Quantity and Quality

Schilke Quality and Quantity


Gold valve casing

Schilke Music Products, Inc., is a small limited production manufacturer of high quality trumpets, cornets and brass mouthpieces, located in greater Chicago, Illinois. They advertise their trumpets as “custom made.” This is essentially true. The horns are not made by the company until the order is received from the retailer. They keep no inventory of horns, other than a few horns awaiting shipment, in a factory showroom. Because of this, the purchaser can order the bell material, configuration and model he desires with any additional custom touches. He can also have any additional customization done that will assist in the horn meeting his own special needs. For example, go here.

They advertise (I’ve never counted to check) that they make sixty-five different models of trumpets and cornets. Though they may have increased their production during the collaboration with Yamaha during the 1970’s, at this time they regularly make, I am told, between twenty and twenty-five horns per week, with an annual production of between 1000 and 1250 horns. This compares with Bach’s recent production of more than 16,000 to 20,000 horns per year based upon their published serial number list.

Production has slightly increased since the purchase of the company in 2002 by Andrew Naumann, but fears that it would increase so quickly as to effect the quality of the instruments have proven unfounded with contnual reports from purchasers all over the world that the current production is the equal in quality to any previous time in Schilke’s history.

As a result of Schilke’s limited production and extensive product line–if all the horns were made equally, production would be less than twenty horns per year of each model–the number of horns of any given model each year varies widely depending on the market. Predicting the next year’s need is impossible, though often retailers will attempt to keep one or two of the more popular models in stock. But the order from the retailer is received before the horn is made. This often limits the number of horns that are available for trial at most stores. For example, when the Schilke representative appeared with about a dozen horns at the 1999 International Trumpet Guild Conference, all but two of the horns he brought were already sold. It is the same every year. One has to go to some trouble often to buy a Schilke, he or she usually doesn’t just wander in the local music store checkbook or credit card in hand. Fortunately, the effort is always rewarded.

Schilke’s market is worldwide with the popularity of Schilke B flat and C trumpets reputedly being greater outside of the United States than in it, according to former employees. The small trumpets are the world’s standards and Schilke’s reputation was built in the United States on their domination of this market.

The horns are somewhat more expensive than the mass produced instruments from, say, Bach and Yamaha, but given the quality of their manufacture and the durability of Schilke instruments, the amount of the difference in cost, when amortized over their useful life, is minimal. Richard Dundas, the proprietor of the Vermont Trumpet Exchange who has bought and sold many many Schilke instruments, once wrote to me that the age of a Schilke trumpet was irrelevant; only its condition was important. A thirty year old horn that was in great condition was essentially as valuable as a five year old horn in the same condition. Older Schilkes are routinely sold for more than they cost new. Once used for a few years, Schilke trumpets and cornets are more likely to appreciate in value (to reflect the increasing prices of new ones), than to depreciate.

Uniquely designed: Schilke does not publish bore measurements, just descriptions. This is because the bore varies throughout the horn to improve the intonation. Mr. Dundas, in Twentieth Century Brass Instruments in the United States, says:

Schilke’s technique of charting wave form distortion throughout the instrument and superimposing the pattern for every note enabled him to know what bore size at any point would produce the least distorted wave forms for all tones. While limited by the number of bore variations that can be built into an instrument, Schilke uses more than any other maker and can rightfully claim that his valved brasses are more inherently in-tune than any other production models.

R. Dale Olson, a frequent student and colleague of Schilke, said Schilke typically referred to the ‘perfect’ trumpet leadpipe as looking like ‘a snake who has eaten many eggs.” This is a unique idea and design.

Mr. Schilke explains this in his talk about nodal theory.

The bore of the slide bows, for example, on all slides are often larger than the rest of the slide. Schilke applied a principle to bent tubing which plumbers use on pipe bends. In a steam pipe the inside diameter of the pipe bend is greater than the rest of the pipe for if it were the same diameter there is too great a resistance at the point of the end and the pipe may rupture. Schilke felt that the air would move more freely through the slides if the slide bows were wider.

Likewise, the bores of Schilke valve ports (i.e., the passageway through the piston) are almost always at least a size larger than the bore of the horn. For example, any medium large bore horn would have valve bores a size larger, i.e, matching the bore of a large bore horn. In the case of the P5-4 , the valve bores are two sizes larger.

These bore enlargements, together with other design features, frequently result in Schilke trumpets playing more open and free than other trumpets of roughly comparable bore size, rendering thebore size figure irrelevant.

Although the Schilke B/X series and the small trumpets are made with minimal bracing and primarily lightweight materials, Schilke valve casings, made of red brass (95% copper), are among the heaviest in the business. The leadpipes are also made of red brass, an alloy which resists corrosion. The rest of the horns are made of yellow brass (60% copper).

The horns are still made with traditional water keys. The substitution of Amado spit valves is a custom option. On B flats and Cs, there is no spit valve (except by special order) on the third valve slide. The cornets and the smaller trumpets have spit valves with the lever running under the slide, a lá the Olds Ambassador, on the third and fourth valves. The models made for Jon Faddis and Dizzy Gillespie had no spit valves at all (which is also a custom option).

Even the smallest details were the subject of Schilke engineering: The green valve felts which were present on the horns for many years were designed, according to Mr. Schilke, to compress after initial use to a point where the valves were aligned perfectly for many years. Even Schilke’s signature hexagonal valve caps and buttons are superior to usual round designs in that greater leverage can be exerted in tightening and loosening them because the fingers have maximum surface contact, on opposing sides, when acting as a wrench on the caps and buttons. In fact, a crescent or box end wrench can be carefully used on the such parts without damaging the plating or the soft brass.

Other design features which are showing up now on horns from other companies, such as the reversed leadpipe, rounded tuning slide, minimalist bracing, lightweight materials, and the tuning bell design, were all originated or perfected by Schilke.

For information on the unique quality of the bells found on Schilke instruments go to Bell, Slides and Finish Options.

Uniquely constructed: As a former Schilke employee wrote to me in discussing the infamous inconsistencies found in Bach trumpets,

“variations in horns are usually assembly related, e.g., soldering and alignment. To do a great job takes time and patience. Recent Bach horns have been production oriented, a certain amount of time for each horn or task, right or wrong. I remember old man Schilke himself telling us to slow down, and work very carefully. You probably won’t hear that at a mass production plant. At that time, Mr. Schilke used to say that the average Bach took about eight hours to produce, but a Schilke at that time was taking over eighty hours. Things may be different now at both facilities, but that is how it was when I was there.”

Contrast this approach to the description of life of an employee who was part of the mass production chain at the Olds plant in the 1970s.

Another former Schilke employee wrote:

When I started working at Schilke, Bill Biehl was fitting the slides on Schilke custom instruments so tightly that a person could lap no more than four horns a day, and then by the end of the workday one’s hands were in pain. With the Yamaha instruments, the assembler could put one together in an hour…[but] it seemed that a Schilke was not a Schilke unless it took a lot of time and pain to make the horn.

In addition, “the old man used to brag how we fit our valves with tolerances of .0005 inch. That wasn’t the case. The guys in the finishing department saw that when the valves were fitted that tight, the grip of the left hand on the casing to hold the horn, even as thick as our casing tubes were, exerted enough pressure to pinch the valves. Of course this was counterproductive, so the employees fit them to a larger tolerance of .001 inch which was still very tight but allowed the valves to move freely” when held by a human hand. A copy of the catalog from the late sixties provided me by another Schilke Loyalist repeats the .0005 tolerance claim. Schilke valves remain the industry standard by whatever measure.

For a report on Schilke manufacturing processes resulting from a factory visit in September 2003, go here.

Schilke instruments are plated by Anderson Plating in Elkhart, Indiana, a large company that does the plating for many musical instrument manufacturers, including Bach. They have been since the beginnings of the Schilke Company when Anderson was rather small.

In August 1999, on the TPIN (trumpet player’s internet mailing list) a discussion was had about the degree of improvement owners of Flip Oake’s Wild Thing extra large bore trumpet, made to his design by Kanstul, felt after Flip had learned to remove the excess solder from the joints inside the bore of the horn. He was now removing such solder (by hand, personally) with each horn he sold and offered to perform the operation for free for all those who purchased his horns prior to April when he first felt the need and acquired the tool to perform the work. It rapidly became apparent, through the discussion, that many other repairmen routinely did such things to other horns as well to improve their playability, including horns made by Bach, whose attention to detail and quality control had long been criticized, as well as high end makers such as Kanstul. This got me worried, so I wrote Wayne Tanabe about the need to remove such excess solder from Schilke instruments. I received the following in reply:

First I would like you to know that I have great respect for the manufacturing procedures at Schilke’s. Schilke uses many techniques and careful procedures to keep the quality of their instruments second to none. So if would be rare to find a problem like this on their instruments. If I were to run my own trumpet manufacturing facilities I would use Schilke as my role model.

Wayne Tanabe

That about says it all.

Mr. Tenabe is the proprietor of The Brass Bow Music Company, one of the nation’s premier instrument repair technicians, who counts among his regular customers the brass players from the Chicago Symphony. He is also the designer and manufacturer of the Chicago Brass Works trumpets. He currently resides in New York City, employed by Yamaha, and is active in the design of new Yamaha models.

Finally, Schilke’s attention to manufacturing care and detail is best exemplified by their willingness to stand by their product. Don Schneider, owner of a vintage Schilke trumpet, wrote me the following:

A few years ago I got Schilke B flat trumpet #207, from The Brass Bow where it was on consignment. It is a good playing horn with a sound and feel much like a B1. The leadpipe is made from a sheet with a seam visable on the inside. The Schilke factory tells me this horn was made in June of 1956. A few weeks after I got the horn, it fell from a table, with no visable damage, but the third valve slide had a slight drag to it. While attempting to adjust it (I am a repair tech) the solder joint on the upper inside slide tube at the valve casing broke. I called the Schilke factory, they said that it sounded like a soldering defect and to take it to my local Schilke dealer and have it repaired under warrenty! I told them I was the local Schilke dealer’s repair tech, and they said to fix it and send them the bill! How many manufacturers would stand behind a product they built 38 years before ?

Esthetically pleasing: Holding a Schilke instrument in one’s hands for the first time is a memorable experience. It is clearly a very high quality product with great care taken in the details of fit and finish. The valve caps thread on with precision, there is a solidity to the horn that belies its light weight, the slides slide smoothly, and the valve action is silky but very quick. There is a spare, minimalist approach without extraneous braces or ornament, with the exception of the hexagonal valve buttons, caps, and braces. There is no third valve spit valve, unless custom ordered, with a simple almost invisible screw for a third valve slide stop. The horns are clean, with no bell engraving. Only “Schilke Chicago USA” is engraved on the second valve casing along with the serial number. The model number is stamped on the mouthpiece receiver. Periodically over the years the valve numbers (1, 2, and 3) have been stamped on the valves, but not recently.

In the earliest days, the horns were simply labeled “Schilke” on the second valve slide. See for example the valve casing detail on this vintage horn. Then, for many years, the “Schilke Chicago USA” appeared on the second valve casing surrounded by a small rectangle (as is apparent in the photo at the top of this page). A few years ago, the square disappeared (as pictured to the right). Why? The box portion of the die was damaged, the box removed, and the same die stamp continued to be used. Apparently that happened near the time when the shop moved from Wabash to Melrose Park and has been at least an informal mark of the location where the horn was made ever since.

And finally: traditionally, Schilke valve cap felts have been green, though the supplier discontinued providing the green valve felts in late 1993. Black felts were used until the green felts became again available in the Spring of 1999.