Making tomorrow’s music in an anonymous Peekskill loft, a few skilled artists today are upholding century-old techniques and craftsmanship to create prized woodwinds for a demanding clientele.
The instruments of A. Laubin Inc.—oboes and English horns—are scarce, expensive and world-famous, played over the years by musicians on all but two of the continents. And for the last quarter-century, the instruments have begun their musical careers on Central Avenue, each one undergoing a decade-long regimen of rigorous preparation.
Founded some 60 years ago by Alfred Laubin, a professional oboist, the company today is in the dextrous hands of his son, Paul. In turn, Paul works with his son, Alex, and two assistants in a throwback loft shop of a restored 1844 grist mill. In an age of mass-production, A. Laubin painstakingly produces, by hand, only 18 to 20 instruments annually, an attention to detail that routinely creates wait times of eight to 10 years and prices of $11,800 to $12,600, depending on choice of wood.
The loft’s one big room, which far more closely resembles artist studio than factory floor, wood—holds all of the materials to build an instrument. Awash in late summer sunlight, sweet symphony music and a faint scent of solder, the shop is an anachronistic amalgam of personal hand tools and belt-driven lathes and drills, of wood chips and metal shavings, exotic raw materials, finely honed imported parts, intense concentration. “We work,” Paul points out, “in the thousandth of a fraction of an inch.”
Standards of another time
His shop recalls the days when first-rate craftsmanship trumped cut-rate pricing and “good enough” just wasn’t, well, good enough. Autographed photos, on the walls and elsewhere around the shop, express the gratitude of a satisfied, elite class of customers.
Among the photos is one signed by Sherry Sylar, associate principal oboist with the New York Philharmonic. Sylar climbed a steep set of steps the other day to reach Laubin’s unmarked second-floor door, a plain, brown wrapper masking the work that goes on within. She was dropping by to have her oboe checked as the orchestra prepared to open its 170th year. “Just to make sure everything’s OK,” Paul says. Her instrument got a Laubin tuneup.
“There are 21 adjustment keys on an oboe,” Paul explains, “and they all have to be right.” Her’s were.
The instrument makers of A. Laubin are accustomed to working for this veritable Who’s Who of musicians at the top of their game. Laubin customers are “pretty much anyone who’s first oboe in a symphony orchestra,” says David Teitelbaum of Brewster. With 36 years on the Laubin line, he’s second only to Paul in years of service.
Paul’s son, Alex, is next with about 10 years. An Oberlin College graduate, he grew up in Mahopac and now lives in Beacon with his wife and their 3-year-old son.
Stephen Gara of Peekskill, the newest member, rounds out the close-knit craftsmen.
It begins with a wooden block
They start their oboes’ remarkable journey with some unremarkable blocks of wood. Over the patient course of some 10 years, well-aged rosewood or an African hardwood known as grenadilla gradually becomes a Laubin instrument.
In the simplest terms, an oboe is, as Paul puts it, just a “little piece of wood with a bunch of holes.” Add two pieces of cane, scraped thin, then fastened together in a mouthpiece, and the instrument’s essential elements are in place.
Walking through the studio, Alex picks up what looks like a foot-long piece of blackened 2x2 scrap and hands it to a visitor. The wood’s weight, reflecting its density, is immediately clear.
“It’s grenadilla,” Alex explains. “We order it from an importer . . . [then do] a lot of aging.”
When Paul Laubin mounts that kind of block on a lathe, he’s preparing it for “the rough turn.” First, he drills through it, end to end, creating the beginnings of his oboe’s acoustic chamber. Square block still on the lathe, Paul rounds it to something closer to its tube-like finished shape.
Next, and last for now, inflection comes to the acoustic chamber with the introduction of tone holes. On a Laubin-designed duplicating machine, Paul drills the holes, which can vary the oboe’s pitch by opening and closing keys over them. By controlling the tone holes, a player varies the length of the air column in the wood and thus its pitch to produce the oboe’s haunting, beautiful sound.
Once that’s done, this section—what they call a “joint”—cures for a year in a 120-degree kiln.
A family business
This hand-crafting follows a pattern developed by Alfred Laubin after more than two decades of experimentation. As a professional oboist, he was unhappy with what he could buy in the marketplace. So, Alfred began working at home to create an instrument that would meet his standards.
In 1931, shortly before Paul was born, Alfred gave birth to the first Laubin oboe. Soon, he was producing instruments for friends, turning them out by hand and honing his skills for more than 20 years before opening A. Laubin Inc. in 1954.
Meanwhile, his son, Paul, had taken up the oboe at 13, playing it well but having no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, with his sights set on becoming a chemist, Paul enrolled in Louisiana State University. After a year as a chemistry major, Paul recalls, “I couldn’t see making that my life’s work.”
Deciding that perhaps the family business was his calling after all, he became a professional, playing oboe with symphony orchestras in New Jersey and Atlanta. Increasingly, however, he was spending more time in his father’s shop. Paul recalls a period in which he held virtually two jobs, working in the shop by day and playing at night. “I realized,” he says, “this was going to be a hard way to make a living.”
Paul takes the helm
Before Al Laubin died in 1976, he become a legendary maker of world-class woodwinds—his oboes remain a part of any discussion of the finest instruments made. He also passed along to his son the craft secrets needed to continue that success. Paul took up the challenge, eventually moving operations to Crompond.
That’s where he was working when the City of Peekskill beckoned. To be sure, A. Laubin was decidedly small potatoes by Peekskill’s onetime industrial-production standards. Coming out of the 19th century, it had been a city of sizable shoulders, its waterfront teeming with the belching smokestacks of several prolific iron forges, turning out America’s plows and stoves day and night.
But well before the 20th century’s final whimper, the local economy had lost not only that industrial identity but also much of its retail and commercial base. A. Laubin fit right in with efforts to reinvent Peekskill as a center of creative energy and artistic skill. In 1988, the oboe makers left their digs on Route 202 in Crompond and moved into the onetime mill on Central Avenue.
There, these skilled craftsmen continue to measure their job satisfaction more by pride than paycheck. And they still inscribe the owner’s name on every product going out the door.