four days a week. Eighty percent of production is hickory sticks, 15 or so is maple, and the rest is oak, persimmon, and some other specialty materials.
Commenting on the stability of the Vic Firth operation today, Crocker says, “Vic Firth started in 1963,” he says, “so that’s 53 years. The factory facility dates back to 1865. And Zildjian — with whom Vic merged in 2010 — has been around since 1623. So, if you’re looking for a stick brand that’s going to be here tomorrow, we’re it. We’re not going anywhere.”
Drumstick production begins with raw planks that are run through a “gang saw” (Fig. 1) that slices them into long square strips. Those strips, in turn, are cut into 16″- or 17″-long “squares” that will be turned into dowels (Fig. 2). (Additional pre-cut squares are purchased from outside mills.) Operators check each long strip to determine which pieces can move forward, and which are bowed or otherwise imperfect and must be rejected.
The cut squares are carefully stacked on pallets and placed in Firth’s dry kilns (Fig. 3). “The kilns are big rooms where we can control the temperature, humidity, and air circulation,” Crocker says. “We set the parameters so the circulating air is a little bit dryer than the moisture content of the wood. It takes about ten days to extract that moisture and get the content down to where we want it. If you don’t start manufacturing with the right moisture levels, it’s wrong all the way through the process.”
After leaving the kilns, the squares are run through a series of machines that first turn them into dowels, then further refine their shape (and release any stresses in the wood) until they are perfectly uniform (Fig. 4). “After the dowels are finished, we weigh them to make sure they’re not too light to make a Firth-quality stick,” Crocker explains. “We also use a laser to measure how straight the dowel is.”
Finished dowels are inspected for their cosmetic appearance. Clean, light-colored dowels will be used to make clear-finish models. Dowels that are structurally sound but have minor cosmetic problems can be used to make colored models, like Steve Gadd and Dave Weckl signature sticks. The inspectors also orient each dowel for the grinding operation, making sure that the best grain structure is at the tip of the stick. This enhances stick durability (Fig. 5).
Centerless grinding is the key process in the creation of Vic Firth sticks. But what exactly is it? Crocker responds, “‘Centerless’ grinding means you’re not holding the part by the two ends, as you would do on a lathe. The dowel is dropped into the grinder, where it’s captured between the ‘work wheel’ that’s doing the grinding, the ‘work rest’ that’s supporting the dowel, and the ‘regulating wheel’ that’s forcing the dowel into the grinding wheel. There’s a different grinding wheel for each stick model (Fig. 6).”
Why does Vic Firth choose to use centerless grinding, as opposed to back-knife lathing, which is employed by several other fine stick manufacturers? “To begin with,” Crocker replies, “dimensional accuracy is better with centerless grinding. It’s within plus or minus five thousandths of an inch. You can’t do that with back knives. Also, we don’t have to do as many secondary operations as are involved in lathing. And we don’t need to sand; the sticks come off the wheels and go straight to finishing.”
Anyone viewing the grinding operation for the first time is likely to be startled by the fact that the sticks are ground under a cascade of water (Fig. 7). This is necessary to reduce the heat of friction, carry away the dust generated by the grinding process, and keep the wheel from clogging up. Still, after Crocker’s previous comments about moisture content in the wood, this seems a little counterintuitive.
“The water only penetrates the surface of the wood a couple of cells deep,” he says. “The sticks are air-dried after grinding (Fig. 8), and 40 minutes later they’re back to where they were. The only remaining effect is a little bit of ‘furriness’ on the surface of the sticks, and that’s removed in the finishing process.”
As an interesting aside, the hard-felt balls on Vic Firth drum-corps and symphonic bass drum beaters are ground on the same sort of machines as drumsticks. The heads on many models are then both screwed and glued onto the shafts so they don’t come off.
And speaking of “not coming off,” that leads us to Firth’s process for creating nylon tipped drumsticks. “Nylon tips that are pressed and glued on after a stick is made can come off,” Crocker says. “A Vic Firth nylon-tipped stick has a bulb shape on the end of the wood neck. We force the nylon material around the bulb in an injection mold (Fig. 9), so that the tip isn’t attached to the stick; it’s literally a part of the stick (Fig. 10).”
The last step in drumstick manufacturing is applying a finish. For clear-coated sticks this is done in large rotating bins called “tumblers” (Fig. 11). Tiny wooden balls carry the finish into the tapered section of the sticks, which wouldn’t otherwise get as much contact as the shank portions. They also serve to smooth off the previously mentioned “furriness” left by the grinding process. “But that doesn’t make them texture-free,” Crocker points out. “We don’t want the sticks to be slippery, so we leave just the slightest amount of texture on the sticks, and we use a very thin lacquer coating.”
As to whether that coating provides any protection against warping due to moisture exchange: “Research has shown that in order to stop moisture exchange you’d need to apply seven layers of epoxy paint,” Crocker replies. “That’s not practical on sticks. Our 6-to-8 percent content provides a good average for avoiding moisture exchange in all the places around the world. We don’t get customer complaints about crooked sticks, and we don’t get sticks back. That’s my basis for saying that we’re doing things right.”
To make Firth’s various colored stick models, the sticks are hand-mounted by their tips into racks (Fig. 12), and then slowly lowered into a tank of colored lacquer. Then they’re withdrawn and allowed to air dry (Fig. 13). “We don’t color the tips,” says Crocker, “because no matter what coloring material we’ve tried, we’ve never found one that gave us the feel we wanted on the rest of the stick but wouldn’t come off the tips and mark up the drumheads.” After receiving their finish, sticks are labeled with their model name and brand on an inkpad-stamping machine (Fig. 14).
Vic Firth’s slogan has long been “The Perfect Pair.” That pairing is achieved by a weight- and pitch-sorting process. We couldn’t take photos of this operation, because it’s a key element of what gives Firth sticks their character and level of quality. But Crocker did explain the process for us.
“The system is totally computerized,” says David. “On the first of two conveyors, each stick is weighed. Then it’s assigned to a sorting bin according to its weight. On a second conveyor, sticks from a given weight bin are tapped three times by a small hammer. The computer reads the sound of each tap and determines the fundamental frequency for that stick. The sticks are sorted by these readings, giving us bins full of sticks that are matched in weight
and in pitch.
“Now, we know that not every drummer consciously thinks about weight- or pitch-matching,” Crocker continues. “But it makes a huge difference in feel and performance. We’re also thinking about beginning students, whose teachers are trying to get their hands developed evenly. And orchestral percussionists who require perfectly matched pitches from each stick strike on a concert snare. And drum corps players who rely on the balance between their sticks to execute the incredibly technical things they do. It matters to them, so it matters to us.”
As the last step before shipping, an inspector color-matches sticks as closely as possible, and then pairs them up in sleeves. The sticks are then packaged in “bricks” of a dozen pairs each. “Even though we go through that elaborate process to match weight and pitch with each pair,” he says, “we recognize that there are still slight variations between pairs that might make a difference to customers. So, to make sure that no one brick has sticks that are all heavy, light, high-pitched, or low-pitched, we randomize the pairs in the bricks. That way a customer has a chance of getting a cross-section of any model to check out.”
Meanwhile, In Boston
Twice each week a jam-packed 18-wheeler truck conveys finished products from the Maine factory to Vic Firth headquarters in the Boston, Massachusetts neighborhood of Hyde Park. The trucks then continue into Tennessee to load up with hickory lumber, after which they return to the Maine factory to start the process all over again.
Just down the road from Hyde Park are the Vic Firth and Zildjian corporate headquarters in Norwell, Massachusetts. On our visit there we had the opportunity to chat with key members of the management team. These included director of sales Mark Dyke, director of education and product development Neil Larrivee, artist relations director Joe Testa, and earned product manager, drumsticks, Andy Tamulynas. As a nice surprise, Craigie Zildjian was in the office on the day of our visit. Though the Firth and Zildjian companies merged in 2010, Craigie stresses that the legacy, work ethic, and business philosophy established by Vic still guides the operation today.
“Vic remained very active with the company up until just before his passing,” says Craigie. “He attended planning meetings, and he contributed to phone conferences. In fact, Vic took a personal interest in every aspect of the business, which some people simply couldn’t believe.
“I remember him telling me how he’d call a drum shop and say, ‘Hi, this is Vic Firth.’ And the guy on the phone would go, ‘Yeah, right!’ and hang up. Then Vic would call back and have to say, ‘Hold on — don’t hang up. It’s really Vic Firth.’ This would happen all the time, because no one would believe that they could be talking to the guy whose name was on the drumsticks.”
“Our mission and vision are the same as they have been for the past half-century,” Dyke says. “Our strategy hasn’t changed at all: Service our customers the best way possible, give our dealers the sales tools they need, and make sure we have the inventory to ship — that’s the way we did it under Vic’s supervision, and that’s the way we continue to do it.”
The complete range of Vic Firth sticks comprises some 250 different models. But Dyke points out that the idea is not to set any record for number of models. Rather, it’s “to support a given drummer’s desire to achieve the sound and performance that he or she is seeking.”
Dyke adds, “Vic had an amazing ear. He understood the sound quality that a player looks for. He understood why we need to offer a wide variety of models, even unique ones like the SD5 Echo. His philosophy was simply, ‘If that’s what the customer needs, I will provide it.’”
Visit Vic Firth at vicfirth.com.