A casting will travel through the oven from four to 12 times, depending on the size and thickness of the final cymbal. After each trip, the crude cymbal will be gradually flattened in the rolling mill. The mill looks dangerous enough to me: the red hot cymbal castings must be taken off the belt and then fed by a short rake between two strong rollers (which could easily pulverize an arm), and carefully caught on the other side only to be put back on the conveyor and be heated up again by the hearth. “As the discs are rolled again and again, a dense interlocking weave is formed in the granular structure that prevents warping and weak spots,” says LaChapelle. Once the required thickness and size is achieved, the center is marked with chalk where the hole will be drilled.
A water bath tempers the hot metal and makes it malleable enough to shape the casting into what will eventually resemble a cymbal. The tempering bath was an important enough step that Aram Zildjian, who brought the secret process from Turkey to his nephew Avedis III, insisted that the American factory use saltwater (in this case from Boston Harbor) just as the Istanbul factory did.
Chief cymbal designer Paul Francis says there was a practical reason why the factory was close to the ocean: “The water was free!” he laughs. “You need cold water, but it doesn’t have to have salt in it. The metal changes instantaneously once it hits the water. It’s called ’quenching’ the metal. Because we have 20 percent tin, we are going from a very brittle state, and we are trying to achieve a ductile state so we can do all our ’cold’ work on the cymbal.”
After the metal has been quenched and is no longer brittle, the hole is drilled and a heavy stamping machine presses the cup. With the center and diameter of the cymbal determined, a craftsman can now shear the jagged and uneven edges off the blank disc. Over the last few steps the once unrecognizable piece of bronze begins to take on the shape and profile (but not the finish) of a cymbal.
The more time I spent in the noisy production area, the more I became impressed by how much of the cymbal making process is still labor intensive, requiring hands-on involvement of highly skilled craftsmen each step of the way. Although innovations like the rotary hearth oven have enabled Zildjian to improve quality and keep up with the tremendous demand for their product, there’s not one part of the operation that doesn’t require an accomplished craftsman. Rolling the blanks through the mill involves more than just feeding the machine — the roller must have a skilled eye and keen judgment to insure an even and consistent batch of cymbals. The center hole is not just drilled at any arbitrary point, and the cup must be pressed perfectly to meet the specifications for each type of cymbal.
“The main spec is a weight parameter, depending on what cymbal it is going to be,” LaChapelle points out. “Every single model we make, from a 6" splash to a 24" ride has a specific weight tolerance within a certain amount of grams. Then there is the visual inspection. We take a look after each stage, making sure everything was done properly — if a mistake was made you’d be able to see it. These guys all know the quality control standards here — we have team leaders who lead each process and inspect each cymbal. And everyone is empowered to halt the process if they see a mistake. It’s really a team effort.”
So while Zildjian has updated operations that were once done in smoky sheds with dirt floors, the quality of the instruments the company makes is still dependent on the judgment and experience of seasoned professionals, some of whom have been at Zildjian for more than 40 years. In other words, Zildjian has refined its production process, but the quality of their final product is much more consistent, and by all accounts better, than it was when only a few workers toiled in the Norfolk Downs shed.
The next stage of the operation requires a craftsman to first backbend the cymbal by hand on a jig before it is placed in a shaping press where 80 to 100 tons of pressure will come down and give the cymbal its shape and profile.
“The cymbal is very malleable at this point,” says LaChapelle, “and you can really work the metal. In the old days this is where the hammering would start, but because of the new methods we have, we can press an initial shape that the cymbal will eventually take.” Because every cymbal and every size has a different shape, there are different stamp dies used for each model.