Knight Foundry at Sutter Creek where people work with their hands

The following is a Dec. 14, 1977, account by the author about the Knight Foundry when it was in commercial operation.

By Michael Raffety

Tradition fades easily in America. The American craftsman, once the cornerstone of our economy, is now but a faded photograph in the American album. The American craftsman became an anachronism when Henry Ford’s assembly line disgorged its first automobile.

Yet, there still can be found parts of the industrial process that, by their nature, resist the mass production process.

One such enclave of craftsmanship is the Knight Foundry at Sutter Creek. The foundry has been operating continuously in the same buildings, with basically the same equipment and methods since 1873.

“Don’t write your story about me,” said Carl Borgh, proprietor of the foundry for the last seven years. “The foundation and success of this business is the employees. They’re the key.”

“I’m very high on these guys,” said Borgh. “They’re a small group of vanishing craftsmen. They do a type of work no longer done.”

“Most foundries are big operations. Automated. The workers are machine operators,” said Borgh. “The foundry business started with people working with their hands.”

The Knight Foundry still depends on that. “Our business requires a great amount of hand skill,” said Borgh. “That’s how we find a niche for the products we make and the customers we serve.

“We don’t mass-produce. Fifty is a big job for us. We make a unique thing that somebody needs,” he said.

“We’re probably the smallest grey iron foundry in California,” said Borgh with the fast paced pride and concern he devotes to his business. “We pour 20 tons a month. Most foundries pour more than that before their morning coffee breaks.”

The grey iron, so called because of its color, is brought to the Knight Foundry in the form of junked automobile parts and rusted bathtubs. Old Volkswagen cylinder heads and Buick brake drums are melted down and reincarnated as gears, wheels, propellers, et cetera for the foundry’s customers.

Fifty to 75 percent of the products poured at the foundry are new designs. The rest are replacement parts for obsolete equipment.

Companies and people from as far away as Arizona, Oregon and Hawaii come to the Knight Foundry because no one else will take on the small orders that Knight Foundry does. “We do a hundred different things a month,” said Borgh.

Foundry work remains essentially the same as it was at the beginning of the Iron Age. “This business is basically simple,” said Borgh. “It only gets complex as things take shape.”

The first step is carving of a wooden pattern. This pattern is then placed in a box. Sand is sifted around the pinewood pattern. When the box is filled the sand is pneumatically packed down.

The box is then flipped over. The pattern that was at the bottom is now flush with the sand surface. The sand doesn’t spill away when overturned as it does at the beach. Foundry sand is mixed with sea coal and betanite, a clay, which makes the grains stick together.

After the box is flipped and the pattern is on top a special sand is scattered over it. Another box is placed on top and sand is tamped over the other side of the pattern. The two boxes are then separated and the mold is halved at the joint created by the special sand.

When the two boxes are separated the patterns can then be removed and a tube inserted for pouring in the molten metal.

 

After the iron solidifies and the mold is broken it goes to the machine shop for finishing and any machining that may be required.

All machinery in the shop and foundry is driven by water wheels. A dozen water wheels in the foundry run drill presses, lathes, milling machines and air compressors. It’s a functioning Rube Goldberg setup that dates back to the original owner. Sam Knight designed, built and patented water wheels before the invention of the electric light bulb.

Sam Knight and Thomas Edison have long since departed, but Knight’s water wheels still keep the foundry running and they’re not subject to blackouts.

“They’re convenient, cheaper, and besides, everything’s in place,” said Borgh.

The Knight Foundry remains an American tradition of invention and craftsmanship –- a money making tradition since 1873.

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