A Trip to an IDEAL Factory

IDEAL is headquartered in a low-rise office building next to one of the company’s plants in Sycamore, Illinois. There was nothing that special about the building so I did not even think to photograph it. Or maybe it was special and I didn’t notice because I was wondering about the blue dog statue in front of the company sign. It turns out the husky is the mascot of the local college, Northern Illinois University, and IDEAL is involved with the community—having been in Sycamore since 1924.

One room in the plant is essentially a commercial bakery. But it doesn’t make bread or anything edible; it makes commutator dresser stones, abrasive blocks used to resurface the commutators of electric motors. The ingredients are mixed a commercial mixer and baked in forms as if they were bread. Commutator dresser stones were IDEAL’s first product, developed by its founder, Walter Becker, in his mother’s kitchen in 1916. The company now produces a broad array of tools and supplies, but still makes dresser stones.

If you’ve done any electrical or electronics work then you’re probably familiar with IDEAL’s Stripmaster wire strippers. They are just one of many hand tools (most oriented towards electrical and Datacom work) produced in the factory.

The more complex parts of the Stripmaster are made by die-casting zinc, a quick method of production that requires little in the way of machining. This zinc alloy will be melted in an 800-degree vat ( video here) with heating elements akin to those in an electric water heater and then injected into a mold.

Die-cast parts come out of the mold with excess material attached. Here you can see the handles and jaw assemblies for two Stripmaster wire strippers. This piece will be run through a trim press to remove the excess material ( video here). The parts will land in their respective parts bins and the waste will be sent back to the vat to be melted and re-used. The alloy melts at approximately 800 degrees; they never turn the heating elements off because it takes forever to re-melt a giant block of zinc.

These die-cast handles are for Stripmaster wire-strippers.

This progressive die metal stamping press is punching out steel pieces for use in various tools—including wire strippers. Click here to see it in action.

Steel parts—fresh from the stamping press in the previous photo.

The machine operators in the plant could use any brand of tools to keep the equipment running; they use SK tools because IDEAL owns that company. The SK factory is located only a mile or two away from where this photo was taken.

This worker is assembling 3/4-inch conduit benders; the wheels on the assembly device spin the handle so it threads into the head.

This fellow is assembling steel fish tapes. The steel arrives at this station pre-coiled—having been coiled by the machine to the left.

IDEAL claims to manufacturer 70% of the screwdrivers sold in the U.S. Some are produced in Sycamore; others come from Western Forge, a subsidiary with a plant in Colorado. Pratt-Read, a Connecticut company that began making screwdrivers in1830 went bankrupt in 2009 and was purchased by IDEAL. IDEAL closed the acquired company’s plants but continues to produce under the Pratt-Read label. It also private labels screwdrivers. I agreed not to disclose the names of the brands I saw being made. Let me put it this way, if a screwdriver bears the house brand of a hardware chain or big box store, and the label says Made in the USA, then there’s a reasonably good chance it came from IDEAL.

This CNC lathe is making screwdriver blades from steel bar stock. The stock feeds in from the right; the lathe is machine with the number “4” on it.

These Phillips blades have just been machined in a CNC lathe. They came down the chute at the top of the photo and landed in a kitchen colander—which allows the oil used in the machining process to drain off the pieces.

This gal is assembling screwdrivers by using a press to push blades into handles. Click here for video.

IDEAL has multiple plants in the area. This is a parts and supply storage area in one of them.

The maintenance area is indicative of how well-organized things are at any successful factory. Losing or misplacing tools costs time and money and will put you out of business. Whenever I come back from a factory visit I feel like cleaning and reorganizing my shop.

If you’re an electrician you are no doubt familiar with Yellow 77, a popular type of wire pulling lubricant made by IDEAL. I was surprised to see it being made in the same plant where they make tools. But then IDEAL does not synthesize the chemicals; they buy the ingredients from various suppliers and then mix them in their own equipment. Click here to see tubs being filled.

This is the area where wire lubricant is mixed and packaged. Click here to see video of the bottling line.

Wire strippers machined, assembled, and ready for handles. Click here to see video of over-molded grips being applied.

This is the warehouse area of one of the plants. For more on how the tools and materials you use are made see: A Trip to Klein's Tool Factories in Texas, A Trip to the Sawmill, and A Trip to the Hand Saw, Plane, and Chisel Factory.

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