Beauty and the Brass

How often do you notice door handles and light fixtures? Probably not too often - as long as the door opens and closes and the lights come on, who cares about the hardware?

Baldwin Hardware cares – very much. And if you walked through a door outfitted with a Baldwin handle or latch set, you would definitely notice it. The company makes absolutely stunning solid brass architectural hardware, from door hardware to lamps and candlesticks. The Baldwin name has long been synonymous with the very finest in brass fixtures for the home. “People who buy our products are not just interested in locking the door,” Baldwin president Ronald J. Foy told the Reading (PA) Eagle Times. Mr. Foy noted that the Baldwin brand is a status symbol for many people who appreciate the quality of the company’s products.

Baldwin Hardware was founded in 1946 by a European immigrant, Severin Feyerman, whose family had been crafting forged brass since the 19th century. Feyerman bought a New Jersey company named for the Baldwin family and, joining “timeless craftsmanship” (the company maxim) with the new American name, proceeded to forge a tradition of artisanship that is now the industry benchmark.

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Since 1956, Baldwin Hardware Corporation has been headquartered in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the company currently has more than 850 employees and a 375,000-square-foot facility that includes its manufacturing plant. Baldwin recently completed a multimillion-dollar expansion: updating the Reading facility, as well as opening a new 280,000-square-foot building – which houses assembly, distribution and customer service – in the nearby North Pointe Business Center.

The company acquired its first two Haas vertical machining centers, a VF-2 and a VF-3, in the spring of 1995. “We were moving toward high-speed machining, and the Haas machines were a good price and user-friendly,” says manufacturing support manager Dave Mohn. Baldwin has since acquired two more Haas VMCs – another VF-2 and a VF-0E – which, like the first two, are used primarily for cutting the dies that shape the company’s products. Baldwin Hardware products are made exclusively of brass, with a variety of coatings and finishes that, to quote a Baldwin brochure, “provide the ultimate in fashion, grace and elegance.” They certainly do.

Details about the origins of brass are sketchy, because those origins are so ancient (and because the terms “brass” and “bronze” tend to be used interchangeably in the oldest records), but it does seem likely that brass was first produced entirely by accident. One theory holds that it may have been discovered when campfires built on beaches rich in copper and zinc resulted in run-off of liquid brass from beneath the fire. Or it may have been a slightly more intentional (although still accidental) discovery, when copper ores containing zinc were heated. In any case, a form of brass was being manufactured by the time of the Roman Empire (about 2,000 years ago), in the form of coins, cooking vessels and ornaments.

Hand forging of metals has been around since prehistoric times, when ancient man first used the technique to fashion crude, yet effective, weapons. The use of machinery for forging began during the Middle Ages, when water mills came into use. The current form of forging by machine was introduced about two centuries ago, and hasn’t changed much since. While the type of machinery used depends on the metal being forged, as well as the desired size, shape and quantity of the finished product, the process is essentially the same. High pressure is used to force hot, and hence malleable, metal into dies to form it into the desired shape. The quality of the finished product, naturally, depends greatly on the quality of the dies used to shape it.

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For a company that crafts forged brass, the forging dies are the keystone of the manufacturing process. Of course, the design of a die is paramount – as is the accuracy of the machine that cuts it. “Now, when we make replacement forging dies, all other secondary tooling still matches the first die,” Dave explains. This was not the case prior to using Haas machines: “We’d get variations.”

Baldwin cuts its dies from H13 tool steel (which is about a Rockwell 52), using carbide cutting tools ranging in length from 3/16 of an inch to 4 inches. In the past, Baldwin performed the finish cuts on the dies while the steel was still soft, then heat-treated them, but this often led to mismatches and other finish problems caused by the heat treating.

Since they acquired the VF-0E with High-Speed Machining (HSM), the dies are roughed out first, heat-treated second, then finished using HSM. The process was changed because the Haas machines produce a better finish. “When you’re forging steel for auto parts, appearance means nothing,” says Dave. “When you’re forging brass, appearance is everything. The Haas machines give us better surface definition.”

The contouring necessary to produce Baldwin dies makes machining them very time-consuming. There are complex shapes and surfaces, fine details with small radii in deep cavities, multiple setups, the varying tool lengths mentioned and programming times that may exceed 20 hours. It can take two or three days to run the several programs necessary to complete a die.

“It’s very easy to program the Haas machines to run unattended,” says Neal Ziemer, the shop’s day shift programmer. Doing so has increased Baldwin’s annual production of forging dies by nearly 500%, from 31 to 150 dies per year. “They’re so much more user-friendly compared to a lot of other manufacturers. Editing programs is pretty painless.” The machine shop staff is thus able to respond to production needs more quickly. Baldwin’s machinists also appreciate the ability to control speeds and feeds in 1% increments with the remote jog handle. It’s one more option that makes life easier, as well as more productive.

Given the variety of tool lengths needed to cut a Baldwin die, setup can be no small chore. But: “Setup is a big plus on a Haas,” Dave notes. “It can take three or even four times longer on some of our other machines, because you have to jump between screens to do tool offsets. With a Haas, you have that one-button tool offset.” All of Baldwin’s Haas machines have a 4th axis, which allows for several operations in one setup; previously, several setups were required and the part was rotated manually. “A fourth axis lets us run multiple jobs, with different work offsets, on unattended machining,” says Dave.

He also likes the programmable coolant option, although he’s a fairly recent convert. “With the first two machines, they tried to talk me into ordering the programmable coolant. I thought, ‘What a waste that must be, why would you need it?’ Well, then I bought the third machine and it was included in the option package, so I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll go for it.’ Now it’s something I’ll always order – I wish I could go back and put it on the original two! It is so nice, when you go from a long drill to a short drill, it just moves with it.”

How long a forging die lasts depends mostly on the part geometry. Some dies wear very well – long enough to produce 80,000 pieces before needing replacement. At an RC 52, it doesn’t seem too surprising that a die could handle that much use (or perhaps abuse, when you consider the forging process). Still, some of the more complicated dies may have only one-eighth of that lifetime, about 10,000 pieces.

Baldwin’s reputation is based, quite simply, on the extremely high quality of its products, which is based on the product components as well as the manufacturing processes. In the words of Mr. Foy, the company president, “Our secret is buying the best raw materials, using processes that get the best possible out of those raw materials, and a work force that’s part artisan, part manufacturer.” Baldwin products are known for the best finishes in the world. This is partly due to solid-core forging – “[With] hollow core, you can only finish it so deep,” said Mr. Foy – and largely to Baldwin’s proprietary Lifetime Finish™. This is a zirconium nitride coating, applied via physical vapor deposition, that according to company literature “allows Baldwin to guarantee exterior finishes will remain fully weatherproof and free of pitting and corrosion for the life of the product.”

Lifetime guarantees are pretty rare these days. You only find them when you deal with a company that has an exceptional commitment to quality – and the resources to back it up. Baldwin Hardware clearly has what it takes.