Ring Leaders
Some of the world’s finest artisan-made handbells and other specialty musical instruments hail from Plumsteadville, home of Malmark Bellcraftsmen—family owned and operated for more than 40 years
by Bill Donahue

Queen’s “We Will Rock You” was the song that hooked Tim Schuback, the one that made music the first great love of his life.

Schuback started playing guitar in his teen years, and he kept feeding his obsession by trying his hand at other instruments—namely, the drums, the electric bass and the piano. By his early 20s he and two close friends had formed their own record label, Monkey Wrench Records, to produce albums for Philadelphia-area punk and hardcore bands. The label thrived for a while, but life eventually took him in other directions.

In 2008, Schuback was working as director of finance for the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia when he was presented with an opportunity to return to a job in music. This time, however, rather than screeching guitar chords and rapid-fire drum beats, his days would be filled with the peals of perfectly tuned, exquisitely made English-style handbells.

Today, Schuback is president of Malmark Bellcraftsmen, a Plumsteadville-based manufacturer that is among only three manufacturers of artisanal handbells in the world—the other two being Schulmerich Bells, which is based in nearby Hatfield, and Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the London-based foundry that cast the Liberty Bell. Schuback is following in the footsteps of the late Jacob H. Malta, a tireless inventor who founded Malmark in 1973 and led the company till his death in 2010.

Malmark remains a family-owned and operated enterprise, with Malta’s two daughters, Joann Malta and Lora Mohr, having succeeded their father. Collectively, the pair possesses more than 40 years of experience in bell making, and their insightful guidance continues to influence nearly every facet of the business. The third generation of family leadership includes Derek Mohr, who heads up Malmark’s research-and-development department, and Schuback; Derek Mohr is the founder’s grandson, while Schuback’s wife, Erin, is the founder’s granddaughter.

‘A Lasting Impact’
Jacob Malta was a mechanical engineer by trade, and he followed an inadvertent path to becoming a pioneer in the handbell business. While working for Schulmerich, Malta was tasked with designing the company’s handbell line as a complement to its line of electronic carillons. He ultimately left Schulmerich to found Malmark, where he applied his engineer’s mind to revolutionizing the handbell in terms of playability, ease of expression and pragmatic design.

Malta’s contributions have become part of the lore surrounding an instrument with an already rich history. In the 1500s, English-style handbells were used by bell-tower operators to practice indoors the centuries-old art of “change ringing,” whereby operators would ring the bells in specific sequences to communicate announcements to the masses. In contemporary America, handbells are ideal instruments for teaching and performing music, typically used by schools, churches and retirement communities, among others.

“People sell short the physicality and dexterity required to play an instrument,” says Schuback. “With our instruments, it’s about gross motor skills, so even kids at an early age can focus on the rhythm and melodies of playing music. It’s like taking a piano, smashing it up and saying, ‘Here, play these two keys.’ It’s a great tool for music education, and it can have a lasting impact. You may never play any other instrument, but [the handbell] provides the basics and the foundation, so when you’re listening to music, you appreciate it more as a result.”

Malmark has shipped handbells to enthusiasts all over the world, from the Americas to Asia to tiny European nations such as the Republic of Estonia. “There’s hardly a country we haven’t touched,” says Schuback. “We just had a bell shipment go to Alaska that had to travel by barge. It was so remote we had to send it now so they would have them in time for Christmas.”

Malmark also offers keepsake bells under the LoraBell Lifestyle Collection. Cast from the same bronze used in Malmark’s musical bells, LoraBell items can be engraved to mark occasions such as weddings, graduations or other special events.

Beyond Bells
Although known primarily for its handbells, Malmark has diversified its business by adding new products, including handheld chime instruments under the Choirchime trade name. Scientifically speaking, the Choirchime is a closed-end resonance tube, fitted with a hand clapper. Thomas D. Rossing, an acoustical engineer and author, proclaimed in his book “The Science of Sound” that Malmark’s Choirchime was “the purest-sounding instrument in the world.” The instrument’s simplicity gives even a novice the ability to play melodies almost immediately, according to Schuback.

More recently, Malmark has expanded its reach into percussion. 

A few years ago, Schuback was attending a conference of music merchants when he discovered the cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument commonly used in Afro-Peruvian music. Upon his return to the office in Plumsteadville, he was passing through Malmark’s wood shop and noticed that the unfinished cases used to ship bass bells looked remarkably like cajóns. Schuback immediately began working with two craftsmen in the wood shop—both, coincidentally, of Peruvian descent—to refine the design and capture the cajón’s signature “pop” and “slap.” 

“We had been making cajóns for 20 years practically; we just never knew it,” he says. “We went through different designs back and forth, and we got some designs that we liked, but we’re bell makers. We had this new instrument with this new sound, so we wanted some validation.”

The company brought in a prominent cajón player from Lima, Peru, to work in the wood shop for several days, and his input proved invaluable in arriving at the six styles of cajón Malmark currently manufactures and sells. Although one might consider cajóns and handbells from two completely different worlds, Schuback suggests they complement each other well.

“The foundation of all music is rhythm, so if you don’t have rhythm then the harmonies don’t matter,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of shifting tastes in religion regarding how people celebrate. Now you’re seeing more praise bands, and if you add in percussion from a cajón, it takes the sound level way up. Also, for a handbell choir, having an instrument like a cajón enables them to bring in other performers who are not into bells.”

Malmark is in the process of launching yet another percussion instrument: the bell plate. Malmark’s version, which is a suspended sheet of polished metal that a player strikes like a gong, was spearheaded and fine-tuned by R&D chief Derek Mohr. Most often used in orchestras or theater ensembles, the bell plate has a defined pitch that sounds similar to the peal of a bell.

Regardless of the product, the Malmark name has become synonymous with perfection. The company maintains a 30 percent rejection rate on handbells, according to Schuback, with bells being discarded (and later repurposed) for even the slightest visual or aural imperfection. “It’s why we are who we are,” he says.

Something New
Approximately 40 employees work in Malmark’s headquarters on Easton Road in Plumsteadville, which is available for tours throughout the week. Schuback characterizes the building as “a 50,000-square-foot marketing platform,” where aficionados can witness the highly engineered, technology-rich process required to make these artisanal products. Two local foundries—one in Whitehall and the other across the river just outside of Princeton, N.J.—handle the casting, but everything else is done on site.

“Bells are a lot of fun,” Schuback says. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better instrument than handbells for teaching music. But the bell business isn’t an easy one. The music business in general has had a tough road to hoe, and this is a niche, which can make it even more challenging. You’re also dealing with bronze—80 percent copper, 20 percent tin—which is not inexpensive. Every day you’re guaranteed to learn something new.”

Although his days of producing punk records are long behind him, Schuback hasn’t abandoned his rock ‘n’ roll roots entirely. He still gets out to the occasional concert. Plus, Malmark’s reputation for excellence has helped the company earn new business from contemporary musicians apart from school music programs and retirement communities. For example, he recently oversaw a project in which Malmark partnered with cymbal manufacturer Zildjian to create a special bell for a prominent percussionist to play during live shows. The musician’s name: Carter Beauford, drummer for Dave Matthews Band. 

Tours of Malmark’s headquarters and factory at 5712 Easton Road in Plumsteadville, Bucks County, are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those interested in taking a tour should contact the company in advance, by calling 215-766-7200. Visit malmark.com for more information.

Photograph by Allure West Studios