Mapes Piano String Company
Mapes Piano String Company got its start in 1912 when the Schaff family bought the name from Steven Mapes, a prominent piano string manufacture in New York City. Recently, MMR sat down with Andy Wilson, the head of piano strings at Mapes to talk about the evolution of the company.
“We’ve been here almost 100 years. Our reputation of being able to produce good musical strings is out into the market and that helps us greatly,” says Wilson. “You can buy your musical instruments from anywhere in the world, but I think American made products are still number one. The Schaff family has really been very good here at Mapes to keep their company in the location that it is, and employ local people.”
“After making piano strings for some time Mr. Schaff decided that he wanted to find a better source of piano core wire, because what was on the market wasn’t very good,” Wilson says, commenting on the company’s early days. “They originated in New York, where most pianos were being built at that time. But, around 1950, the Schaff family decided to start producing piano core wire in Tennessee.” Wilson explains that the company became so well known for their strings that, “around 1972 they permanently moved the operation from New York to Tennessee to have it all in one place.”
Not only does Mapes produce piano strings and piano wire, but it’s also one of the major manufacturers of guitar strings. Mapes sources such major brands as Martin, Ernie Ball, DR, D’Adarrio, and D’Aquisto, to name a few. “When we started making piano wire and got very good at it, we had extra capacity in our wire drawing,” says Wilson. That led us to start producing guitar string core. We thought, ‘Well, we make our copper wraps for piano strings – why can’t we make the different wraps for guitar strings?’ So we acquired a company that had the capability to do that and we moved it here to Tennessee. It just made sense for us to make the guitar strings,” says Wilson. “Once we started getting into and buying the wire drawing equipment, we also started getting into spring wire in the music wire grade,” says Wilson. “They call it music spring wire and it’s a high end wire for springs,” explains Wilson. Although Mapes doesn’t manufacture the springs themselves, they do sell quite a bit to individual spring makers in all sorts of industries from automotive to defense.
“Mapes is a family owned business, has been since it originated, and I believe that Mapes will continue to be that way,” says Andy. Mapes has been approached “several times” by investors who have tried to convince the company to move the business outside of the U.S. to seek cheaper labor and less restrictive manufacturing laws, but to no avail. “The Schaff family is very dedicated to the American market and the American people and to the people in our little town here – to keep the doors open and to continue making a product here,” says Wilson. “With that being said, we’ve had to be a lot smarter in how we do things. We have to be a lot more efficient. We’re competing in a global economy and quite honestly its not a level playing field, they’ve got us playing uphill a lot of times,” says Wilson. “The taxes and duties to ship into some of these foreign countries is unbelievable,” explains Wilson. “It can get up as high as 40 percent on our product, and when they make musical instruments to send into the US it’s as low as 4 percent for that finished product to come back into the United States.”
The current economic climate has greatly impacted the piano industry, which is one of Mapes’ primary markets. “The piano builders are not able to sell their products out on the market,” says Wilson. “If they can’t sell pianos, it’s hard for me to sell strings to them to put in those pianos.” He explains that a great amount of the cost of strings lies in the raw materials needed. “A set of guitar strings is going to weigh a few grams, but a set of piano strings is going to weigh about 8 pounds,” Andy says. “So you can see that there’s a lot of difference in how much material is used.” When asked about the price of raw material, Wilson is quick to respond. “There you’ve hit on a very good point,” says Wilson, who keeps a close eye on the price of metal. “All metals went up drastically. The cost of every musical string that’s produced has gone up. Of course that’s hard to pass on [to consumers] in a bad economic time, but nevertheless, raw materials like copper, steel, nickel, and brass have gone up in price. I’m talking about a 100 to 150 percent increase in some cases. It has definitely made us a lot more mindful of how we use what material we get, and we take very good care of it,” he laughs.
Taking Care of Business
Throughout the four generations of string makers, Mapes has seen a great deal of change with respect to the manufacturing of strings. “Through modern technology, we’ve been able to upgrade our string winding equipment to be better, and more efficient,” says Wilson, who notes that the biggest technological advances lie in the manufacturing of guitar strings. “Because they’re so much smaller, the speed and tension that you wind guitar strings to be efficient in the market today required us to upgrade our machinery and we’ve been able to do that as a result of a lot of updates in technology,” he says. While technological advances in string winding have resulted in a more efficient manufacturing process, Andy is proud to say that the art of making piano strings is still a craft of skilled labors. “We have machines that will make loops and cut strings to length and do all that for us automatically and they’re good,” he says. “But some of it is a hand craft and we wanted to keep that way. Strings that we make for Steinway are handmade piano strings. We make the loops by hand and we wind the copper on by hand. We have a machine that turns the core, but we’re winding it on by hand.
“The biggest thing that sets Mapes apart from our competitors is our quality. We’re an ISO certified company – we’re very proud of that, and we monitor that very closely,” says Wilson. He explains that ISO certification is just one part of the quality controls system Mapes has implemented. Employee training and maintaining oversight throughout the manufacturing process are also vital to maintaining a quality product. “Everyone at Mapes is quality oriented – it’s something we do when we bring a new employee in. It’s about being able to make an outstanding product,” says Wilson. “We make all of our own wire, and we control all of our processes here, throughout. Being able to do it all in-house, instead of outsourcing, helps you maintain that quality. You can’t start with something bad and make it into something good. If you order good steel, you can make a good wire out of it. If you get high quality copper, you can make good wrap out of it, if you get good nickel for guitar strings you can make good guitar strings, and so on.”