HAMILTON — An artistic metal foundry once headquartered in Chicago has relocated its operations to Southwest Michigan.
For founder Lloyd Mandelbaum, moving Chicago Crucible LLC to modest production space in Hamilton after eight years in Chicago represents a personal decision as well as a business opportunity.
“There is a bit of an untapped market here,” Mandelbaum told MiBiz during a tour of the shop. “There are other art foundries in the state but based on the research, at least regionally, I don’t know if there’s a lot of competition in this southwest part of the state.”
At the same time, Mandelbaum said the move to Hamilton also keeps the company close to its Chicago clientele. The foundry plans to keep its Chicago location as a showroom and distribution center.
Chicago Crucible primarily focuses on casting metal objects for use in public and private sculptures, architecture, furniture and historical reproduction work. The foundry normally works with brass, bronze and cast iron.
The company has cast everything from a 10.5-foot by 5.5-foot relief for a hospital in St. Louis, historically accurate bronze candlesticks for churches and fence posts for planters for the municipal government in Chicago. Chicago Crucible also fabricates its own casting equipment to sell to other foundries.
“I’ve built some tools to help myself do it a little differently than other people in the industry do it — kind of my own little innovations,” Mandelbaum said. “Half of my business is also building machines to do this kind of thing. … Basically, it’s all for sale. Because everything is custom-made, it’s all tailored to a specific shop’s operation.”
While it may look complex, the casting process can be boiled down to a series of molds and forms that are used to translate the pattern and detail of the existing work to the new work.
For example, Mandelbaum typically takes the original sculpture and covers it with a rubber material to form the first mold. That mold is used to make a wax reproduction of the work. Mandelbaum then coats the wax reproduction with a ceramic mixture to form a second mold, which receives the molten metal.
“It’s still a small manufacturing scale,” he said. “I usually tell people that we can do up to 1,000 of anything.”
He also uses sand moldings to cast work that requires less detail.
While Chicago Crucible has secured the majority of its work through its internet presence, Mandelbaum hopes to accelerate the company’s marketing now that it’s headquartered in Michigan.
Specifically, he hopes to partner with other arts institutions and craftspeople in the region. Chicago Crucible recently struck a partnership with the Grand Rapids Public Museum to host a casting demonstration at the annual Grand Rapids Mini Maker Faire in late August.
“For us, the more people that can exhibit their craft in our region the better, because that inspires more people to become artisans and pursue different careers they can invest in,” said Mike Posthumus, vice president of learning and engagement at the museum. “It’s about getting people making software and those pouring metal out of a pole barn, getting together to share and exchange ideas.
“By itself, a foundry is not advanced manufacturing, but (it has) the opportunity to move from just pouring (metal) to advanced systems that are integrated with technology. Getting all those people together in the room is important because that’s where the ideas come from.”
Participants in the Mini Maker Faire will be able to carve their own designs into premade molds and create their own cast-iron artwork. The company also will hold a workshop during the faire to teach foundry skills.
“Here in Michigan, obviously, I was very fortunate to make the connection with the museum,” Mandelbaum said. “Independently, I’m working on different advertising avenues and looking at other avenues.”
The partnership with the museum is an example of the connections Mandelbaum hopes to strike with the art community and other organizations in the architectural, ornamental ironwork, interior design and furniture industries across the state.
“A lot of those industries, we play off of each other and are constantly outsourcing parts of a job to each other,” he said.
To build his small operation over the years, Mandelbaum has relied on a bootstrapping strategy to operate his business debt-free.
While that operational philosophy has allowed him to keep his business lean, it also resulted in it taking much longer for him to build his company.
“The way I started was a buzzbox welder and a grinder,” Mandelbaum said. “I was welding on my back porch for about a year before I rented a two-car garage and I just started putting a shop together. I’d do a job and it would pay for the next tool. Pretty soon, I was able to get the entire fundamentals of a foundry going. From there, I was able to get the ball rolling and it was always just a matter of trying to come in under my set budget for a given project so I could squirrel little bits away and then just keep saving.”
While he currently works alone in his shop, he’d like to return to a point where he could employ three additional full-time workers — the number of staff he had in Chicago when the company was operating at full capacity.
“I’m not trying to get bigger than that because I know the company works and sustains at that point,” Mandelbaum said. “Anything bigger than that gets into a headache, but I wouldn’t rule anything out right now. That’s the vision. The arc has been consistent so far and I don’t want to rock the boat.”
Made in Michigan: After eight years in the Windy City, Chicago Crucible LLC relocated its small foundry operation to Hamilton, southeast of Holland. While the move represents a personal decision by its founder, Lloyd Mandelbaum, it will also allow the company to tap into the Michigan market and still retain its Chicago-based clientele. Mandelbaum hopes to connect with a variety of arts organizations and craftspeople in Michigan to help grow the company.