In an age of globalization and a shrinking manufacturing sector, two young men in Wheeling are hedging their bets and running with a business idea that first took off in 1854. Hand-forged tools actually took off much earlier, but Warwood Tool has been in the tool-forging business for over 160 years now: hammers, crow-bars, pick-axes, you name it.
While showing me one of the factory machines that shakes the whole town Logan Hartle, the company’s new president, remembered his first time through the factory a couple of years ago:
“We fell in love with the place,” Hartle said. “My background is in manufacturing. I’ve worked at places like Toyota, but never seen anything like this.”
Hartle is standing in front of the biggest drop forge in the factory. It’s a piece of machinery that uses gravity and a 3,000-pound weight to pound a glowing piece of steel into a tool. Workers throw these tools under the forge between drops. It’s a crazy scene out of a different time.
The two Marshall County boys are both 28 years old. They went to high school together, got degrees at the same time at West Virginia University, and for a while, found work outside of the state. But they decided they wanted to work together somehow, and they wanted to come home.
“We’re having a couple beers one night thinking, ‘What is there to do here?’” Carl remembered. “We forced ourselves to stay until we found something that fit our mold.”
Literally in this case. The young businessmen said they were at the right place at the right time to take over the tool-forging business.
The former president of Warwood Tool, James Haranzo, was once the mayor of Wheeling and spent 50 years with the company. Hartle and Carl believe in addition to their timing being good, Haranzo wanted to make sure the new owners were local, and would take care of the employees.
So with help from family to buy the business, Carl and Hartle signed the paperwork four months ago and retained all 13 current employees. For now, the young businessmen simply hope to maintain while they learn the ins and outs from some of the folks who have been around for a little while longer. Like the plant manager Cliff Thorngate who’s been employed at Warwood Tool for 40 years.
“They’ve brought fresh blood to the place,” Thorngate said. “I think it will be good for us and I think everybody feels that way.”
The main building has tall, over-20-foot ceilings, with big windows that look out to Warwood on one side, and the Ohio River on the other. It’s spacious, but full of big machines like the drop forge, and furnaces breathing fire with various pieces of metal sticking out like toothpicks.
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Thorngate says all the machines work, though not all at once anymore – not since employment was more like 100 people in the 1970s.
He points to one especially giant hand press that was originally used to forge hammers. He says it was brand new when they first got it in 1928. The drop forge is used to make hammers today, but he says they’ve found other uses for the old hand press today. He says it’s a craft, forging tools, and like any other skill, it takes work and practice to perfect.
The steel comes in at one end of the factory, Thorngate explained. From there it’s cut to size, heated, pounded into shape, heated again or tempered, which is when they reheat a piece of steel to bring the grains of steel closer together. Thorngate explains that the tempering process and the fact that the tools are made of one, continuous piece of steel makes the tools exceptionally strong. Eventually, a tool like a crow bar, or a pick ax, or a hammer makes its way to the other end of the factory where it’s painted the traditional Warwood-Tool-blue.
“Years ago all the different tool company’s had their own color,” he said. “Blue was ours.”
Company president Logan Hartle says the end result is an American, West Virginian-made quality tool.
But you won’t find Warwood Tool products in big box stores. Company vice president and general sales manager Phillip Carl explains that in the world of tool manufacturing, generally speaking, you either sell to consumers or you sell to industry. The Warwood Tool business model has been to supply railroad, steel, and coal industry companies with tools they need on the job. As those industries decline in the region, Hartle says they’re working to identify new markets.
“We will always be 100 percent made in America; we’ll always manufacture our of Wheeling, West Virginia; we will always handle with U.S. hickory and ash; and, we will always use our U.S. Union Labor,” said VP Phillip Carl.
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“We are global,” Hartle said. “We sell a lot to Canada; we sell a lot to the mid-west. We’ve shipped to Singapore, Austrailia, England. Anybody who’s willing to pay for shipping, we’ll ship to.”
The businessmen are also working to build clientele in the oil and gas industry, and develop a market online. But Carl says some things will always be the same.
So while other communities might be looking for the next big thing, these two young businessmen are banking on a traditional West Virginia product.