Case makers are often the unsung heroes of the acoustic guitar marketplace, even though they are the people who take considerable pains to protect our most valuable music assets. One notable British success story is that of Hiscox Cases and we thought it was high time to tell their story…
These days, the chances are that if you have ordered a precious hand-built acoustic guitar from a top ranking luthier, it will arrive at your door nestled safely inside a Hiscox Liteflight case. The Staffordshire based company represent something of an industry staple, currently producing 20,000 cases per year for high end makers like Lowden, Eggle and Fylde, to name but a few. Renowned for their toughness and durability – even their Standard model has been load tested to half a ton – Hiscox cases also has the reputation for being light and eminently easy to transport. But, as is often the case, it was necessity that proved to be the mother of the Liteflight’s invention. In fact, the story begins around 30 years ago when company founder Brynn Hiscox was building acoustic guitars…
‘I was building copies of dreadnoughts, OOOs and J200s, that sort of thing, back in the days when Ovation was really big. They had cracked the on-stage problem properly for the first time in acoustic guitars in that people were able to play on stage and actually be heard without the awful feedback problems. It was intriguing; I wasn’t interested in electro-acoustic instruments at all, but someone came into my workshop with an Ovation and I liked the shape and found it very comfortable to sit with. But I hated the fact that it was a big, plastic bowl! I was intrigued by what an acoustic guitar would sound like if it was made in the shape of an Ovation but with proper wood and so I spent a lot of time building jigs in order to be able to make a bowl back guitar. The very first one that I produced was a beautiful sounding instrument and, in fact, Joan Armatrading has that very same guitar to this day, or so I’m told. Because the design was so successful in that they stayed together and worked, I marketed myself as just building those bowl-backed guitars and that’s what I did for a few years. But I had a problem finding cases; I did find some, but I was never happy with them,’ Brynn says.
It was an unfortunate incident involving shipping one of Brynn’s guitars that led him to consider making his own cases.
I had a guy who was globe-trotting turn up at the workshop and buy one of the sample guitars I always had around and he flew off to Hawaii and the guitar got smashed in transit. That really spurred me on to do something – I had no intention at that stage of having a case making factory, I just wanted better cases for my own instruments. I was building full-time and so during the evenings and weekends I was working on construction methods and various materials, begging, borrowing and stealing bits and pieces from everywhere. It was obvious from fairly early on that it had to be a composite construction using modern materials rather than just plywood and stuff, which just ends up being too heavy. The customers that were coming through my door were saying they wanted lighter cases; there was all this modern stuff flying about but no one was doing anything about it – everyone was still using plywood. That was the criteria I used initially and I did start off making the outer shells out of a very thin layer of glass fibre and there are a lot of those cases still around because we see them coming in. For the first two years all my cases had a glass fibre exterior, but that was very costly and so after about 18 months or so I again did a lot of research and ended up using an ABS based forming material. We switched from making the shells in half an hour to making them in three minutes! We’ve got a huge vacuum-forming machine here, it’s a very big piece of kit. It’s thermo-forming or vacuum-forming – it’s the same thing – and so you heat the ABS sheet to a predetermined temperature, it then gets pressed on to a tool which is the shape of the object that you want to reproduce and then a vacuum is turned on so that it sucks the plastic down on to whatever shape the tool is. In a three-minute cycle we will mould a whole case – one matching lid and base – in one go.’
It’s amazing to think that a whole case can be formed so quickly – it sounds like quite a complex process?
It’s a standard industrial process, but the choice of materials is vital and that’s where the technical side takes over. I wanted to bond the ABS to a particular type of polyurethane foam and polyurethane foam is available in different forms, from a lightweight packaging product right through to the structural variety which will give shock absorbency in motorway bridges and everything in between. So we designed a polyurethane foam for Hiscox Cases; it’s not used by anyone else on the planet, as far as I know. It’s designed so that we can apply it and structurally create what we need to within the case. It’s taken a long, long time to perfect to the level at which we do it and if we make 2,000 cases a month, I’ll be upset if we get more than three rejects.
The polyurethane inside the cases isn’t just there to give the guitar something relatively soft to lie on. Other factors include shock absorbency and insulation and it differs greatly from cases that use polystyrene instead.
The vast majority of cases coming out of the Far East at the moment will be polystyrene and you can normally tell when you open the case and pull on the handle, the outer shell will pull away from the interior moulding. There will be a gap there and it will feel loose and that’s because the polystyrene cannot be manufactured in the shell – it has to be manufactured separately and glued in afterwards. So there’s always a gap around the edge and, as anyone with that type of case will know, the interior moulding comes loose very quickly and starts to flop about. With ours, the beauty of the technical requirements of our materials is that we make the moulding inside the shell. We’ve juggled the specification of the interior of the ABS and the polyurethane so that we actually get a chemical bond between the polyurethane and the outer shell. When it’s poured in it’s like a thick cream and so it will then flow over every millimetre of the interior of that shell and expand to around 40 times its original volume. It forces itself into all the cavities that we create within that case and at the same time it chemically etches itself into the inside skin of the shell. You end up with a composite structure – you can’t tear them apart – and that’s the technical difference between polyurethane and polystyrene. Another important difference between the two is that the bubbles in polystyrene have just air inside them, but the bubbles within the polyurethane contain an insulating gas which is the same that you would find in fridges and freezers. If you put your hand on a sheet of polystyrene it will feel warm; it will reflect the heat back, but what you don’t realise is that the heat is passing through the polystyrene and passing out the other side. It’s not a very good insulating material – it just kids you that it is. But polyurethane is a pretty good insulator and it’s about as good as you’re going to get within the confines of building a case. We’ve done tests – the results are on the website – both hot and cold and you can see the differences between an ordinary plywood case, a polystyrene case and ours. We outperformed significantly…
This is good news for owners of guitars that have been finished with nitrocellulose, which is very susceptible to sudden changes in temperature.
We can’t give any guarantees, obviously, because we don’t know what kinds of abuse the product is going to be put through. All we can say is that, like for like, a Hiscox will keep the excesses of heat and cold out for longer than the alternatives. Most people are going to throw their guitar in the boot and drive to a gig an hour or so away in the middle of winter and when they get there the case is freezing cold, but on opening it’s still at room temperature inside. That’s the benefit; in a plywood case it will be freezing cold inside and you have a cold guitar. That’s demonstrably true and just part of the benefit of the structure that we’ve designed over the years.
Another strengthening factor is the aluminium rim that circles a Hiscox case – but there’s more here than meets the eye, too…
You can’t see most of it! I have looked at ways to switch things around over the years and put the aluminium on the outside so that people can see it but unfortunately it doesn’t work. We have a relatively floppy outer plastic shell and a very firm aluminium rim and so if we’re going to fix the two together, we’re obviously going to fix the shell to the aluminium using the rivet fixings that apply the hardware. If you can imagine going from the outside in, you have a catch or a lock and through the catch goes the rivet, which goes through the plastic and then it will go through the aluminium rim and fix on the back side. You’re squashing what is effectively a rubbery material against two pieces of steel and that’s the best engineering fix for the problem. If we were to switch and put the aluminium on the outside, you would then have a steel lock, then the aluminium and the rivet would go through those two, but on the inside you’d have the floppy plastic. So how are you going to fix the floppy plastic back against the aluminium? The only down side to the way we have it now is that the customer can’t see the bulk of the aluminium.
Hiscox produce three different grades of Liteflight case: the Standard, Pro II and the Artist. I asked Brynn if he could outline the differences between them.
We had a lot of makers requesting a higher quality case and so we asked ourselves how far we could push this product upmarket, without making it too heavy or changing the shell to a very expensive carbon fibre or something of that order. The outer shell takes all the bumps and the bangs and the knocks, scuffs and scratches, but unfortunately it is a plastic moulding and if you hit it hard with something sharp you will puncture it. We did a lot of tests on the benefits of increasing the shell thickness and were surprised to find that just by increasing the outer shell thickness by half a millimetre it doubled the puncture resistance. We repeated all the tests and it’s an absolute fact. By increasing the shell thickness from 1.5mm to 2mm the puncture resistance is doubled. Then, by increasing from 2mm to 2.5mm, amazingly enough it doubles again. So our Artist case, which is only 1mm thicker than our standard case, is four times more puncture resistant. Moreover, it has some additional internal padding, strategically placed so that there are two squashy foam pads on the upper bout and two on the lower because we discovered early on that this would cater for quite a variety of sizes. A dreadnought, for instance, can be anything from 15.75 to 16.25 inches across the lower bout and still be considered dreadnought size. By going from the Standard case, which is effectively unpadded, to the Pro II case, which is padded, the instrument will fit better and be held better as well as giving twice the impact resistance. We then go to the Artist case that features fully hardened aluminium which has twice the rigidity of the aluminium on the other cases. It has a thicker shell again and twice the impact resistance of the Pro case and four times that of the Standard case and, equally important, it has a lot more internal padding. So the Artist cases tend to be slightly larger to allow for the cushion padding within the case and, visually, it has a more luxurious fabric on the inside, too and comes with a fully leather handle as well.
There are plenty of testimonies on the Hiscox website which tell stories of how their cases have protected valuable instruments in all manner of guitar threatening situations. One in particular relates to a basement studio being flooded and the only instrument that survived intact was a Lowden found floating on the surface of the water tucked safely in a Hiscox case.
They will naturally float, but we don’t ever market them as waterproof. The mating between the lid and the base is pretty much as good as you’re going to get it within what we do. If you went to a supplier that was supplying the military with something like a computer case that needs to be waterproof, then a rectangular case about the size of a briefcase would set you back about £1,000. You could certainly do the same with ours, but the next level of engineering required to make that seal between lid and base fully waterproof is something else, hence the price. If you consider that our Pro II case is around £120 and you compare that to £1,000 for a rectangular box, it’s a whole different level. We could do it, but there’s nobody out there who would pay the price, because generally it’s not required. They’re generally storm-proof; if you walk down the road in a thunderstorm you don’t need to worry too much because our aluminium rim has a double “V” in it – it’s not a simple male to female locating section – and it will lip away any water that tends to get into the join so that it runs around the outside of the case rather than run in.