On a Personal Note

My trusted and most valued tool – a resto-modded 1967 South Bend tool room lathe with all the fixings

My joy in life is in making things. In this, there is rarely a day that passes where I am not building something or tinkering a gadget together. Yesterday it was  drill fixture to aid a co-worker in drilling 30 brackets in less than a half hour, while protecting fingers from the part jumping around. It was 20 minutes a work and a few scraps of metal, job done – smile on face. Otherwise, it’s a light fixture for the conference table, a test rig for a cure light, a finger brace for a kids broken finger, an adapter to convert an old fluorescent task light to a UV cure light/500Fc detail work light combination.

500Fc white light + 55watt UV cure light Dazor based combo light

When I mean make things, I don’t mean creating a drawing and handing it off to someone to make the parts, or send it out to be made, I mean bleeding on the material, grease in the fingernails, burned finger tips making of things. There are times I use solid modeling to get the parts the way I want, especially when they are to be printed on a 3D printer, or CNC mill (both of which I also own and operate), but many times, the design and build phases are completed on the fly. Grab some materials and start cutting, designing, engineering, and making simultaneously. After 30+ years tinkering things together, blowing things up, burning a few things down and finding dead ends the hard way, I have finally reach a level of functionality that results in a high percentage of successes vs. failures.

I was once a skier competitively, where I experienced the feeling of attaining a certain level of ability that transforms an activity from work to pleasure, where the work of achievement is no longer a chore, but a passion. I raced go-karts and cars, and came to a point in those efforts that gave me similar satisfaction. I have been shooting target rifles for over 45 years (unfortunately, with a few gaps in activity over that time), and still consider it one of my greatest pleasures (and challenges) in life.

Lighting design was another area, where the work of design was transformed to pleasure and feeling of accomplishment. While, most of my lighting design work today is for my own use, or for a few select customers, I still feel joy when a design is completed and lit for the first time. We are now taking on the challenge of re-lighting our work environment, including wireless controls and new custom-made fixtures, to transform the space to something that makes me feel good when I come to work.

New Conference Table Light
New conference table light from scratch with no plans beyond a concept in my head

I’ve been fortunate to experience this in more than one area and in a diverse array of activities, and am constantly looking for new challenges to pursue that might deliver new enjoyment and success. Not all of these have led to business sense results. I’m not wired to be an executive behind a desk, so it’s unlikely I will be joining the millionaire ranks of those who generally don’t know how to do many things, but know who to call to get things done. I am the one they can call. I even repair my own home appliances, rather than replace them, as its satisfying to see something made useful again. By the time I call someone in, it’s an end of life situation.

For many years, I have harbored a desire to own a shop with the space and tools necessary to make things. Pursuit of that dream started as a kid in a shop class some 45 years ago, and has taken almost 25 years of collecting the tools, learning how to run them properly, and bleeding through duct tape bandages.  I’m still learning a lot, but today at a point where the end product is of the quality I want it to be, which is superior to the garbage I generally find on the market for most things. This has now reached a point where a lot of what we buy for the shop or home, is purchased as a raw material, to be remade, updated, or modified to be exactly what I want. No more compromises. My target rifles are all custom, from off-shelf raw materials and components that are massaged to my personal taste, including resto-mods to older items that produce a combination of nostalgia and new purpose I find particularly satisfying.

Even a WW2 era M1903 (1942) resto-mod target rifle
WW2 era M1903 (1942) resto-mod target rifle that kills paper with the best of modern hole punchers.

In this day and age of electronics, social media and pundits sitting in rooms espousing their “knowledge” about topics and profounditries of every color… I get a little lost. There seems to be a population explosion of experts today, at a time when the number of people actually doing is declining. While I have expressed more than my share of thoughts over the years, I try to limit that exposure to things I am passionate about, like the editorial work I do in lighting, and presentations at conferences. I enjoy writing, as it’s another area where a few years of effort on the back of a lifetime of reading and story telling makes me feel comfortable expressing thoughts in this way. However, I enjoy making something useful from a pile of metal and wire far more.

That said, simultaneous to my achieving a level of expertise in making custom things, it has also become easy to buy products off-shelf, at low low prices. It is hard not to feel like the demand for bespoke creations has been diminished in the main stream, by a flood of cheap products coming from  overseas and made available on-line and in big box retailers. At times, I feel like someone that’s spent a lifetime on an island becoming an expert cobbler, that, upon returning to civilization discovers the market flooded cheap manufactured shoes. It can get a bit depressing, if I let it. The fact is, there are cobblers in the world now, even with Nike and Chinese shoe manufacturing. They are now free, as I am, to focus on the true value of custom service and product creation, since manufacturers fill the needs of those not so inclined.

The very top of the market still seeks high-end custom work. While the work we do for this market is satisfying, I like lesser markets, where the appreciation for clever solutions and quality is often higher, and the relationship with the customer closer. There has been a serious decline in demand in the general market for this value over the last 20 years, so this is not an easy segment to engage.

There is also a competing revolution afoot, the DIY Maker industry. This is simultaneously energizing interest in custom, while enabling them to create their own “things”. Unfortunately this can devalue those who make their living at it. Who needs a custom fixture made for a home theater when Make magazine shows you how to build an LED light with a toilet roll holder, 3D printer and soldering iron with 0ff-shelf LEDs and a driver controlled by an Arduino processor to run off your iPhone, by following YouTube instructions? Who wants to buy something from someone who can be copied using DIY tools? Originality is used for inspiration for any number of DIY Makers, who will post their knock-off solution on the web, proud of heir accomplished task of robbing the originating producer of their sale. This has stratified the market into three layers. The top pursue the highest level of creation at any cost. The middle finds the proliferation of cheap product satisfies most of their demand, while realizing satisfaction from brand games that place image over substance. Then those interested in DIY custom, empowered to do so with tools and components from an exploding population of providers anxious to sell them machines and materials. Salt this with a touch economic market and the decline of the middle class – who once created a great deal of customization demand, and you have a very different market today than one that existed just 20 years ago.

My goal is to connect with a population without the time and resources (or skill), who enjoy having things made to suit them, or those who take pleasure in owning unique products that are one-off or of a special character. This is as often an Interior design customer looking for a custom item (lighted or not) as it is a machine shop operator looking for a task light that can stand the rigors of a dirty 24 hr a day manufacturing environment.

Tasca is function from form
Tasca is function from form

My personal taste runs nearer the practical, over the purely artistic approach. I like things that have a solid tactile feel, that function well, that express purpose in the design (function over form). The Tasca product is an example of this. It is tough as nails and delivers more light on task, with the smoothest light pattern in the industry. It is also rebuild-able, and can be custom configured to a wide range of purposes. We use it for white task lighting, have made them with dual color (white/red) for the Navy, and have versions for UV curing. This is not a marketing push for Tasca, it is just an example of my approach. Tasca is not a raging volume market success – because the task light market is filled with low-cost Chinese made disposable products selling for much less, through distribution that can capture large volume sales results. For those looking for low-cost, our made in the USA, made to order, customized to suit approach is a miss-match. But, if the need is for something tough, with custom features that will last forever, delivering four times the light at 90CRI, we might just be the only game in town. This differentiation definitely isolates me from the mass market, but is where I feel I add the greatest value and derive the greatest pleasure from.

Another example of my personal taste is a couple of personal projects I hold dear. One is a motorcycle, which is “designed” as a shop bike, a hot rod that evolves as inspiration strikes. The other a side table light that we use at home on a kitchen island every day, as one of my favorites of the 2010 52 in 52 project of the time.

My shop bike, evolving WIP
My shop bike, evolving WIP

This is the same approach I take when pursuing any project, lighted or not. I get the same satisfaction from making things that light a desk or table, as I do from making a drill fixture that keeps someone from breaking their figures when drilling brackets. The greatest pleasure comes from applying a clever solution or meeting a challenging demand with minimal investment.

Our kitchen island work light
Our kitchen island work light

This leads to an interesting dilemma. In today’s market, flooded with DIY Makers, experts oozing from the woodwork, proliferation of low-cost products flooding in from every exploited labor country, and a sluggish to declining middle market, and a smaller and more condensed upper echelon… what is the roll for creative, hard-working product makers?

How does one reconcile the many years it takes to learn a skill or physical craft, in a market that is evolving away from hand-made to mass-produced low-cost gadget infused techno solutions? With the ever encroaching age of the Internet of Things, and App operation, has hardware and durability become irrelevant?

There is an interesting answer to some of these.

Inspired by steam punk
Inspired by steam punk

First, there is actually a movement gaining interest in Steam Punk, and its cousin Diesel Punk that is a perfect outlet for design that leans in the mechanical aesthetic direction. This includes ray guns, lighting and other accessory items. For me, this is an outlet where I can express a design aesthetic that has appeal beyond the current modernist architectural movement toward white on white with white trim and sleek/slim/minimalist accessories that are dominated by Italian design. I find all that over-sleek stuff too boring and cold, and lacking in interest to my mechanical sensitivities. I used to hide from this feeling, but have come to own it. I like designs that are harder and raw, and machine-made.

While not exactly steam or diesel, the idea is certainly there.
While not exactly steam or diesel, the idea is certainly there.

Second, there is Tasca, which is not trying to win design prizes with the modernists, but will win awards for durability and longevity, which to me is a tenant of sustainability. Throw-away cheap junk, to me, has no place in a sustainable space. Eventually the movement toward sustainability, for economic as much as ecological reasons, will turn its back on cheap garbage and seek more durable, rebuild-able solutions. However, there are improvements in controls and other technology components that will be included, and the modular approach allows this to be engaged without a complete re-design, that is also retrofit-able into older product. I can also apply custom mounting, special arms, integration into other products, etc… in ways that commodity Chinese product will never provide or support.

Third, there are many nascent emerging markets for a product nutter to pursue. Light curing, horticultural applications, and other specialty markets like these, are not yet commoditized, nor are they settled enough to agree on any single-minded approach. That means custom solutions until the market settles down.

Light cure and horticulture are emerging markets
Light cure and horticulture are emerging markets

Fourth, one area I find interesting and challenging, is refitting valuable lighting products with LED technology. Taking an older technology product apart and giving it new life with the latest SSL technology is a rewarding experience, that often produces a product that is better than it was originally in appearance, and performance, beyond saving energy or getting rid of old glass bulbs. This is reserved for products that are of some intrinsic or aesthetic value, however, as the cost of the work involved is frequently an issue otherwise.

Fifth, there is the entire universe of custom and customization. This can include anything, from making cabinet pulls for mill-work, attention-getting parts for trade show display, fixtures and holding devices for manufacturing… to re-working hood ornament from a classic cars into a trophies for a racing series. This may not have anything to do with lighting, may include light as a secondary element, or focus on the light emitted as the ultimate end product. Custom is just that. I am less concerned with it being SSL, or even lighting, as I am about it being something I can do of value, that creates joy for the customer and me alike.

Sixth, we have the writing and consulting universe, which is a core component of my daily business. However, when I started this business many years ago, the need for outside assistance to solve LED problems was widespread. As experience with the technology proliferates, and the technology becomes available from sources also willing to assist, this portion of business has become more specialized to high demand customers and unique application.

To some, this multi-directional form of business makes no sense. I have even been told that it is unbelievable that anyone can provide this range of value without a big staff. I have also been advised that this is not the path to a wealthy retirement, a point I agree to. However, I come from a family of self-employed, diversely interested individuals. I grew up with parents and grandparents that did many things on their own, ran farms, construction companies, automotive services and race-car shops, and engineering services businesses. When I close my eyes, I see people who solved problems with their hands as well as their heads, so I don’t buy the notion that this is not a viable pursuit. The fact that it is what we’ve done here for more than 10 years now, and have grown into a facility that can do more with greater quality, faster, makes me feel like maybe we have something to offer.

With all that said, I offer that should anyone reading this find themselves in need of something unique, a prototype of an idea, a custom thing, or want an existing gadget re-purposed or modified, you have available to you our resources and interest. We also have a few companies we can bring in to approach larger projects beyond our small shop resources, so we won’t let our small size and focus get in the way of filling an interesting demand.

Author: kwillmorth

Photographer and Artist

Leave a Reply