Work­shop: His­cox Cases

This month we’re head­ing to the Mid­lands to visit a com­pany that has rev­o­lu­tionised the lives of trav­el­ling mu­si­cians ev­ery­where – and the tale even in­volves a se­cret for­mula!

Guitarist - - Contents - Words David Mead Pho­tog­ra­phy Joby Ses­sions

They say that ne­ces­sity is the mother of in­ven­tion and that’s cer­tainly true with His­cox cases. Wind the time­line back around 35 years and we find Brynn His­cox build­ing bowl-back acoustic guitars much in the fash­ion of the in­no­va­tive in­stru­ments com­ing form Ova­tion, ex­cept he was build­ing them us­ing plum and maple in­stead of plas­tic. Brynn’s guitars were be­com­ing pop­u­lar – Joan Ar­ma­trad­ing had bought one, for in­stance – but his big prob­lem was the lack of suit­able cases to pro­tect them. “I had com­pa­nies build­ing fi­bre­glass cases,” he tell us, “and I used those for a while. It was with one of those that a cus­tomer came to the work­shop to pick up his gui­tar in and fly back to Hawaii – he got there but the gui­tar didn’t. The gui­tar was pretty badly smashed and they smashed the fi­bre­glass case to bits, ba­si­cally, and the gui­tar was un­playable…”

Hav­ing a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing, Brynn de­cided the way for­ward was to de­sign and build his own cases. “I took a cou­ple of years, evenings and week­ends,” he con­tin­ues, “I spent a long time look­ing at all the ma­te­ri­als that were avail­able at the time – this was be­fore there was a sin­gle moulded case in the UK and ev­ery­thing was ei­ther fi­bre­glass or ply­wood. I came across polyurethane and spent a cou­ple of years work­ing with a very good com­pany who were look­ing for di­verse out­lets and we de­vel­oped a blend that worked and that would ac­tu­ally fill a case and cre­ate the in­ter­nal mould­ing.”

How­ever, we’re pos­si­bly jump­ing ahead a lit­tle here and it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter if we out­line the en­tire con­struc­tion process of a His­cox case step by step…

TOUGH CASE TO CRACK

On the day of our visit to His­cox’s fac­tory in Can­nock, Stafford­shire, we were treated to a guided tour by the com­pany’s ad­min man­ager, David John­son and our first stop was to meet Griselda, the nick­name given to the gi­ant vac­uum press that forms the ABS (that’s acry­loni­trile-bu­ta­di­ene-styrene to its friends) outer shell of ev­ery case. His­cox use three dif­fer­ent thick­nesses of ABS for their Stan­dard (1.5mm), Pro II (2.0mm) and Artist (2.5mm) ranges. Re­mark­ably re­sis­tant to dam­age from pen­e­tra­tion, the ABS is the case’s first line of de­fence.

Af­ter some care­ful trim­ming, an alu­minium ring is bent to shape by hand so that it fits the perime­ter of the base and lid of the case. “The ABS plas­tic mould­ing and the alu­minium rim and the stitch­ing of that to­gether is a fairly stan­dard in­dus­trial process,” says Brynn. “Ex­cept the bend­ing of the alu­minium is re­ally a black art. I think we’re renowned for the beauty of the bend­ing in our cases and the way the lid and the base fit, com­pared to our com­peti­tors.”

“The bend­ing of the alu­minium is a black art. We’re renowned for the beauty of the bend­ing in our cases and the way the lid and base fit”

Brynn ex­plains that their rep­u­ta­tion stems from the com­plex­ity of the tool­ing, which is an area of in­dus­trial pro­cesses that can­not be mech­a­nised. He ex­plains, “The essence re­ally is that from one batch of alu­minium – this might be a one-tonne or five-tonne batch – you can­not guar­an­tee the spring re­silience from one batch to an­other be­cause of man­u­fac­tur­ing tol­er­ances – what we call the ‘spring­back’. If you bend a piece of alu­minium or any metal around a pre­de­ter­mined ra­dius and then let go, it will spring back to where it wants to be. It won’t spring back straight, it will spring back to the level it wants to. So you have to over-bend. If you want an 80mm ra­dius you might have to bend it around a 60mm ra­dius, let it spring back and you might get 80mm.”

SHROUDED IN SE­CRECY

We watch as the alu­minium rim is fit­ted to an ABS car­cass and it’s a per­fect fit, even be­fore it’s clamped into place ready for all the hinges and locks to be fit­ted. “Most of the alu­minium the cus­tomer can’t see,” Brynn con­tin­ues. “One of the essences of my de­sign is that it’s im­por­tant all the hard­ware ac­tu­ally riv­ets to the alu­minium rim and not just the plas­tic shell, which you’ll find on a lot of Far East­ern plas­tic moulded cases. So the alu­minium ex­tends down in­side the plas­tic shell where you can’t see it and we rivet through the hard­ware, through the plas­tic and into the alu­minium.”

At this stage the case com­prises the shell with the alu­minium rim, catches and hinges at­tached – but the next part of the process is shrouded in se­crecy. This is where we en­ter the foam room, where the se­cret for­mula polyurethane foam is in­jected into the case to pro­vide a safe haven place for its future in­hab­i­tant. “I have to thank the UK-based polyurethane-resin-blend­ing com­pany that I’ve been work­ing with for all these years,” says Brynn. “To work with us and de­velop a blend that does ex­actly what we want it to do is not an easy thing to do. And we’re still de­vel­op­ing the foam, to keep ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion. That resin is a foam blend of about a dozen dif­fer­ent chem­i­cals and polyurethane foam can be had from about a ½lb a cu­bic foot to 100lb a cu­bic foot for a myr­iad of dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions. So to blend ure­thane foam for a spe­cific task is a chem­i­cal bof­fin’s job.”

When we liken it to the Col Sander’s se­cret blend of herbs and spices, Brynn agrees: “It’s pretty much the same!” he laughs. “The foam resin is the key and talk­ing about the de­vel­op­ment of that, you can’t stand still, we can still im­prove and the way to do that is to in­vest in ma­chin­ery. We’ve got two ma­chines, they’re worth £30,000 each and the next one is go­ing to be £50,000, which we’re in­vest­ing in this year. The essence of that third ma­chine will be that we can run it off­line and con­tinue foam de­vel­op­ment with­out in­ter­fer­ing with pro­duc­tion. It will give us a bonus in pro­duc­tion, but it will also mean we can more ably and more ef­fi­ciently test and de­velop foam sys­tems con­tin­u­ously.”

Af­ter the foam is in­jected into the case, the cloth – which is ap­plied at the same time as the foam and bonded to it – is ti­died up in­side. The lid is at­tached to the base and, af­ter fi­nal check­ing, the case is hoovered out to re­move any traces from the pro­duc­tion process. It’s then boxed up and sent out.

“The hard­ware riv­ets to the alu­minium rim and not just the plas­tic shell, which you’ll find on a lot of Far East­ern plas­tic moulded cases”

Apart from the struc­tural rigid­ity of the cases, an­other con­sid­er­a­tion is ther­mal pro­tec­tion. “The in­su­la­tion is a very im­por­tant part of the fea­ture,” says Brynn, “be­cause peo­ple will travel on a plane and, if put in a hold on an air­craft where there’s no live­stock, the hold can be at mi­nus 30 [de­grees] on a transat­lantic flight. So you pick your gui­tar off the carousel and it’s re­ally cold and there’s dew all around the alu­minium rim be­cause it’s been so cold in the hold. Then you take it out of the air­port, put it in the boot of a car and it can be 40 de­grees, es­pe­cially in Aus­tralia or the States, and our cases have got to with­stand that tem­per­a­ture change.”

And here comes the sci­ence bit: “Try­ing to elim­i­nate that shock, from the hot to the cold, we did a lot of tests and the re­sults are on the web­site, com­par­ing the polyurethane in­te­rior that we use to poly­styrene that the cheaper ones use, and ef­fec­tively our cases keep out the hot and the cold con­sid­er­ably and demon­stra­bly bet­ter than any­thing else on the mar­ket. The polyurethane foam in­te­rior is not just a cel­lu­lar struc­ture – poly­styrene is a cel­lu­lar struc­ture and full of air and it will even­tu­ally con­duct the heat through – but polyurethane is de­signed as an in­su­lat­ing prod­uct, it’s what you find in fridges and freez­ers world­wide. Each cell of the polyurethane foam struc­ture is filled with an in­su­lat­ing gas, it’s part of the process. As it cre­ates it­self, it’s cre­at­ing an in­sult­ing gas in­side of the struc­ture.” This com­bi­na­tion of light weight com­bined with an amazing struc­tural in­tegrity and built-in ther­mal pro­tec­tion is why man­u­fac­tures such as Pa­trick James Eg­gle, Low­den, Vigier, Furch and Yamaha choose to pro­vide His­cox cases with their in­stru­ments and there are tes­ti­mo­ni­als galore from cus­tomers who have en­dured horror stories on the road and yet found their in­stru­ments in­tact af­ter­wards.

“There are so many pro mu­si­cians out there trav­el­ling all over the place and our big­gest en­emy is the air­lines, ba­si­cally – they’ll smash any­thing!” Brynn con­cludes. “Ralph McTell had his prized J-45 thrown out of the back of an air­liner and they were meant to catch it but missed and it hit the ground head-on, and be­cause the head of the case crum­pled, he thought that was it, his gui­tar was gone. But he opened the case and the gui­tar was fine. They’re meant to do that – they’re meant to give like the crum­ple zone around a car – that’s what the de­sign is all about.”

“Ralph McTell had his prized J-45 thrown out of the back of an air­liner and they were meant to catch it but missed and it hit the ground head-on”

Brynn His­cox: from build­ing guitars to de­sign­ing cases used by mu­si­cians world­wide to pro­tect their pre­cious in­stru­ments from a hard life on the road

1 1. Fresh from the vac­uum press­ing ma­chine, the ABS is rough trimmed

2 2. Bend­ing the alu­minium rim is an ac­knowl­edged black art and de­mands a high level of pre­ci­sion

3 3. Alu­minium rims for elec­tric and acoustic cases await­ing fit­ting to the ABS shells

4 4. The rims are clamped in place ready for the hinges, catches and locks to be fit­ted

6 6. The cov­ers for the pock­ets and pro­tec­tive pad­ding are all hand stitched in the fac­tory

7 7. Af­ter it leaves the foam room, the cloth is neatly tucked away in­side the alu­minium rim

5 5. His­cox cases are unique in that all catches, locks, etc are drilled through the alu­minium rim for ex­cep­tional sta­bil­ity

8 8. Once the lid and base have been as­sem­bled ev­ery His­cox case is pre­pared for dis­patch, ready for life on the road!

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