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Wallace Metal Works use old, new technology to create original keepsakes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Matt and Tessie Wallace are combining their old-time blacksmithing skills with state-of-the-art equipment to create West Virginia keepsakes.

The owners of Wallace Metal Works have offered a variety of hand-forged, custom-made steel ornaments and gifts in recent years, ranging from a dogwood blossom and a grape leaf (introduced in 2008) to an oak leaf (introduced in 2009), maple leaf (2010) and ginkgo biloba leaf (2011).

This year, the Charleston couple are making a tulip poplar leaf made of steel and a limited-edition version made of copper. They're also offering an 11-inch by 9.5-inch bowl shaped like the state of West Virginia.

The bowl is designed with a ripple in the Eastern Panhandle that forms a foot so the piece won't wobble when it is put on a flat surface. A dishing tool has been used to give the center of the piece a deep indentation to form the bowl.

It has been put in a forge and then placed on an anvil numerous times, where it has been struck time and again with a ball peen hammer to give it a weathered, aged look.

It has a clear coat of paint on the bottom and an oiled finish on the top.

"You should take care of it like you would take care of a black iron skillet," said Tessie.

The back of the bowl carries stamps showing the year it was made and a maker's mark that incorporates the outline of an anvil.

The Wallaces began making ornaments and gifts when potential customers expressed an interest in their work, but weren't shopping for or could not afford large items like a fence or fireplace screen.

Most ornaments sell for $22.64. The Wallaces are offering the West Virginia bowl for $85.

"That's a special introductory wholesale price," said Matt.

Because everything they produce is handmade and requires numerous processes, the Wallaces had a problem: They didn't have enough time to make all of the ornaments and gifts customers wanted.

They overcame that obstacle thanks to the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Flexible Manufacturing, known as RCBI. It has a $250,000 water jet cutter at its center on Marshall University's South Charleston campus.

The cutter sprays water and sand at 60,000 pounds per square inch to cut metal, wood, glass, composites and other substances, said Chris Figgatt, the RCBI center's production engineer. "It's a fast and efficient way to cut materials," he said.

Instead of cutting one ornament or bowl at a time out of steel by hand, the Wallaces use the machine to quickly cut out many items at once. Last week, they were using the machine to simultaneously cut 15 bowl shapes out of a single sheet of 11-gauge steel.

Although it's only the first step in the multi-step process necessary to create an ornament or bowl, it's a big time-saver.

The RCBI hopes companies will rent the machine and prosper and eventually buy their own. "The machine is in high demand," Figgatt said. "It's usually booked two or three weeks in advance."

Current users range from the Wallaces to Toyota, which employs the machine to make jigs and fixtures and to cut Plexiglas.

Earlier this year TechConnect West Virginia, a nonprofit, won a $250,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, which the state Department of Commerce matched. TechConnect set aside $85,000 of the grant to launch a new program, "StartUp WV Manufacturing," which gives businesses like Wallace Metal Works time to design and build products using RCBI's equipment.

The Wallaces were one of the first seven entrepreneurs to receive a $10,000 StartUp grant for training and time on RCBI's equipment.

The RCBI rents the cutter for $70 an hour. Figgatt said the Wallaces have become so proficient they now operate the machine without assistance.

Anne Barth, TechConnect's executive director, visited the RCBI center Monday and admired some of the Wallaces' finished products.

"I love the blend of old and new they've used for the West Virginia bowl," she said. "It's such a positive story for the state."

Contact writer George Hohmann at business@daily or 304-348-4836.



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