Reports are consistently saying that the quality and value of American made goods is on the increase, however, employment within these industries (ours included) is, as it has been in recent years, decreasing. The average number of manufacturing jobs, according to and article from NPR titled “The Past and Future of American Manufacturing,” has dropped from around 18 million to approximately 12 million in the last decade. While we have not been strangers to having to make the difficult choice of cutting our employee base due to economic downturns, we still believe in the decision making power of the worker.
There is nothing like coming in to the factory on a snowy morning here in the mountains, putting on my protective eyewear, grabbing my camera and heading out to the shop to see what’s in the works. There is a normal loop I take, first visiting the men working the hot, reddish orange forge, flames licking at the metal, softening it to a point where one can take a hammer to it to give it a texture unlike any other. I then wander around to where they weld the pieces together, men in their green aprons, covered in metal dust, large protective masks covering their faces while blue and orange sparks fly in every direction, lighting up the red plastic separators between each station. Being trained as a photographer and fascinated with light as I am, I must remind myself not to stare directly at the center blue flame where the sparks originate. That light will burn the eye, even from far away. I then head on over to where we have a few detail-oriented ladies who grind down any metal burrs or weld melts to create a smooth and beautiful look to our metal, again, sparks flying.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we turn on these massive machines and you see chairs, tables, bakers racks, mirror frames, and sometimes bed frames (along with any other item we have been commissioned to create) on a slow march, through a 5-stage washer, a dry off oven, a paint booth and finally a cure oven, preparing each to be delivered to a designer, a home or a store. I can’t exactly tell you how, but this process always reminds me of the animated movie “Alice in Wonderland.”
Sometimes, we have custom paint jobs, a bright teal, or an orange for a flash sale event. These items head over to Dana, who, like any artist has her area of paint samples and brushes, an area where all of the colors she uses are blotted on a canvas so that she can take stock of its quality. She then hand paints each item, giving it a texture and sheen that you just can’t get from a paint booth or an airbrush.
During this process, there’s metal dust everywhere, there is texture and sound, metal clanging against metal. There are people, very talented at their jobs, working and smiling because they love what they do, creating something useful and meaningful with their hands. During lunch breaks, there are men and women joking and laughing over their brought-from-home lunches, strengthening friendships with the close-knit community of co-workers that they have created over the years.
I couldn’t imagine this process being nearly as intriguing if it were done by robotic arms, controlled by someone staring at a screen, pushing a button every half hour (which some reports are now stating that’s where the manufacturing world is headed…how factories have slowly replaced workers with machines in order to be able to compete with the Asian market.) While the furniture always leaves our warehouse clean and metal dust free, the process it takes to get to the beautiful sturdy piece that ends up in a customer’s living room would not be the same were it done in a shiny clean factory. It would not have the history and the energy that it does going through the process that it currently does here at Charleston Forge.
While I can’t foresee the future of where the employee scarce factory will take our world, I have to say that there is something about the process, and the people that makes our furniture something to LOVE that will last for years and years…. and years.