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!
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!