A Century of Gerstner

Using the product you make. At most workstations in the Gerstner shop, the company’s toolchests are in daily use. Some are of recent manufacture, and some are decades old. All of them serve their purpose and function well.

The dream of starting a nice little business is common among woodworkers, and it isn’t anything new. In 1906, Harry Gerstner followed his dream and established H. Gerstner & Sons in Dayton, Ohio.

It started the way many of these stories do. Harry worked as a patternmaker, made himself a nice tool chest, and sold one to an envious co-worker. Within a few months he left his job, and within a few years he was doing well enough to move out of his garage. In 1913 he built the structure that his company still occupies.

Harry developed a product that soon became the standard for machinists and tool-and-die makers. At the time, showing a prospective employer your tools was part of the job interview, and if you showed up with a Gerstner chest full of Starrett tools you made a great first impression. Often, that was enough to land a job.

Harry also developed a process for manufacturing that is a model of efficiency. Before anyone ever heard the term “work-cell,” Gerstner employees were assembling chests and drawers using machines dedicated to performing one step in a complex process. The same basic methods are used today, and some of the equipment and work areas are nearly as old as the building itself.

As Senior Editor Glen D. Huey and I toured the building, we kept saying, “this is the way a woodshop should be.” The ceilings are high, the floors are wood, and natural light fills the area from an abundance of windows. Despite the old-time atmosphere, there is an efficient dust-collection system and up-to-date spray booth for finishing.

While there are plenty of links to the past, the company has survived by adapting to changing times. Dental tool cabinets once represented one-third of sales, until OSHA regulations adopted in the 1970s required dental tools to be stored in containers that could be sterilized in an autoclave. Quartersawn white oak is a strong wood, but it won’t hold up to that.

Changes in manufacturing have reduced the number of machinists, and the need for those remaining to keep a lot of hand tools. Today, the strongest market for these chests is among collectors. Not collectors of tools or tool chests, but collectors of anything small, such as pocket knives or arrowheads.

As with any object nicely made from solid wood, these tool chests are not cheap. When the company first started, the target price was a week’s wages for a journeyman machinist. In 1906 in Dayton, Ohio, the work week was 60 hours long and paid 10 cents an hour. The price today is roughly the same in terms of wages; a week’s pay for a machinist will buy you a very nice chest.

Today, Gerstner employs about a dozen men, cross-trained on the various operations that comprise the making of a solid box with sweet sliding drawers. Quartersawn white oak was once the dominant material, but cherry has become more popular in recent years. Chests are also made of walnut, maple and exotic woods.

The process starts with rough kiln-dried lumber, and the tool chests are made in batches of up to 50. Wood is selected, ripped and planed, then stacked on carts in the rough mill area. The carts are rolled to a machining and assembly area on the first floor. In this area, parts are cut to size and tongue-and-groove joints are milled.

Modern Methods, Vintage Tools
Making essentially the same product for a century leads to methods that work well and work efficiently. Each standard operation has a machine or workstation dedicated to that one task. Most of these are table-saw based, and many of the saws have been in the same place, performing the same task since before World War II.

There are also several machines that were custom made to perform one function. The machine in the photo at center left on this page is a good example. Four saw blades are mounted on a shaft behind a small sliding table. Drawer sides are cut to length, and a groove is cut in both ends in one quick step.

Tongue-and-groove joints are the main method of holding the cases and drawers together. The sides of the cases are made of three pieces of wood, with a cross-grain end forming the till and top of the box. The box top is part of the initial assembly, and is cut off to ensure grain match and fit.

Drawer fronts are grouped together for matching grain, and these groups are numbered and kept together throughout the manufacturing process. Each drawer is fit to a specific opening in a specific chest.

You can almost imagine being back in time to the 1920s or 1930s until you notice that all of the machinery is guarded to meet modern safety requirements. The other thing that snaps you back to the present day is the CNC router in the midst of the vintage machinery.

Drawer dividers and the box tops and bottoms are fit in stopped grooves milled in the sides of the cases. There is also a shallow groove for each drawer runner – a small piece of hard maple. The drawers are side hung; a groove in the drawer side fits neatly on the runner. We saw chests that were nearly 100 years old with perfectly functioning drawers. These grooves were once cut on pin routers with templates, but the CNC machine has added speed and accuracy to the process.

The cases are assembled at a bench near the CNC machine, and placed in specially made presses until the glue has dried. Drawers are also clamped in similar presses, saving time and eliminating the need to tighten many clamps repetitively.

When the assembled boxes are removed from the press, they are stacked on carts and are ready to be moved upstairs for fitting and finishing. How they get there brings us back to the historic nature of the building.

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