By Maarten Jacobs
Originally published in the Post Standard on November 15, 2012.
In an old, once-abandoned factory at Geddes and West Fayette streets in Syracuse, a model for American manufacturing is emerging. A young company, Borough Furnace, is melting and molding iron by using recycled materials, a green and sustainable process, and creative financing techniques.
John Truex, 30, is the founder of Borough Furnace. He spent several years studying sculpture at the University of Tennessee where he became interested in large-scale iron casting. He moved to New York City to work as a designer for high-end furniture maker Dakota Jackson. He said he became frustrated by the disconnect between design and the manufacturing process.
After a few years, he left to focus on manufacturing his own designs and returned to his love for iron casting. Working with his cousin, Jason Connelly, Truex started to prototype cast iron skillets and founded Borough Furnace.
“We decided to pitch our prototypes to the A+ Young Designers Platform at the New York City International Gift Fair,” says Truex. With a stroke of luck, they were selected to display their work at the biggest gift fair in America.
Truex said large buyers, including the Cooper-Hewitt Design Store in New York, began asking for orders. Truex searched for manufacturers to make the skillets.
“No one in the United States was interested due to the low volume of the product, so the only manufacturers willing to make them were overseas,” said Truex. “We weren’t interested in sending our designs over to China or Vietnam where we would have no control over the manufacturing process.”
Instead, Truex decided he would learn to manufacture them himself.
Over the course of six months, Truex and his cousin designed and created their own furnace, capable of casting iron at 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike the traditional coke-fired cupola furnace, Truex designed a “green” version.
“The furnace uses waste vegetable oil from local restaurants and businesses,” Truex said. “It makes for a lot less nasty smoke and is much cheaper as well.”
Realizing his “green” and efficient furnace made a breakthrough, Truex set out to find financing to start manufacturing.
Like thousands of entrepreneurs, Truex headed to Kickstarter, an online platform that raises money for new businesses through “crowd sourcing.” Over the course of 30 days, Truex raised $32,000, exceeding his goal of $25,000. Using his new capital, he fine-tuned his furnace, and created molds for a frying skillet, a braising skillet, and a bottle opener.
After months of tweaking his molds and doing test pours, Borough Furnace was ready to find a permanent home to start production.
By then, the summer of 2010, Truex was moving to Syracuse to teach industrial design at Syracuse University. Truex found the Gear Factory, a large warehouse on the Near West Side of Syracuse that was once home to several manufacturers making bikes, typewriters and other products. The century-old factory is now owned by Rick Destito, who is turning it into space for musicians, artists and craftsmen.
In need of additional startup capital, Truex turned to the Near Westside Initiative’s microloan program. The 2-year-old microloan program, created with a grant from the CNY Community Foundation and managed by the Cooperative Federal Credit Union, assists entrepreneurs and small business owners located in the Near West Side. With a microloan of $20,000, Truex was able to lease a space in the Gear Factory and hire his first employee.
He bought a ton of recycled iron from a local junk yard. He takes 30 pounds at a time, heats it to 2,700 degree Fahrenheit, and pours the liquid iron into his molds.
Borough Furnace is still in its early stages but steadily moving forward in sustainable, small-scale manufacturing. In a time when Americans want to keep jobs from going overseas and are looking for a new way to once again make things locally, businesses like Borough Furnace may offer part of the answer.
To learn more about Borough Furnace, go to boroughfurnace.com or email John Truex at email@example.com.