By Laura Samuel Meyn
Photos by Ralph Lauer
Hammers, clamps, blowtorches and powerful magnets are all part of the tool kit at Houghton Horns.
Inside Houghton Horns, tucked into a single-story stone house off Main Street in Keller, Dennis Houghton gently drops a steel ball inside a euphonium that apparently had a tough marching band season. Using a pair of super strong magnets placed on the outside of one of many dents, with a soft cloth underneath to prevent scratches, he magnetically catches the ball. The rare-earth magnets, incredibly, deliver 30 to 40 pounds of force. Working them back and forth, he lifts and erases a dent in seconds.
He admires his work for a moment — this is a relatively new technology for his shop — before moving on to the next dent.
For the musically inclined ranging from North Texas middle school and high school students to professionals in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Seattle and beyond, the family-owned Houghton Horns has become a go-to for repair and customization of thousands of brass instruments over the past few decades.
Dennis and wife Karen both are professional French horn players originally from Long Beach, California. They headed to Texas some 35 years ago to pursue opportunities with school band programs and to perform with the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra, posts the couple still hold today. To teach private lessons, they traveled among several middle schools and high schools in the Keller and Birdville districts. That’s when, around 1985, the repair business saw its humble beginnings.
“It was in my first year of teaching, at North Oaks Middle School, when the director asked if I could clean a few of his horns,” says Dennis. “I knew how to clean my horn, so I said sure. He gave me $25 apiece, which was good money back then, and it was something I enjoyed doing.”
Cleaning and repair requests picked up in the summers, when teaching slowed down. “A good friend taught me the basics of soldering and repair. I’m about 95 percent self-taught; I already had handyman skills, knew how to use a torch.”
By 2004, Dennis shifted his focus to full-time repair work, running his business out of their Keller home, where Karen taught a full studio of young musicians. After a neighbor filed a complaint in 2015 — the increasing traffic proved a bit much — they bought the shop on Lorine Street, which is only a mile from their home. It was above budget but large enough for Dennis’ repair business and Karen’s lessons.
They also have a retail business, along with business partners Derek Wright and Mark Houghton, the couple’s son, who is a French horn player with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The store has since developed its own brand of horns, Verus, that are made in China, filling the need for a good-quality instrument at a relatively low price.
You’ll find Dennis and staffers Benjamin Allen and Christopher Reddick in the repair business along with shop dogs Chief and Rambo. There, the humans deep-clean instruments to remove mineral deposits that freeze up valves and slides, using an ultrasonic machine in additon to mechanical scrubbing. They use a torch and solder to repair joints that have come apart. And they rebuild valves, which can wear out over time, like in the Geyer Schmidt horns that are close to
100 years old.
Dent removal is a common request — and not just for school-age clients. Dennis remembers a call from a Dallas Symphony Orchestra musician who, when trying to remove the large bell from his horn after it had become stuck, accidentally twisted the whole thing like a pretzel. “It was a $14,000 horn,” says Dennis, who was able to restore it to its original shape. “He’s retired now, and he sold it, but the horn is still being played in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.”
Over the years, Dennis has developed a deep interest in the science of music. Last summer he traveled to Vienna to study acoustics and gain a better understanding of what makes a horn play a certain way. In the fall, he was invited to lecture on acoustics at Indiana University, exploring the relationship of sound and sound waves — the physics of the metal’s density, the instrument’s wall thickness and other variables.
The experiences and knowledge fuel his next goal: designing and building custom horns, using German parts.
“It’s scientific, but at the same time, we’re blacksmiths and plumbers, soldering things together,” he says. “It ties together a lot of skills; I think that’s why I enjoy it.”