The Heavy Metal (Steel, Mostly) Of Hubbardton Forge

Take a drive along Hortonia Road, just off Route 30 in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and you'll come across a diminutive 19th century structure that seems almost forgotten, or at the very least a part of the state's distant past.

But the weathered pine board building holds an importance beyond what its humble walls let on. It's the first place George Chandler and Reed Hampton, the founders of Hubbardton Forge, set up their blacksmith shop to heat, melt, and mold steel.

"It's not an uncommon Vermont story," says David Kitts, 39, Hubbardton Forge's director of design: "Two guys who start in a barn."

But during the past 20 years, the Castleton-based company has created a brand of American-made, hand-forged steel lighting fixtures that have become industry mainstays. The fixtures are works of art, with forged leaves and twist basket flourishes, renowned for their distinctive textures and heirloom-quality artisanship.

At a time when domestic manufacturing is said to be shrinking or moving offshore, this largest and oldest commercial forge in the country has plans to double its $38 million in sales over the next five years and continue to bring work home to America.

Back in 1974, Chandler, now 63 and Hampton, 62, started with artisanal candleholders, fireplace screens, and accessories. But as they honed their aesthetic, the partners in steel found their métier in lighting design.

For most of the company's history, the products sold through word-of-mouth. The compelling designs and pride of craftsmanship--Chandler and Hampton's hallmarks--moved the inventory. By the time the two founders retired in 2010, they had sculpted the vision that still guides Hubbardton Forge today.

That vision isn't just aesthetic. Conscientious Vermonters, Hampton and Reed imbued the company with a sense of responsibility toward customers, generations of employees, and to the environment. This approach has drawn together more than 200 talented and dedicated people to create art out of steel.

To walk the floor at Hubbardton Forge is to witness something special. The collaboration, the artistry, and the underlying ties of family and community that bind the forge together offer a compelling glimpse of what a resurgent American manufacturing sector can look like.

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Chapter 1: A Playground at Work

"Ever since I was seven, I wanted to be a Vermonter," says Annie Gorin, 36, whose work as a process specialist at Hubbardton Forge is to develop step-by-step procedures to ensure each piece meets a designer's specifications.

Long before joining the Forge, she fell in love with Vermont. A family vacation on Lake Champlain got her hooked. So from Greenwich, Conn., she headed north to Green Mountain College for a fine arts degree. A gifted sculptor and welder, she joined the company in 2004.

Now in a leadership role, Gorin still works the forge when she can. One of her specialties is the company's signature twist baskets. First she welds cords of steel together and fires them in the forge until they're red hot, applying the heat where she wants the basket to grow. Gorin then fastens the cords into a twisting machine controlled by an old tractor steering wheel. Turning the wheel, she compresses the cords, creating a bubble that gives the basket its shape, the precise contours determined by the number of turns and how hard the cords are squeezed.

"I look at this place as my playground at work," Gorin explains. "Even though I'm building somebody else's product, there's a creative aspect to it and I feel like I still have that outlet."

But Gorin's principle role is making sure what the designers create is what customers finally get-and that's not a simple task. Plans that originate in a designer's mind are first created in foam or paper. Turning them into steel is the next complicated step. Each new design requires its own set of tools, which are forged from raw steel right on the premises. Gorin enjoys the collaborative process, especially puzzling out the tooling issues and translating the designer's more eccentric and difficult ideas into finished pieces.

Her long history with the company has given Gorin some insight into its appeal, both to customers and employees. It comes down to authenticity: "People know that we're not pretending," she says. "This is real and it's not made by a robot. It's made in Vermont. Made in America. It's not just a story."

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Chapter 2: Putting the Green in Green Mountain.

Bruce Pyle, 58, didn't train for his current position as a research and development engineer at Hubbardton Forge. He learned it on the job.

Pyle joined the forge's finish department 12 years ago from the world of fine arts and furniture making. His experience gave him an understanding of what went into applying the final coat of paint or veneers to a piece of furniture. But he didn't know anything about the powder coating that Hubbardton Forge used to paint its outdoor lights. There were a slew of technical challenges and a lot of unfamiliar science.

"I had to educate myself in a hurry about how to do those things," he says. "And it just progressed into a specialty for myself. It was all about problem-solving."

That love of solving problems has helped Pyle evolve into the company's point man on environmental processes. Working a few desks down from his son Zach, 28, one of Hubbardton's product designers, Pyle has focused on developing environmentally friendly methods to ensure the company leaves a light footprint, despite working in steel and with caustic materials.

One of his many inventions is the chemical patina that coats Hubbardton's outdoor products. These lights are made of aluminum to withstand the elements, so it's hard to replicate the appearance of forged steel. Pyle and his team developed a coating to do for aluminum what the heat of the forge does for steel.

But they were concerned about the contaminated water that resulted when pieces were coated and washed. So Pyle added a zero discharge component to the process. After the water is used to rinse off the chemicals, it is filtered through a deionizing process.

"That basically takes all the chemicals out of it and returns perfectly clean water," Pyle says. "And we use that water over and over again. We're not even connected to the drain."

So instead of having to treat and responsibly dispose of thousands of gallons of tainted water, the forge doesn't have to deal with any. "Thinking in new ways is a cornerstone for the business," Pyle says. "We don't do things simply because that's the way everyone else is doing it. Or that's the out of box solution. We are more about, 'This is where we want to be. How do we get there?'"

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Chapter 3: From Father to Son

To see Scott Belden, 59, hand-forge Hubbardton's distinctive forged leaves, cutting and shaping them from 12-foot lengths of raw steel, is to watch an artisan in full command of his craft.

To mold the steel, Belden fires it in the forge to between 1,800 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At this heat, steel becomes malleable almost like fiery red taffy. He starts each leaf by welding a slug of metal on to the end of a steel shaft. A large trip hammer machine is then used to perform what's called a point and blend-drawing out the point of the shaft and blending the weld through a series of mechanized hammer strokes between two rounded surfaces. Next he runs it through the drop hammer, placing the slug into a mold that when the powerful hammers smash together, flattens out the base of the leaf. Throughout the operation, Scott handworks each piece using a hammer and anvil. Then he'll turn to the bending part of the job, curving the vine to the desired shape.

A small-town Vermonter, Belden is not a big talker. But his exacting focus and the plainspoken pride he takes in forging the leaves speaks for itself.

"It's the creativity. It's using your hands. And making something that's quality when you're done," he explains. "When you come up with something that looks like what we make, that makes you feel pretty good."

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Though the forge team avoids specialization, the leaves are Belden's responsibility. And it's one he's handing down to his son Jeff, 26. A carpenter by trade, Jeff worked construction before joining his father at Hubbardton's Forge.

"The recession hit," Jeff recalls. "It was pretty tough going there for a while. I looked around at some other places, but Hubbardton Forge was still going strong." So three years ago, Jeff joined his father on the job and the two have worked side-by-side together ever since.

Learning to craft the forged leaves perfectly takes about a year to master, but Belden has taught his son well. Together, they forge about 7,000 each year. For his part, Scott is pleased another Belden will be around to turn metal into art when he retires.

"It's good to pass it on to somebody in my family," Belden says. "I'm not going to be here forever. So somebody's got to do it. And he's come along real well."
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