NEWPORT — Tucked in a residential neighborhood by a bank of Sebasticook Lake rests what some might consider the world’s greatest matchmaker. On High Street, it’s not people who are coupled, but drumsticks.

The Newport site, now under the ownership of the Avedis Zildjian Company (famous for its cymbals), churns out approximately 5 million pairs of sticks each year, according to engineer-turned-vice-president of operations David Crocker. Its hickory and maple products are matched by color, weight and even the frequency of sound they make when struck — a complex variable no competitor has figured out precisely how to account for.

“How (a stick) feels when you play it is about the sound of the stick when you strike it, so the sound is really a proxy for feel,” said Crocker.

Zildjian and its daughter brand Vic Firth Company’s unparalleled attention to detail have led them to be the stick-makers of choice for The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, Keith Moon of The Who, jazz musician Buddy Rich, Travis Barker of Blink-182, Josh Dun of Twenty-One Pilots — and even the drummer of Messalonskee High School’s jazz band Alysan Rancourt. The Maine-made sticks are ubiquitous.

Today, Zildjian Company dominates 60 percent of the drumstick market, making hundreds of varieties and distributing its products to over 140 countries. The average pair sells in the $10 to $15 price range. With its recent acquisition of Balter Mallet Company in January, business is thriving. Within two years, Crocker said he hopes the company will complete moving its operations from its current multi-building campus to a singular warehouse it purchased in a less residential part of Newport that is not restricted by a shoreline.

In the last year, the company has created roughly 25 jobs for Mainers, according to Human Resources Director Mike Strout. Most of the new staffers hand sew mallet heads, which can take up to 48 minutes for some models.

“Those are not our favorites,” Crocker joked.

With over 150 total employees, Zildjian is one of Newport’s largest employers. The company has long defied odds, outlasting the decline of Maine’s wood turning industry in the 1980s by decades, largely due to the innovative thinking of Crocker and Sanford-raised Vic Firth, founder of Vic Firth Company.

David Crocker, vice president of operations at the Vic Firth Company in Newport, holds drumsticks stamped with the company logo on Oct. 1. Staff photo by David Leaming

Firth, who played in the Boston Symphony for nearly 50 years and was arguably the best timpanist of his time, developed the one-of-a-kind tone pairing process the company now boasts of. He was inspired after accidentally dropping a bag of sticks in his basement and noticing that they made different sounds upon impact. He quickly recruited students to help sort sticks with a rag-tag method.

“It’s not clear how the legend works exactly,” Crocker said. “First they sat on the floor, but it evolved onto a block of granite. They would pick up the sticks and drop them, and you could hear the tones and they would arrange two sticks that sound the same.”

Eventually, Firth’s son-in-law automated the process, which the Zildjian Company still uses today on High Street.

A MAINE-BORN MODERN DRUMSTICK

Though not nearly as well-known as Firth, Crocker also made huge strides in drumstick technology. Having worked at the Newport facility through 40 years and four owners, his knowledge of woodworking techniques is extensive. He has gone from designing processes to create wooden bottle caps for English Leather Aftershave, fluted columns for athletic trophies and wooden brush banks for vacuum cleaners with Banton Brothers to helping birth the modern drumstick.

David Crocker, vice president of operations at the Vic Firth Company in Newport, on Oct. 1 shows off the cavernous building the growing drumstick maker purchased to allow for expansion. Staff photo by David Leaming

When the plant — then under the ownership of George Smith — heard that Zildjian was having problems making sticks in the 1980s, Crocker and his team hand-carved several samples with a lathe. Though Crocker said they “weren’t very meaningful,” they were satisfactory enough for Zildjian to partner with the company.

“At that time, we didn’t have any of the correct equipment to make drumsticks, so we had a blank sheet of paper,” he said.

Crocker recalled a process he had seen demonstrated at a wood show by the Glebar Company of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, and contacted them to collaborate.

“That’s when we developed a completely new way of making a drumstick,” Crocker said. “It is not a turning process, it’s an abrasive grinding process. It’s all done underwater, but it is very, very accurate, very fast. It’s a superior way to make a drumstick.”

Grinding minimizes bending and stress to the wood, while the water cools down the machinery so it does not burn and discolor the sticks, which typically have a clear finish.

In a decision it would later reverse, Zildjian relocated its stick production to a facility in Alabama around 1990. But eager to continue making drumsticks, Crocker’s team reached out to Vic Firth, who eventually acquired the plant in 1994. Following this union, Firth’s unique tone-pairing process and Crocker’s multi-stage abrasive grinding process never separated.

Chris Vaughn inspects the plastic tip added to hickory drumsticks at the Vic Firth Company in Newport on Oct. 1. The tips help keep drum surfaces unmarked. Staff photo by David Leaming

“It’s different from what anyone does,” Bob Rice, a professor emeritus of wood physics and bioenergy at the University of Maine at Orono, noted. “Others have tried to duplicate it, but they have not been able to do so.”

Rice has worked with Crocker and his team over a period of roughly 25 years, providing Crocker with a sounding board for ideas, running lab tests on grain strength and bending limits and training employees about kiln drying and how to spot quality wood from defected wood. Inspections are critical to the company’s operations. Over the course of the production process, employees examine the wood numerous times to ensure that only the straightest-grain, defect-free wood makes it into a drummer’s hand.

“When you see a very nice piece of birdseye maple, or even more so, tiger maple or hickory with the wavy grain, that’s junk to us,” Crocker said. “The wave in the grain breaks up the long fibers and makes the stick weak.” For implements that are repeatedly used to strike drum heads, strength is key.

Although some sticks are made from Canadian maple, the vast majority are made out of hickory sourced from Tennessee. Maine’s maple and birch are not suitable or available enough for the company to use, according to Crocker and Rice. The felt used for mallet heads comes from New Hampshire and Germany.

Rice said that Zildjian is among the top two woodworking companies in the state.

“In terms of getting the material right and making sure they get a consistent low-defect material going into the process and a process that produces a consistent, reliable stick at the end, that’s real innovation,” Rice said. “If you go out and you consider what they’re starting with down the road — you’ve got a bumpy 30-foot long almost cylinder with a taper, and they’re making a perfectly straight stick that stays straight, looks good, feels good and has certain tonal characteristics … that you can use on an instrument consistently.”

And as far as how long he thinks the Newport operation will last, Rice assuredly noted, “As long as people need drumsticks”

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

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