SHEPHERDSTOWN — Piano wire works on pianos, but not on centuries-old harpsichords like one in the Palace of Versailles in Paris that plays with brass music wire that was cast in a Shepherdstown metal working shop.
Dan Tokar, 58, the shop’s owner, adapted modern metal-working technology using spent brass shell cartridges, copper electric wire and trace elements to reproduce the kind of wire that gives an original sound to the Paris harpsichord.
Stephen Birkett, 64, who teaches computer modeling and simulation at the University of Waterloo near Toronto, also makes brass wire for keyboard instruments, some dating from the 1400s through the mid-19th century.
He said he has “a small market of collectors, musicians and museums in Europe and the United States. Once I started making wire then everybody else wanted some.”
He said finding enough quality wire - “the kind that keeps an ancient instrument authentic,” - was hard until Birkett found Tokar. He was referred to Tokar about 10 years ago by a blacksmith who told him: “Dan does all kinds of weird stuff.”
“Dan could only make a small amount at a time,” Birkett said. “Sometimes I only took a handful home. I never have had a lot of inventory, just enough to keep ahead of the game,” he said. “I had to return to Shepherdstown every couple of months.”
He and Tokar found if they cast the brass in thicker yard-long slabs, it made it easier to cut into the 5/8-inch strips that Birkett uses to make his wire.
At his home shop, he reduces the strips into smaller stages on a rolling mill then runs it through a wire-drawing machine that turns it into wire that is rarely thicker than 200th of an inch down to the thickness of human hair, he said.
Birkett said Waterloo University encourages its professors to start businesses on the side related to the subjects they teach. “Some professors make good money with their side businesses. But you’ll never get rich making wire.”
Tokar opened his first shop in Shepherdstown in a back room of O’Hurley’s General Store in 1987. He moved a shop that he had opened in Pennsylvania in 1979.
Besides his local business Tokar has made large iron stoves and flues for the National Park Service’s Russian Bishop’s Home in Sitka, Alaska and irons for Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead. He also rebuilt the weathervane on top of McMurran Hall in Shepherdstown.