by Charles McGuigan
Machine Era is a relatively small shop tucked in the corner of a much larger building that houses Wellborn and Wright in that swath of an industrial park on Carolina Avenue just off Laburnum.
Ryan Shoemaker and Adam Hogsett stand on either side of a massive machine that dominates the shop. In a way, this computerized lathe/mill transmutes lesser metals into gold. Sort of. Twelve-foot bars of solid brass, stainless steel or anodized aluminum are fed into one end of the machine and transformed on the other end into pens that retail for $65 each.
The business partners met as employees at Tektonics Design Group; Adam as a fabricator, Ryan as a machinist. By then each of them had a good working knowledge of the ways in which metal can be worked into utilitarian forms.
Ryan’s interest in metal fabrication goes back to his high school days in Roanoke, Virginia.
“I attended a magnet school there that offered metal working,” he says. “I learned all kinds of stuff. It was mainly sheet metal and welding.”
Many of the pieces he and his classmates created in high school were farm implements. “Our shop teacher owned a farm in West Virginia,” says Ryan. “And most of the projects we did were stuff for his farm. Things like trailers.”
While still in high school, Ryan had a revelation. “I just learned real quickly that everything around you somehow starts in a machine shop” he says. “Everything. So I was like, ‘Man I can make whatever I want with two machines—a mill and a lathe.’ I really wanted to learn how to do that.”
To that end, even before graduating, Ryan went to work at Salem Precision Machine. Before his senior year he was already honing his skills as a machinist. After moving to Richmond, he worked at a number of machine shops around town before settling in at Tektonics Design Group.
Adam’s track was different. He began his career as an electrician. “I did that for five years,” he says. “I went through the schooling and everything.” All was going well until the market tanked. “It was right during the bank crash, and we pretty much exclusively did work for banks in Richmond,” says Adam. “We did all the work for Sun Trust and then things went bad, and the company went under.”
Without steady employment, Adam began to do something he had always been interested in. “I always wanted to learn about metal working,” he says. “So I bought a welder and self-taught for about six months and then got a job at Tektonics and that’s where I met Ryan.”
While employed by Tektonics, Adam worked on numerous projects from architectural features and aluminum furniture to the stainless steel bridge at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. “I was doing the fabrication side,” he says. “Welding and metal finishing were two of the main things I did. I did a lot sanding.”
About eight years ago, a friend of Adam’s who worked at Need Supply in Carytown asked him to come up with a design for bottle opener. “Need wanted a cool men’s accessory,” Adam says. “So we went back and forth on different designs.” One stood out from all the rest, and the internet gobbled them up. “After we posted it,” Adam explains. “It got picked up by some gear bugs and got spread around. We used to sell a lot of them. They were made carbon steel.”
Then Adam decided to build an even better mousetrap. He designed another bottle opener, asked Ryan to machine the product, and the Key Square was born.
“I had machined some bottle openers for him in the past, and so I started doing these,” says Ryan. “Then Adam did it on Kickstarter, and we were talking like, ‘If it does really good we’ll buy a machine and start machining these things.’” Within a month they had raised about $80,000 on Kickstarter, so they bought the milling machine and rented space in the same building they occupy today.
“The Key Square bottle-opener was the thing that really launched the company,” Adam says. “That was one of the originals. I designed it. I had a little mill in my garage.”
When it was all done and said, the pair manufactured over 5,000 of these unique bottle-openers, selling them online for $36 a pop, each one masterfully crafted of gleaming, hand-finished stainless steel.
When sales of this product began to taper off, the partners went back to the drawing board and came up with something entirely different. “Our bank account got kind of low and we were like, ‘Oh man, we’ve got to come up with something else,’” says Ryan. “That’s when we came up with the aluminum wallet.”
These are slim wallets, not much larger than a credit card, and about a half-inch thick. “There were other slim wallets out there, but having one made of metal was a totally new idea,” says Adam.
“That kept us in business,” Ryan says. “We sold more than ten thousand of them. We did a Kickstarter for them and raised about $220,000.” The wallets, which retailed for $28, were available in aluminum as well as a Space Age metal.
Ryan holds up one of the wallets made of titanium. He holds either side with thumb and index finger, and bends it into a horse shoe, but when he releases the pressure, the wallet flexes back into its original form. “It’s surprisingly strong,” he says.
In the intervening years, Machine Era would produce several other products including tumblers and shot glasses crafted on a lathe out of solid anodized aluminum stock. A pair would retail for just over a hundred dollars. “We should have sold them for double that,” says Ryan.
After they ceased producing the metal cups, Ryan and Adam moved into what has since become their signature items. “After the tumblers and shot glasses we started making pens,” Ryan says. “It’s just three pieces and an ink cartridge.”
The pair worked together on the design of these pens, which are machined from brass, aluminum or stainless steel. They’re about four and a half inches long, and have the perfect thickness and weight of a writing tool.
“We used CAD 3-D modeling to design it,” says Adam. “Everything’s real tight.”
About three years ago, around the time they began manufacturing the pens, Adam and Ryan invested in a major piece of new equipment. It’s the fully automated machine that takes up the majority of their shop. Called the SWISS GT 26, this machine is made by Tornos, a company based in Switzerland that invented lathes for the manufacture of Swiss watch parts. Precision is its hallmark.
Ryan passes me a twelve-foot bar of solid brass. “That is exactly a half-inch within plus or minus a half a thou,” he tells me of the diameter of the rod. “You can’t just run regular stock through the machine because it would get stuck. Out of two bars we make forty pens.”
And these pens are selling extremely well online, and in a few brick-and-mortar shops including Le Rocketship at 13 Rue Henry Monnier in Paris, France, and locally at Na Nin on South Addison Street in the Fan.
With the SWISS GT 26, which does both milling and lathing, they have increased their daily output threefold during full production times. They seem to have found a real niche market, and they continue to add pen styles to their stock.
“Designed and machined in the USA,” Ryan tells me, quoting the tagline that has been used to market Machine Era since its inception.
“We were one of the first companies to capitalize on that,” says Adam. ‘We like it because we can control our product and the process and what it looks like. That will never change.”
To learn more about their products visit www.machine-era.com