Musician-turned-entrepreneur Vic Firth played percussion with the Boston Symphony for 50 years, and in the process he discovered something about drumsticks that nobody had thought of. He applied that knowledge to pepper mills and rolling pins for serious cooks and now the Vic Firth Company manufactures all three.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What was this drumstick discovery?
Vic Firth: There were all kinds of quality standards that at the time when I was playing in the Boston Symphony I felt weren't being met. I was asked to play music and pieces that required sticks that just weren't available. So rather than keep grumbling about it, I decided to design some for myself. That was the beginning of the stick business, which was huge -- I think we made about 12 pairs a month.
LRK: Were you whittling them yourself?
VF: That's what everybody thought -- that I had a sharp knife down in the basement. But I had a Montreal woodturner, who was a great gentleman to work with, and he literally hand-turned every single stick.
LRK: What was the problem with the drumsticks?
VF: The sticks were never straight and they were never properly paired. I began by guaranteeing them to be straight when rolled on a table. Of course all my competitors yelled and screamed, "It's a natural product -- how can you guarantee it to be straight?" I said, "You simply throw out the ones that aren't."
The other thing that I did was that I noticed one day when I accidentally dropped some sticks on the cement floor that they had a variety of pitches. I got a little stool and sat down and started tapping. I discovered that when I had found two that had the identical pitch, they had the identical weight, density and moisture content. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was about 90 percent proof that those two sticks, whether the drummer had them in his right hand or his left hand, were going to be perfectly balanced and would produce the same sound. Sticks of different pitches literally would produce a different sound when struck on a wood block or a cymbal.
LRK: You went from doing drumsticks to doing pepper mills and rolling pins. How did that happen?
VF: For drummers, we have a 5A, a 5B, a 2B, a rock, whatever. What that means is a 5A is a lighter, thinner stick for jazz players or classical players. A 5B is for rock-and-rollers. A 2B is for marching on the street in a band or heavy metal.
Let's take the rolling pins. A classic 20-inch rolling pin is like the rock stick: It's the biggest one and has a lot of weight to it. Each one as I thought about them, I applied the theory of the drumstick and weight and balance, and that's why we have such a variety of pins.
The pepper mill has to feel comfortable in your hand. Then they're fitted with a stainless steel two-step mechanism, which first crushes the peppercorns to enhance the flavor, and then it grinds the peppercorn. We've taken this pepper mill thing beyond where I ever thought it was going to go and we're very proud of it.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.