Starring a chisel, local story heads for happy ending

February 02, 2005|By JAY HANCOCK

Jay HancockCall it Cutting Edge: The Baltimore Toolworks Story:

Former Johns Hopkins lacrosse star takes over doomed family manufacturing business, teams up with star scientist and college kids to reinvent world's oldest tool, saves the day and inspires struggling Rust Belt town.

It's a plot Hollywood would reject as unbelievable - but everything up to the "saves-the-day" part is true. And maybe that will be, too.

Founded in 1925, threatened by imports, running on a teensy $3.8 million in revenue in a dingy building near M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore Toolworks has put tens of thousands of its new high-tech chisels on the shelves of Home Depot, the nation's second-biggest retailer.

Yeah, a high-tech chisel.

The hardened plastic cap on Baltimore Toolworks' new product gives a bigger hammer target, reduces noise and eliminates metal splinters flying from the head, claims President Harry "Downie" McCarty.

It's the biggest chisel innovation, he suggests, since the glaciers melted. "It's such a Stone Age product," he says. "The thing was developed by guys that were hairier than can be 10,000 years ago, and literally very little has happened to it in 10,000 years."

He's exaggerating, of course. Five thousand years ago, slightly less-hairy engineers rendered stone chisels obsolete by switching to metal, which I think caused a Bronze Age technology-stock bubble. But perhaps I quibble.

Baltimore Toolworks, which once made parts for the B&O Railroad, decided about five years ago that it had to produce another leap in chisel technology or risk extinction. Although professional craftsmen prefer American tools, "imports have made greater inroads in the consumer market," hurting U.S. makers, says Richard Byrne, executive director of the Hand Tools Institute, a trade group in New York.

The company had improved productivity and tweaked prices as much as possible, figured McCarty, 58, a first-team All-American attackman for Johns Hopkins' 1968 lacrosse team. The solution, he thought, was to make chisels safer by putting a plastic cap on the top. But obstacles loomed.

Chisels made by him and 25 employees are to cut metal and masonry, not wood. The products endure enormous forces when one piece of metal (the hammer) hits another (the chisel) to cut another (rusty bolts, steel rebar, etc.). Regular plastic shatters under such blows. Softer plastic or rubber doesn't transfer enough of the hammer's energy to the object being cut.

An acquaintance put McCarty in touch with Peter Popper, a retired DuPont scientist, world authority on textile fibers and one of the developers of Tyvek, the unrippable paper they use for FedEx envelopes.

"It seemed like fun, to tell you the truth," Popper said. "I always wanted the experience of working for a small company where you didn't have the massive inertia of a large company. I wanted to see what it was like if you have one decision-maker and you can really move out and get products in the field."

DuPont supplied plastic samples. The University of Delaware furnished a program in which engineering students help selected companies with design projects in return for a small fee paid to the university. Students built a computerized machine for Baltimore Toolworks that repeatedly whacked chisels and test caps, measuring durability, cutting force, vibrations and noise.

Baltimore Toolworks shipped its first Hard Cap Safety Chisels last summer. Two years of work produced the right plastic, design and vendor to mold the caps. Home Depot, already McCarty's biggest customer (more than half of his sales, he says, although he won't be precise), agreed to stock the product, which costs 80 percent more than a typical $4 chisel.

The rollout didn't go well. Baltimore Toolworks is not Black & Decker, and the new chisels got overlooked or misplaced in Home Depot's huge stores, McCarty said. But recently Baltimore Toolworks bosses rearranged Hard Cap displays in all of the 50 Baltimore-Washington stores, which improved sales substantially, he said.

Baltimore Toolworks, which pays employees about $12.50 an hour plus medical benefits, is the No. 4 U.S. chisel maker, McCarty says. He hopes to improve. "This could become the only thing that's out there," he says, as contractors worried about liability suits opt for safer chisels. At least the company seems to have stopped its employment decline; it had 35 people last summer as it worked overtime to launch the new tool.

The lessons? Innovate, innovate, innovate, of course. Look for market pockets big guys don't care about. And reinvest. Baltimore Toolworks has spent more than $1 million in capital upgrades since 1990, McCarty says.

Baltimore has only 19,000 manufacturing jobs left. Here's how to save them, 25 at a time.

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