Melodic Tuned Wind Chimes by Grace Note
A business of some note -- or actually several notes in the key of C -- operates at full speed to turn out hundreds of sets of musically tuned wind chimes each month at the Grace Note Chimes factory in the Bootjack region of Mariposa County, California.
From the open door of the production area, a deafening roar of heavy machinery emerges as metal tubes are cut, polished and drilled.
A Pipe Dream?
At first glance you might think that this operation has something to do with plumbing.
Racks and stacks of thousands of silvery pipes in various lengths and diameter, are sorted into carrels and categorized by notes of the musical scale.
Orchestrated by machine operators wearing ear protection, a squall of saws, and the strident whining of drills combine in a discordant cacophony, as 20 foot sections of extruded aluminum are transformed into polished musical "notes".
"We know what lengths to cut for each particular note," shouts operations manager, John Samples over the unmusical din, "variations in the density of the material can affect the tuning, but each piece is cut close to the final length. "
Finishing operations smooth the cut surfaces and removes a fraction of an inch more material from each end of each pipe as it is checked against an electronic piano tuner for it's final tone.
"Once we get our setting, we check about every 15th piece to make sure we are maintaining the correct tuning," he says.
Each precisely machined cylinder will emerge from this place of acoustic chaos as part of a tuned instrument whose calming melodies are played by the gentlest breeze.
Words for the Music
In fact, the clamor that marks the start of the process is in stark contrast to the musicality of the finished product which ranges from the melodious jingle of the petite "Treasure of Heaven" to the sonorous and euphonic tones of the 6 foot "Earthsong" whose mellow sounds evoke imagines of giant bells tolling in the misty distance.
Other models are named "Himalayan Echo", "Sunrise Serenade" or "Island Melody".
"My wife and I named them one night, " says co-owner Jeff Kile, "It was really her idea. I thought it was fine just to call them A minor, or whatever chord, but people seem to like the names." he admits.
Many of the letters received from customers are from musicians who appreciate not only the names, but also the precise intonation of Grace Note Chimes. Some go so far as to say that they find the atonality and "noise" of other chimes annoying.
Its no surprise that Kile the originator of Grace Note Chimes, is himself a musician who understands the physics of sound. Instead of attaching the suspending string to a hole cut in the upper end of the hollow tube, as is commonly done in other wind chimes, an aluminum pin inserted inside each tube at the point of least vibration provides the suspension point. This innovation gives each note a clearer, more sustained resonance.
Hear the Chimes
The Inspiration Goes Forward
Armed with inspiration and a sample he made by hand in 1982,
Kile convinced his brother, Mike Kile, to invest his $300.
tax refund and join him in producing wind chimes in their
parents' barn in Hunters Valley, CA. They took their products to
craft fairs and festivals, personally marketing their
melodious creations one by one.
After a short time they developed a loyal customer base,
outgrew the barn and moved to their present spacious
facility. Today most of their business is wholesale, selling
to dealers who supply nurseries and garden suppliers. Their
busiest season is spring , according to Samples, when buyers
are supplying the garden centers.
"A Good Place to Work"
Production worker Eddie Lemire, emerges from the fabrication area for a break. "I've seen a few people come and go during the five years I've worked here, but good workers stay a long time. It's a good place to work," he says.
After the tubes or "notes" are finished, they are taken in sets of six to the assembly area where each chime is put together by hand. Workers cut white dacron cords to length, seal the ends of each, and tie the knots which assembler Audre Reed compares to a "a secret handshake".
"No one but us knows how to do this." Reed says with a smile. "and you can't make us reveal the secret."
Kile, standing nearby, takes a length of the braided cord and deftly loops it around his finger. "It's just a Boy Scout slipknot," he counters, "See, pulling down on it only makes it tighter."
The Knot Trick
Reed knows the knot trick well after twelve years of employment with the company. She and the others in this department seem to work with a harmony and rhythm appropriate to the products they put together.
The slender sturdy cords attach each brushed aluminum tube, to an aluminum ring which places them in an equally spaced circular arrangement. The notes are set at varying levels, allowing the striker, a softly rounded redwood disk, to contact each tube at its center where it radiates the purest tone.
A flat " wind paddle" trails below the disk, catching breezes and sending the striker toward one note or another in varied succession while creating an endless musical composition.
At the top, all of the cords are brought together on a chrome plated brass ring, ready for hanging.
Each set of chimes is fashioned by an individual assembler. Francille Jouett finished a set she was working on by putting her personal initials on the informational tag, as all assemblers do, before the chimes are packed into custom designed cartons.
"All of the notes are tuned in relation to middle C, " Samples explains, "If you have two or three sets of chimes in your yard, their sounds will all work together. In fact, some people have as may as seven or eight sets, set up in various places."
In one of the many rooms of the complex , Travis Baars glances at his computer screens checks the FAX for incoming internet orders. A display of custom etched wind paddles on the the walls shows some of the made-to-order work the company does to personalize special requests.
Each chime has an engraved aluminum wind paddle which indicates the chord and notes of the set. Special designs, reflecting business logos, graphics, or personalized inscriptions to commemorate birthdays, weddings, or other specific events can be ordered.
Baars will even create special motif for a client. "Generally, after they give me an idea, I will create the design and send it back for their approval." Often, he says with a satisfied grin, the customer gets back to him with a response of ,"That's Perfect!"
"In the early days, Jeff and his brother scratched the letters into the paddles by hand with an awl." says. Baars. In contrast, today's method is automated. A diamond tipped engraver transfers the computer created design and graphics onto eight aluminum plates at a time.
From a Tiny Town-- A World Full of Customers
Currently the factory in Bootjack, with more than a dozen employees from the local area, ships Grace Note Chimes all over the world.
Wholesalers buy most of their output, selling them to nurseries and garden shops all over the US as well as to England, Canada and Guam among other places. Through sales on their internet site, the musical tones of their chimes can literally be heard around the world constantly creating new melodies according to the rhythm and inclination of the wind.
The UPS truck comes daily, and is often totally filled with outgoing sets of chimes.
"We get a lot of individual orders from Germany," says Samples. A giant custom model with three inch diameter tubes and an overall length of over 6 feet, hangs by itself in one part of the shipping area.
"We get orders for about two dozen of these extra large custom sets a year." He explains that giant models like this cost over $1000. "You can see that the notes are hung from thin stainless steel cables instead of strings. This one's going to Sweden. For some reason, Sweden seems to be a good market for these."
Twice a year, just before Mother's Day and near Thanksgiving the factory opens it's back room for special sales, which save the buyer 40% off the retail price. Local folks look for the sales to buy gifts for the holidays or other special occasions, or just to add to their own collections.
Proud new owners of a set of Grace Notes Chimes understand
the company slogan "Let the Good Chimes Toll."