Cowsheds resound with output of first British piano maker for 78 years

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Company based in Yorkshire Dales makes debut at European music fair in Frankfurt

The great British industry of piano-making, which has dwindled to a handful of craftsmen turning out individual commissions, is about to welcome its first newcomer for 78 years.

Based in a set of former cowsheds in the Yorkshire Dales, a team of experienced piano salesmen is travelling to Germany this week to launch the first of a range of uprights and grands which will have a production run of 50 in its first year.

Cavendish pianos, named after the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who own the premises in Bolton Abbey, bring British-made instruments back to the high street market for the first time since Yamaha moved production of its Kemble pianos to the far east in 2009.

“That ended 99 years of Kembles being made in Britain, and it made me think,” says Adam Cox, who has sold pianos in Yorkshire for over two decades. “It opened up a gap in the market for people who want an affordable piano but take an interest in its origins and like the fact that it’s made in Britain – or in our case, made in Yorkshire.”

His firm’s six staff have made the project viable by using a regional grapevine of specialised industries which have weathered the recession because of high quality, limited production and modest transport costs.

With each piano made up of as many as 20,000 parts, the suppliers include hardwood sawmills, feltmakers and a hand-spinner of piano strings, all within easy reach of the ex-cowsheds.

“China and the far east have many advantages but we can beat them,” says Cox, whose favourite statistic is a reminder of the glory days of British piano sales. During the consumer boom of the late 19th century, more people were employed making pianos in London than in any other manufacturing business.

Jackie Barron, Cavendish pianos
Piano technician Jackie Barron regulating an action on one of the new Cavendish range. Photograph: Martin Wainwright for the Guardian Martin Wainwright/Guardian

“There were 360 firms, so we’re obviously not talking about that scale of things,” he says. “But we’ve seen a growing interest in pianos through the shop. Keyboards and the like had a novelty but people are realising their limitations compared with a real piano.”

The first three Cavendish pianos will be unveiled at this week’s European music fair in Frankfurt, the Musikmesse, where a stand has been arranged with a government grant because of export potential. Prices range from £5,000 for an upright to around £12,000 for a boudoir grand, competitive within the industry.

Cox, who runs the firm with his wife Charlie and has three piano-playing daughters, is targeting the family market but has an eye on professionals as well. His family traditionally hosts players in the Leeds international piano competition which takes place again in August this year.

Steinway provides all the instruments for the actual competition, but players practising at the Coxes’ will have a Cavendish. Or several.


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