Handcrafted in Northeast Indiana: Fox Products creates instruments used around the world

In an age when automation is becoming the norm, one Northeast Indiana musical instrument manufacturer has found a way to seamlessly blend technology with artistry. Fox Products in South Whitley employs a team of skilled professionals who make double-reed instruments — oboes, English horns, bassoons and contrabassoons.

A town with a population of only about 1,700 might seem like an unlikely location for such a venture, but as Marketing Director Stephanie Patterson explains, the company has deep roots and a longstanding commitment to the local economy.

“The reason that we are located (there) is that the founder of the company, Hugo Fox, played with the Chicago Symphony,” she says. “He retired in 1949 and he had this dream of making instruments in America because no one was at all at that point. “

Fox Products, a musical instrument manufacturer, has found a way to seamlessly blend technology with artistry.Fox was successful in his goal and then some. In the more than seven decades the company has been around, they’ve grown in terms of both square feet and workforce. What’s impressive, says Patterson, is that the work environment is still tight-knit even with 130 people on the payroll. 

That culture is precisely what attracted Patterson to the employer nearly a decade ago.

“I’m from New York City originally,” she says. “I moved out here to make oboes–I'm an oboist. And so I got hired to do testing and final inspections and help manufacture oboes. And I made my foray into marketing from having a lot of double reed internet clout.”

Fox Products, a musical instrument manufacturer, has found a way to seamlessly blend technology with artistry.Understanding the art and science behind product design has been key to the company’s success and longevity. Each instrument has its quirks and requires a different approach to assemble. Patterson says they have 30 models of instruments and cater to professionals, intermediate and student musicians. The instruments made in South Whitley get into the hands of musicians in places as far away as Germany, by way of a network of dealers. 

The distribution model is the least impressive part perhaps. As Patterson explains, the scope and scale of their operations are deceiving when you consider the town's modest size. Yet South Whitley is on the map for its contributions to the high arts.

“We make most of the bassoons that are sold in the United States and debatably the world,” she says. “We make about 40 bassoons a week and about 20 oboe family instruments a week. We're one of the predominant manufacturers of contrabassoon on the planet. These instruments range between about $3,500 for our student oboes and up to $40,000 and beyond for a professional contrabassoon.”

Wood used to make bassoons at Fox Products, a musical instrument manufacturer.While not inexpensive, Patterson is quick to point out that behind the price tag is a significant amount of time and energy. One artist could spend a whole month dedicated to working on one instrument, for instance. There’s a lot of work done behind the scenes that amounts to inactive time, but it’s necessary to the craft.

For example, the wood must be aged for at least seven years and the varnish could take months or years to dry, depending on the instrument type. In short, she describes it as an “elaborate process” and you can’t cut corners without sacrificing quality and ultimately performance.

In her estimation, Fox Products offers an example to modern manufacturers of what it means to integrate efficiencies in production while keeping the human element engaged at the forefront.

“We’re really proud to bridge the gap between artisanal craftsmanship and manufacturing that's efficient, makes sense, and is consistent,” she says. “And we're really proud to be one of the only manufacturers that still really makes everything in the United States. The owners of the company are really passionate about keeping all of that manufacturing here, especially keeping it in South Whitley.”

An employee mounts the keys on an oboe at Fox Products, a musical instrument manufacturer.At the same time, she says the leadership knows that the company has to evolve with the times. In the context of manufacturing, it means “tightening up” processes when and where it makes sense. Patterson says the in-house engineering department is adept at analyzing how workers interact with tools and finding ways to help them work smarter. She cites one example that’s allowed them to embrace automation for the sake of occupational health and safety.

“When putting holes in the instruments, people are leaning over a drill press all day, “she says. “They’re prone to hurting themselves and getting work injuries because it's not great for your shoulders. So now we have some machinery that helps us do the easy cuts that people don't need to hurt their bodies to do.”
A tuning room at Fox Products in 1961.
Patterson says this model is a win all around because it helps with retention and boosts productivity at the same time. The workforce seems to agree, too, and has responded in kind. She notes they have staff who’ve been on the payroll for as long as 30 years. Some have even recruited their children and relatives to join the Fox team. In this way, employees are shaping the company’s future.

This loyalty–plus the overall state of the instrument industry– bodes well for Fox’s future, Patterson says. While demand can ebb and flow, the company has weathered uncertain times like the COVID-19 pandemic. Patterson says they haven’t encountered a lot of supply disruptions while other manufacturers have reported that challenge.

Post-pandemic, a significant rise in concerts and live performances has increased demand for high-tech and high-priced musical instruments. According to Statista, the overall revenue generated by the musical instruments market in 2022 reached more than $38.2 billion, marking a significant 10.7 percent surge compared to the previous year's revenue of $34.5 billion.

However, she adds, they’re also mindful of the importance of remaining hungry and humble. There’s no substitute for personal relationships and embracing innovation in such a niche industry.

Fox Products, a musical instrument manufacturer, has found a way to seamlessly blend technology with artistry.“Next year's our 75th anniversary,” she says. “It'd be easy to be like we've been making these for years, everything's great, and not listen. Then, suddenly, we could lose business because we're missing something or not offering what people need. So we're happy to be very connected to the music community so that we can make sure everybody's getting what they need and cater to their interests.”
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.