Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Every year Dave Atherton crafts by hand, using only traditional tools, 30 to 40 custom bagpipes of the finest wood, silver, brass, and mammoth ivory. Atherton's instruments cost between $3,000 and $15,000: They are coveted by professional pipers and have won elite competitions in Scotland. Musicians are willing to wait up to two years for a set, which can take as long as 100 hours to build.
Atherton Bagpipes, based in Naperville, Illinois, is the quintessential artisanal business, motivated not by profit but by the desire of a master craftsman to constantly challenge and improve his skills. How transcendently quirky, then, that it exists because its founder won $81,000 on Howie Mandel's game show Deal or No Deal.
That money was enough to fund Atherton's cherished dream of opening his own bagpipes business. Even had he won the $1 million grand prize, he says, he would not have pursued something more ambitious. "I don't want to grow my business into a factory model. I cater to discriminating musicians," he says. "There are watchmakers in Switzerland that make three or four watches a year. I am kind of like that."
Although bagpipes are an ancient instrument--the Roman emperor Nero played an early version--the familiar Great Highland bagpipes date back to the 1800s. Most people associate them with the mournful or the martial. Bagpipes' doleful wail scores funerals, and they are the only instruments ever to be labeled "weapons of war," because they supposedly stir the blood of soldiers in battle.
"They can have that high and lonesome sound," says Atherton. "Or they can sound very upbeat and up-tempo. They are capable of incredible technical displays."
Those latter qualities are behind the sustained popularity of bagpipes, with bands and soloists facing off in events around the country and overseas. Even Naperville, the pleasant, placid Chicago suburb that is the site of Atherton's workshop, has a couple of competitive bands, including the Firefighters Highland Guard of Naperville.
Competitions helped put Atherton on the map. His business launched in 2007. In 2008 and 2009, the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band--roughly half of its members playing Atherton sets--triumphed at the World Pipe Band Championships, in Glasgow. It was the first time a band had taken the top prize using American-made instruments.
Jori Chisholm, a bagpipes teacher and frequent medalist in world competitions, played with Simon Fraser for both those championship seasons. He recalls his first experience with Atherton's pipes: "Within 30 seconds I knew I had to have a set," he says. "It was so dramatic, the quality of the instrument. The sound was like nothing I'd ever played before. From that point on, I have been exclusively playing David Atherton bagpipes."
Bagpipes and briefcases
Dave Atherton is not Scottish. He has never been to Scotland.
Instead, Atherton came to bagpipes through music. The son of a pastor, he grew up in Pennsylvania and, later, in the suburbs of New York City. From the time Atherton was a child, his fingers rarely strayed from the strings of a guitar. After college he began playing his own compositions in small New York clubs. Since then he has released several albums, the most recent in 2000. (He still plays guitar every day and is proficient with bagpipes.)
Unemployed at 24, Atherton heard that the owner of a bagpipes business in nearby Dobbs Ferry was looking for help. Charley E. Kron wasn't from Scotland either. But he had studied and played the bagpipes professionally in Edinburgh. In 1988, Kron had co-founded Kilgour & Kron near the banks of the Hudson. His partner was George Kilgour, a longtime pipes maker from Edinburgh who had mastered the craft while employed by the Robertsons, a respected family of Scottish bagpipes makers whose work dates back to the 19th century.
When Kilgour returned to Scotland in 1995, Atherton joined Kron in the business. There he learned from his employer techniques passed down through generations of Scottish pipes makers. "The lineage of these skills goes back 200 years, from the Robertsons to George to Charley to me," says Atherton.
Kron and Atherton worked together 12 years at the renamed C.E. Kron & Co. (It is still going, although Kron says he is approaching retirement.) Atherton wanted to open his own business. But he lacked the capital.
Then, on a lark, he applied to be a contestant on Deal or No Deal. In Culver City, California, Atherton took the stage wearing a kilt. He chose one briefcase from among 26, and then faced a series of decisions whether to accept cash or hang on in hopes his case contained $1 million. It did, he learned, after bailing at $81,000.
"It cost more than that to set up. But it got me started," says Atherton.
Ebony and ivory
Unhappy with New York City's high cost of living and not wanting to launch a competitor in Kron's backyard, he and his wife, Niki Mead Atherton, relocated to Naperville. Niki worked for IBM and eventually founded a professional boutique recruitment firm called MatchSource. The success of that business has freed up Atherton to pursue his less lucrative dream.
In his workshop, Atherton uses the same tooling and machinery employed by pipes makers more than a century ago. He eschews computer-aided equipment because, he says, "the aesthetic nature of these instruments can only be achieved by hand."
Atherton is a bagpipes maker, which means he makes pipes. He buys the bags, which are disposable, from pipe-bags makers and hooks up the instruments. Bags are constructed of synthetic materials, like Gore-Tex, or of sheep, cow, or kangaroo skin. Such variables as climate influence the choice of materials. If a player blows wet, cowhide is a good choice.
The quality of sound depends on the dimensions and inner specifications of the pipes, which Atherton hand-turns on a lathe. Those patterns are proprietary. ("I might tell someone on my deathbed," says Atherton.) However, the first sets he created were reproductions of one from the 1860s made by the MacDougall family of pipes makers. For years, the MacDougall was his bestseller.
Atherton constructs pipes chiefly from African blackwood and sometimes Gaboon ebony. "With organic materials there are always problems," says Atherton. "You could be 90 percent finished, and you cut into a piece of wood and there is a flaw. You have to discard. You can never send that instrument out the door."
Each set is customized--engraved with a family crest, for example, or ornamented with silver, the pure white wood of holly trees, or ivory from mammoths or narwhals. Atherton spent five years drying a rare hoard of pink ivory to 6 percent moisture content before forming it into four sets of pipes for one client's daughters.
When Atherton started he worked seven days a week; now he's down to about 50 hours. He has never had an employee. And while he would like to train someone--as Kron trained him--he says not many have the fortitude or temperament to spend hours at a time bent over highly detailed work in a loud, dirty space. "There are few people who can do this, certainly not to my standard," says Atherton. "I have trouble doing it to my standard."