Why Oboes Are So Expensive
Narrator: With a single tap, Mike Dadson can turn a faulty oboe into one of the world’s most expensive instruments.
Mike Dadson: And then hopefully at the end, we should achieve a bottle-tight joint.
Narrator: When he’s done with it, this oboe will cost almost $14,000. That’s more than four times the price of a high-end professional flute.
Mike Dadson: We like to say you’re only as good as your last oboe, basically.
Producer: How good was your last oboe?
Mike Dadson: Very good.
Narrator: But before it reaches Mike’s desk, artisans select, age, and then whittle rare African blackwood into an oboe base just millimeters thick. This nearly endangered wood is just one of the factors limiting the production of quality oboes.
So, what makes an oboe so difficult to make? And is that why they’re so expensive?
For high-end-oboe producers like Howarth of London, it takes five years to make an oboe from start to finish. Oboes are one of the most complicated instruments to make, and because they’re prone to cracking, high-end oboes have to be made of the best materials, like this African blackwood.
Howarth buys only 2 square meters of African blackwood a year, which costs it $25,000. And obtaining African blackwood – locally called mpingo – isn’t easy. It’s harvested from only the miombo woodlands of Africa in countries like Tanzania. And it’s a threatened species and at risk of endangerment, so loggers are only allowed to chop down trees that are over 60 years old. They must submit a request, acquire a permit, and ultimately pay a fee of $151 per cubic meter they export.
The scarcity of African blackwood looms large over the industry. African blackwood isn’t typically farmed. It grows in the wild, so to combat overharvesting, conservationists in Kilwa, Tanzania, have gone to great lengths to ensure these in-demand trees are managed sustainably.
Abbas Said: These trees are very valuable and are only found in Africa. They are our identity and have their history, so we need to protect them since it is a collective responsibility and not only for forest conservatists.
Narrator: The most valuable part of a log is the heart, which becomes the basis of the oboe. The oboe is a complex woodwind that supports extensive mechanical keywork. It’s subject to moisture generated by human breath, making it prone to cracking when made with weaker woods. But the same properties that allow African blackwood to support the complexity of an oboe are also what make it so difficult to work with.
The first step in construction is to shape the wood, which requires metalworking equipment. Artisans start by hollowing out what will become the interior of the instrument. Then they sculpt the exterior and refine the shape. This process is carried out carefully over a number of years and with remarkable precision.
Jeremy Walsworth: The fact that we can turn a piece of wood to within two- or three-hundredths of a millimeter consistently is…is just remarkable, really. I mean, most engineering companies are using those tolerances to work with metal.
Narrator: Between each round of shaping, the wood is stored for at least a year to mature. Aging the wood ensures it stays strong and doesn’t crack.
Jeremy Walsworth: During the day, we’re blowing warm, dry air over the stock, and then at night, the compressors are turned off. And so we’re going from hot to cold, dry to damp. So we’re really treating that wood stock as badly as we can, because we want it to move and change, and if it’s going to crack, let’s get it out of the system early so we don’t waste any time on it.
Narrator: But the wood isn’t the only thing that contributes to the overall price. Once the basic shape of the oboe is complete, artisans begin to create the oboe’s complex mechanical keywork. After drilling the initial tone holes, workers solder and file the keys to shape by hand.
The keys are dipped in silver for protection and are then fitted to the oboe body.
Narrator: This step alone can take up to 60 hours to complete. According to Howarth, the complexity of the keywork determines the price. The more keys in the oboe, the more expensive it will be.
Jeremy Walsworth: A clarinet has 17 keys typically, whereas an oboe has, you know, almost double that as a student model.
Narrator: And a professional oboe can have as many as 45 keys. Howarth has invested close to £1 million in machinery to ensure each component is at the highest quality. But Howarth says its biggest expense is the craftspeople. The labor required to assemble the oboe accounts for 60% to 80% of Howarth’s costs, and it takes years of training to perfect the art of oboe-making.
Every artisan at Howarth boasts at least 20 years of experience in the craft. Among these artisans is Mike Dadson, one of Howarth’s finishers. He’s tasked with fine-tuning the last few elements of the oboe. One of his most important tasks is fitting cork pads under the keys. Mike sands down different-size corks until they’re paper thin. This step is essential, because a single air leak will render the oboe useless.
Mike Dadson: My engineering needs to be very good on these, because I’ll be fitting them to the thinness of a very thin cigarette paper. And then hopefully at the end, we should achieve a bottle-tight joint.
Narrator: While making an oboe, some of the keys and metal parts will inevitably get slightly bent, and it’s Mike’s job to fix them. If an oboe has a single imperfection, it can’t be sold for top dollar. Fixing bent keys is a test of patience. Sometimes straightening out one key can bend another piece elsewhere.
Mike Dadson: I’ve found the point where I perceive the bend to be, so hopefully I’ll just be able to...
Narrator: Mike often takes over three days to fine-tune an oboe. But all this patient work pays off. The oboe is now ready to be sold. But with a five-year-long production time and increasingly rare raw materials, the number of oboes Howarth can make and sell is limited. Its workshop produces only 800 oboes a year, and of those, only 200 are professional-grade. Limited production results in higher prices and makes quality instruments hard to come by.
Jeremy Walsworth: I can imagine there are less than 20,000 oboes being sold each year. I know that Yamaha make 20,000 flutes a month, and that’s just Yamaha. So the difference in scale is absolutely enormous.
Narrator: Oboes are also regarded as one of the most difficult instruments to master. With such a steep learning curve, there aren’t enough oboe players to justify production on a scale that would keep prices low. But professional oboe players, like Emily Pailthorpe, rely on the continued production of this centuries-old instrument.
Emily Pailthorp: I think this is my fifth Howarth, and I haven’t once had one crack.
Narrator: For Emily, the time and care Howarth puts into each oboe sings through in the end product, so she doesn’t mind the high cost.
Emily Pailthorp: There is no question in my mind. They’re worth every penny. To play on something that’s so beautifully made, that’s such excellent quality, means the world to my professional career and allows me to just then relax and be the artist I want be.