© Rob Edwards
published in ANVIL MAGAZINE December, 1996
ANVIL: One of the interesting things that has happened this year in the farrier industry is that G.E. Forge & Tool has celebrated its 50th anniversary. George Ernest started making handmade farrier tools in 1946.
BETH: They were totally hand made. They started from bar stock, heated it, put it in a mold and hammered it into shape. It went from there.
ANVIL: Where was that?
BETH: In Klamath Falls, Oregon. He and his wife settled there when his daughter was five years old and it was time for her to go to school. Before that he was a true itinerant blacksmith. He followed the racetracks, and was considered an authority on the gaits of horses. He was looked up to and respected.
ANVIL: So George actually did manufacture these tools all over the country in his travels.
BETH: I was told that he and a man named Scotty Brogan worked together in developing the tools. The two of them would ride into town on the railroad underneath or thereabouts! and stop at the blacksmith's shop at one end of town, make a tool for him using his own steel, and then the man would pay them enough so that they could buy their own steel. And then they could go on to the blacksmith at the other end of town and make a nipper for him and earn enough money from that blacksmith to go on to the next town. Evidently in George's youth, he went to all the racetracks up and down the East Coast of the United States. Then George and Scotty came to California, traveling pretty much as hoboes.
ANVIL: So how did George proceed when he settled in Klamath Falls?
BETH: Well, people began writing to him. The grapevine back then was a very effective information transfer. Until the American Farriers Journal came along, it was the only carrier of information. When they found out that George was in Klamath Falls and was staying there, they would write to him and say, 'Make me another one of those tools.' And they would send along the money for it. He didn't ask for business, really. He had a blacksmith shop there in Klamath Falls, but the tool business itself just grew.
ANVIL: When did George sell the company?
BETH: He kept it until he was about 76 years old. He then decided that he was no longer physically able to keep up with it, because he was still making all these tools by hand two nippers a day. So he decided he'd sell the company to a younger man who taught at the vocational school there in town. Adam Eckerich finally bought the tools. He decided he would buy the company after he went to Los Angeles and talked to the Proto Tool Company, which made pliers and plier-type tools. They said sure, they could make the nippers. They gave him a price. He was simply going to take over George's business, but let somebody else make the tools. He didn't want the job of making them himself. Then Proto Tool found out how much precision had to be put into these tools, and they just couldn't put them on a machine to be worked as if they were a pair of pliers. There were blades - these are cutting tools, and that puts a whole new angle on things. So they offered to sell Adam the forgings they had made at five cents on the dollar or thereabouts. So Adam took them and then he hired a couple of young men to make the tools. One of them was Dale Sprout and the other was Leon Mitchell. George Ernest, I believe, taught those two men the process. George would then stop by the shop every day and teach them. He especially wanted them to learn how to keep the quality up to where it had always been.
Ralph Hoover wanted to buy the company. Instead of selling directly to Ralph, he sold to a man named Bill Collins from Oregon, a horse trader, who put up the cash and then leased the business to Ralph Hoover. Ralph took the business to San Luis Obispo, California, and Leon Mitchell came with the business to make tools.
After Ralph died, the Mitchells ran the business for a few more years; they were going into bankruptcy, and so they advertised the business in the Los Angeles Times. My husband, Walt, and I were looking for a business at that time to purchase. So we bought a business that we could afford, in a place where we wanted to live, the central coast of California. Neither of us knew anything about horses or horseshoeing, however.
ANVIL: Walt was quite familiar with tools, though, wasn't he?
BETH: Yes, he had been with Snap-On Tools for about ten years as a dealer and as a field manager. He had been back to their plant and had seen the process of toolmaking. He had also worked with tools all his life as a mechanic and had a feel for them.
ANVIL: Then the primary tool was the nipper. Were there others?
BETH: Yes, there were also the clincher, the crease nail puller, the pulloff, the hoof tester as well as fire tongs and anvils. We dropped the fire tongs eventually; a competitor at the time was already making a very good pair of tongs.
BOB: Our tongs had a spring steel handle with a mild steel head that we forged in-house. We put a great deal of time into them, and they were expensive to make. The savings on the insurance to get rid of the trip hammer needed to make them made us more money than actually making the fire tongs! The insurance on forging equipment was very high. The new fire tongs that were being forged and stamped in one piece were quite a bit less expensive, and they did the job.
ANVIL: When you and Walt bought the company and moved it to Grover Beach, California, how many employees were involved?
BETH: One. Joe Lopez was our only employee - people will recognize that name because he now is the owner of Lopez Farrier Rebuilds in Santa Maria, California.
ANVIL: How long was he with the company after you bought it?
BETH: Nine years, from 1973 to 1982.
ANVIL: So Joe went into specialty welding and nipper rebuilding, and you gradually built up the number of employees. G.E. has been known for a distinct quality of craftsmanship.
BETH: Yes, that has been important to us to maintain.
BOB: I started out making tools, working in the back of the shop in San Luis Obispo before we moved to Grover Beach, California. That was during my high school years, and I spent the summers running a 1919 Hendy milling machine it still ran off a canvas belt drive. The only mechanized equipment in the company was the old Hendy milling machine and a drill press. Otherwise, we did hand grinding, polishing, filing, and shaping of the blades either with a hammer and an anvil or a grinding wheel.
ANVIL: Beth mentioned earlier that Proto Tool really didn't want to make the tools. Was that mainly because of all the hand work involved?
BOB: Yes, trying to turn two blades at 90o from the pivot pin and have them line up again is no easy task. It's difficult to make a precision blade meet another precision blade.
ANVIL: So the forgings are one thing, but the finish is an entirely different operation. Would you say that with most hand tools that are manufactured the processes are similar - that is, the forgings and the finish - whereas, with farrier tools the finish is a much more critical aspect?
BOB: The hoof nipper is more an instrument than just a cutting tool, with the precision required to make it function properly. It would be comparable to a medical cutting instrument. Instead of a side-cutting pair of pliers, the blades still line up on the same plane as the pivot pin. So turning two corners and trying to get them to line up again takes precision.
ANVIL: When you get nippers back for rebuilding, what is the most common problem you see?
BOB: They are used to pull and cut nails which tend to chip the blades.
ANVIL: So the nails need to be removed from the horse's hoof prior to trimming the feet?
BOB: Yes, the nippers have a fine cutting edge, made for cutting foot material. They will cut a nail, but they are designed for cutting feet, not nails. Or pulling nails from creased shoes will pull the corners off the nippers. They can use the crease nail puller, designed to pull nails, instead of the hoof nipper.
ANVIL: When did you stop making the G.E. anvil?
BOB: About 13 years ago.
ANVIL: Why did you choose to abandon that process?
BOB: Again, we made an anvil that was cast of all chromoly tool steel and heat treated throughout. It was really well finished. The industry started to come out with anvils that were made of a cast wrought iron with just a hard face on the top that would sell for one-third of our anvil's price. And if we had a problem with an anvil that we'd shipped to the East Coast, just the return shipping to warranty an anvil would cost you the profit on half a dozen anvils. We were having a lot of the work done outside. The freight costs were just enormous.
BETH: Those people who were working on them were having labor problems, and their costs continued to go up. So the cost of what was once $1.00 a pound for the anvil material kept going up and up and up, until we knew we would reach a point where we couldn't sell them at the price we would have to charge.
BOB: So a G.E. anvil would be $450, and you could go out and buy an anvil for $200 or $250. Ordinarily, a student just starting out in farrier school doesn't have the money and isn't likely to purchase a professional-quality anvil.
ANVIL: I remember distinctly that I didn't. But my father had taught me the value of good tools and I figured I'd be using my first anvil for a lifetime. So I convinced Jody that it was a G.E. anvil that I had to have. The sacrifice was hers, really, because she was paying the bills at the time.
BOB: Could you tell the difference, once you got the anvil?
ANVIL: Oh, yes, definitely. There's no comparison between the anvils in the school shop where I attended and my G.E. anvil. It was Ralph Hoover's anvil design.
BETH: Yes, and we didn't make any changes in it, nor did the Mitchells, to my knowledge.
BOB: Not until Bruce Daniels came up with a new design, which entailed a change on the heel. We added some pritchel holes and tapered the heel. Those were the only changes. In Texas, the foundries weren't as expensive as they were here in California. So we sold the anvil business to C & M Horseshoe Sales - Don Cates is the owner. The basic design of the anvil is the same, but he made the base wider, so it's a little more stable. Don added an inch to either end. The quality is still there.
ANVIL: Why did you discontinue making the nail nippers?
BOB: The nail cutter was a precision tool. As the design progressed, it made the tool more expensive, so the sales diminished to a point of no return. To make the tool durable enough, we couldn't get the precision cutting edge that we wanted. We had to keep compromising the thickness of the cutting edge so that it would hold up to both pulling a #12 nail out of a shoe through a stack of pads and cutting off race nails.
BETH: That tool was an accident to begin with. We inherited some smaller-than-usual forgings that had been around for a long time.
BOB: Yes, we had a batch of very small-headed 12" forgings nippers, that had been sitting around in the back room since we bought the company. We wanted to make something out of them. So we hand made a run of tools that would cut nails, just to use up the forgings.
BETH: The idea took hold, and we even had requests from sheep people; they told us that this was a tool they could use to trim sheep.
BETH: But the problem was that it cost us just as much to make this little tool as it did to make the big one. There was just as much labor in it, and maybe even more. But to price it to sell, actually we would have gone bankrupt if we had kept making that tool at the price we'd originally set.
BOB: The alignment of the blades, being a thinner, sharper blade on the little foal nipper, was even more difficult to keep precisely lined up. So it had to cost the same as a nipper.
ANVIL: For every tool you've discontinued, you've originated more tools to take its place, it seems for instance, the half round nipper. And you've still kept quite a line of anvil tools the hardies and the clinch cutters and several others that you have refined or revised as time has gone on. So the company has always been dynamic in that sense. When you designed the half round nipper, you must have been taking a chance.
BOB: That nipper, as far as I know, was designed by Lee Green, and Joe Lopez made it for him. It was a tool that was extremely difficult to hand make. Joe would take a pair of nippers and curve the blades and file them to match up. And to match up the two blades that have both turned two 90o corners and then curve them is very difficult. That's primarily why they are very expensive - their scrap rate is so high. Joe came to us and gave us the tool, knowing that we now had the computerized equipment and we could actually machine those shapes a lot more accurately.
ANVIL: When did you first purchase a computerized milling machine?
BOB: In 1985. It was the state of the art at that time. Right around 1982, I started adding new methods of machining and doing more and more with the milling machines and less grinding by hand. Instead of grinding the shape of the throat in each nipper by hand, my dad had a staggered-tooth milling cutter made up and we would actually mill the shape of every throat. The first big innovation after we purchased the company was milling the throat shape and the top of the nipper head all at the same time so that each aspect was consistent with the other.
BETH: The first big innovation after we bought the company was during Christmas vacation. We tore down all the machinery, cleaned it up, put in fresh grease, and what do you know - New machinery! Machines that hadn't been used in a long time because they just didn't work now worked. So we've been doing that every year at Christmas time.
BOB: We disassemble, change belts, bearings, hoses, grease everything, and basically service every piece of equipment we have in the shop. As a result, throughout the year we don't have any equipment failures. Everything runs smoothly.
BETH: When Walt went down to a machinery shop in Los Angeles to replace the Hendy, in the window of the used machinery shop as the display was this antique it was the twin brother to ours! That milling machine is, to my knowledge, still being used today, by Lee Green or Dave Willis.
ANVIL: Let's talk employees. Beth, you were telling me you came from a company in Ohio that really took care of its employees, and you and Walt decided that was the way you were going to run G.E. Forge and Tool.
BETH: Well, it made sense where I worked. They really were good to their employees. Somebody said to me back then, I'd like a job there, but those employees marry their jobs!' And that sounded pretty good.
ANVIL: What is the average time that an employee works for G.E.?
BOB: The current average is 11 years; more than half our employees have been with us over ten years now. Some of them have been with us 18 and 20 years. That accounts for the quality of the tools. We have fathers and sons working here.
ANVIL: How many employees do you have?
BOB: Nineteen right now. We have very hard working employees who take pride in what they do. Recently, we've had a 30% increase in staff in the production shop in order to keep up with the increased demand. But it will be another six months to a year before we're really caught up, simply because it takes a good deal of time to train someone properly for this precision work.
ANVIL: Even though other tools have come on the market, you still have fallen behind because of so much demand for your tools. What do you think accounts for that?
BOB: Three years ago we were caught up. We had worked it up to a point where we were actually shipping everything on time. That would be the third time we'd been caught up since 1974. As our service level reaches a point of shipping everything on time, the demand goes up.
ANVIL: I understand that a pair of G.E. nippers costs about twice as much in Canada as it costs here.
BETH: That's because of their exchange rate. When we were up there, it was $1.35 to ours. The Canadians not only have a sales tax but also a goods and services tax. It costs them a fortune to get the tools.
ANVIL: Is this also true of European sales?
BETH: Yes, it's very expensive. And the same in Australia. Of course the shipping overseas itself is costly.
ANVIL: I've noticed in some of the videos that come out of Europe that there are more farriers using nippers now than I've seen before, instead of using the hammer and the blade or sole knife. Has that trend increased demand in your nippers overseas?
BOB: I would assume so. The demand for nippers worldwide is up.
ANVIL: Let's talk about the shoes. What made you think of making horseshoes out of aluminum pipe?
BOB: I watched someone set a beer can inside a horseshoe at a convention about eight years ago. When cast aluminum bar shoes were first becoming popular eight to ten years ago, there was a lot of talk about them at the conventions, so when somebody had on one at the bar and set their beer can down inside it, the idea struck me. We've been making the shoes for four years now. For five years, I tried to give the idea away.
BETH: But we were already using sliced tubing for the hoof tester. So he knew it would work, and he knew why it would work.
BOB: In essence, the structure of it is better. Kim Angell had the local farrier supply in Arroyo Grande and was having some problems with some cast shoes that were breaking. He'd also been manufacturing some horseshoes and he saw a need for these shoes. It was all coincidence, however, because at the time, he was having steel shoes made in Fresno and trying to think of a way to cut out aluminum like they cut out steel - like egg bars. So he sliced off some aluminum pipe, took it out in the driveway and beat it up and it wouldn't break. He still has the original ones made from sliced pipe. And then we went on to a custom extrusion and the whole operation just took off. So I had the manufacturing technology and Kim had all the designs and shapes. I'm not a farrier, but I knew how to make this product and that's why I kept trying to give it away. Kim had been in the horseshoeing business and had the blueprints for the shoe.
ANVIL: So your inventory of shoes is up right now, and you have been able to stay up with the demand, then.
BOB: The demand, it turned out, is several times what we originally anticipated selling in our first year. And this is now our fourth year. We've managed to expand the production. Since it is an automated process, it doesn't require highly skilled labor to produce them. So we've managed to add equipment and personnel and work two shifts a day on that one. And now we're shipping everything the same day it's ordered.
ANVIL: How many computerized milling machines do you have operating, creating the shoes?
ANVIL: So you have a cut-off saw and three of these machines. The toe wear piece is hand-inserted, isn't it?
BOB: Yes, hand pressed and riveted in. That's the only hand operation that goes into this, other than polishing the edges.
ANVIL: You have the machinery to stay up to speed on one product, but the other product line requires a lot of intense, highly skilled manual labor, which makes it virtually impossible to automate. Do you think this is an indication of what is in the future for American industry in regard to the loss of skilled labor to computer-generated product?
BOB: It's frightening what's coming up because there is no one apprenticing in the skilled mold maker or die maker trades and somebody has to make the first part - the first prototype. You can't do it all by computer. If you were a journeyman tool and die maker right now, you could pretty much write your own ticket anywhere in the country, because there is such a shortage. The hands-on skilled labor is difficult to find, and no one wants to apprentice in a field that takes years to learn.
ANVIL: Why is that?
BOB: Because they can get a college education with a degree and go out and demand higher wages as an engineer than they can as a machinist's apprentice.
ANVIL: Tell us about the open-heel shoe that you're about to release. How did that come about? Obviously the egg bar was very successful, but that was cut-out-of-pipe. Is the open heel 2o wedge going to be cut out of pipe, too?
BOB: I wouldn't say cut out of pipe. It's made from the extruded product, where we get good grain structure for shaping. A forged aluminum shoe can tend to be difficult to level. These shoes won't have any of those problems, and the material is such that the durability will be very good.
ANVIL: About the grain structure you mentioned, why is it easier to shape a shoe that has a grain structure running through it?
BOB: Extruded aluminum has grain similar to that of the grain you find in trees. It's easier to cut across the board than it is to cut down the board. It also has more strength in one direction than the other. On the end grain, it has more wear resistance resistance. When we slice the material off the extrusion, it has the greatest wearability. Yet, when you shape it, you're not shaping across the grain, you're shaping with the grain.
ANVIL: So does that durability account for the success these shoes have had with endurance horses?
BOB: I honestly don't know. They do have good wearability, and they don't crack under fatigue. It's probably a combination of the material itself and the ability of that material to withstand the punishment.
ANVIL: Was it the success of the egg bar shoes that led you to getting involved in the open heel shoe?
BETH: There was a demand for it that was initiated by the Quarter Horse industry.
BOB: The two degrees are there because we felt that would be demanded, and it adds a little more support. The toe is rolled to facilitate breakover. There is a unique feature in the way we punch the nail holes.
Just because of the method of manufacture, we have been able to make the crease perpendicular to the ground surface, but the nail holes are actually square to (or perpendicular with) the hoof surface, even though it's a 2o shoe. So we end up with a shoe that has a graduated nail pitch.
ANVIL: What sizes are you providing in these shoes?
BOB: We're going to start out with 00, 0 and 1. And the sizes will be more standard to an open-heeled shoe. Our regular egg bar Farrier Industry Association (FIA) - standard shoes are sized slightly small. The open-heeled shoes will be more consistent with industry standards, as far as the heel-to-heel measurement goes.
ANVIL: You referred to Kim Angell as the designer of the shoe. I noticed that G.E. relies heavily on the expertise of not only Kim but also Dan Bradley for design and liaison with the farrier community. Would you term Kim and Dan as consultants? They both have their farrier practices.
BOB: Kim is not an employee, and can be considered a consultant, yes. Kim believes that instead of having to react to the industry and what the industry does, G.E. tends to set the precedent for other companies to react. That's his view. Dan Bradley is our sales rep.
ANVIL: The development of G.E. has paralleled the shift of the industry into high technology. Over the years you have obviously spent a lot of time supporting the American Farrier's Journal and ANVIL Magazine as well as local and regional associations. Has that benefited you?
BOB: Oh, tremendously. One of the biggest benefits has been in supporting the schools. To support them will contribute to the success of the industry. We want to give them high quality products and state-of-the-art tools. This industry on the whole has the outlook, 'We've always done it that way and that's the way we're going to do it.' But it has to grow just like any other industry, and it has to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented. Just as with G.E., the success of the industry will be determined by the quality of the people, the communications and the degree to which people are willing to take the responsibility and the authority to fully participate.
ANVIL: Thank you so much for your time today, and congratulations on the 50th anniversary of G.E. Forge & Tool Company.
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