Launch Slideshow

A Trip to the Recip Blade Factory

A Trip to the Recip Blade Factory

  • The first thing you see when you get to the plant is the sign. Lenox is owned by Newell Rubbermaid, which owns 30+ brands. Their tool division includes Lenox, Irwin, and Hilmor – a recently formed company that produces equipment for HVAC technicians.

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  • Founded in 1915 as the American Saw and Manufacturing Company, Lenox was acquired by Newell Rubbermaid in 2003. The company originally produced hacksaw blades but is better known for its band saw blades – which are the number one item produced in the 500,000 square foot plant. More than 700 people work in this location, which includes both the factory and corporate offices.

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  • A bimetal blade begins as a narrow strip of HSS (high speed steel) edge wire and a wider strip of flexible backing material. What you are seeing here is edge wire coming off of a spool on its way to the machine that will electron beam weld it to the backing. The backing comes from a metal spool off to the left.

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  • The edge wire passes through a series of rollers that orient it on its way into the welding machine.

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  • The two strips of material – edge wire on the left and backing material on the right – converge as they enter the welding machine.

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  • This is one of the many welding machines in the factory. Inside this machine edge wire and backing material are electron beam welded into a single piece of bimetal material. In this process a focused beam of electrons is directed at the joint between the pieces, which fuses them together. The tube on the front of the machine is a magnifying scope. The operator uses it to monitor the welding process and align the beam so it hits the joint at the proper location. I looked through the scope and could see the beam doing its work. The magnification was so powerful it looked like there was a 1/8-inch gap between the two pieces of metal, even though they were tight together.

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  • The welded material leaves the welding machine and passes over an inspection table. Every so often the machine is turned off, the welded material stops advancing, and the operator uses the microscope on the table to examine the weld.

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  • In this highly magnified photo you can see the weld between the edge wire and backing. The teeth will be cut into the edge wire so only the teeth will be HSS. This makes for a much better blade than could be made with either material alone. When I entered the trades we used HSS blades for cutting metal and carbon steel blades for wood. The HSS blades were brittle and broke constantly, and the carbon steel blades dulled the moment you hit a nail. Bimetal was a huge improvement because it combined wear resistant HSS teeth with a flexible carbon steel back. Nowadays it’s hard to find a recip saw blade that is not bimetal.

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  • After welding the bimetal material is rolled onto spools so it can be transported to the next operation. Check out the floor in this area; those are end grain wood (ends facing up/down) from the original factory. I recently saw the same kind of floor in SB&D’s development and testing lab in Maryland.

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  • The next step in the process is to anneal the bimetal material, to make it soft enough for teeth to be machined into the HSS edge. This is done by placing the coils of welded material in furnaces, heating them to a particular temperature, and then allowing them to cool. The vessels shown here are electric vacuum furnaces. These things are deeper than they look; they extend 6 or 8 feet below floor level.

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  • The coils with sheets of cardboard between them are the raw bimetal material. They will be placed into the frame to the left and then fed into the machine that will cut the teeth. At most other plants where recip blades are made the welded material would be punched into blade-shaped pieces before teeth are ground and set. But Lenox is a major producer of band saw blades so their processes are based on cutting teeth into very long (hundreds of feet long) strips of metal. Instead of devising something different for recip saw blades, they punch blades out after the teeth have been cut and set. This allows them to use the same machines to cut teeth for recip saw blades, band saw blades, and hole saws.

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  • A series of rollers twist the welded material onto the flat as it enters the machine that cuts teeth. In this photo, strips of material are being fed through rollers in stacks of two that are brought together as they enter the machine. A total of 28 strips are entering the machine.

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  • This is a cutter for a tooth cutting machine; there are different heads for different tooth configurations. Note the hand tools to the left. They’re set into foam so it will be apparent if any are missing. I saw these things and shadow boards (tools are outlined where they are supposed to hang) all over the plant. It’s a factory and the line can’t stop just because someone happened to misplace a tool.

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  • The 28 strips of material are held tightly between a pair of horizontal jaws while the spinning cutter passes across them and cuts teeth. After each pass the material advances the length of the cutter, the jaws re-clamp, and the process is repeated until the entire length of material has passed through the machine.

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  • After the teeth are cut the welded material moves to the left and is separated so it can be rolled back into individual coils.

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  • The next step in the process is to set the teeth. These teeth have not been set so they are flush with the sides of the blade. Teeth are set mechanically by bending them left and right so the kerf they make is wide than the material the blade is made from. The machines that set teeth are one of the things I was not allowed to photograph. Use your imagination – it’s probably not so different than you think it is.

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  • After the teeth are cut and set the strip enters the machine that will punch it into individual blades. I was allowed to see how blades are punched but not to photograph the process.

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  • I can’t show the blade being punched but I can show what the pieces look like after. I laid these out so you can see how they’re punched from the strip of metal.

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  • Earlier in the process the bimetal material was annealed to make it soft enough for teeth to be ground into the HSS and for the individual blades to be punched out of it. Now it’s time to harden the metal, which is accomplished by stacking blades in racks and running them through a hardening furnace on a conveyor. The blades are heated to a set temperature and cooled at a given rate.

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  • After hardening, the blades are relatively brittle so they are put into an annealing furnace for the final step of heat treating – tempering. The blades are raised to a set temperature and cooled a given rate, which realigns the internal structure of the metal so it’s both tough and flexible.

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  • The blades could be used after tempering but like any manufacturer, Lenox wants to put their color, logo, and labeling on the product. The first step in this process is painting. Blades are hung from a conveyor that descends into a vat of paint (in this case white). The blades re-emerge over the tank, the excess paint drips off, and then they pass through a drier that uses heat and moving air to dry the paint. I know they keep some blue paint around because Lenox produces recip saw blades for sister-company Irwin.

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  • After painting, the brand, logo, and other information are printed onto the blades. The blades go from there to the packaging area. That was the end of the production process but not the end of the end of my tour. There were two more stops, both quite interesting.

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  • I was taken to a room containing several large devices that had tubes, cables, and gauges all over them. If I’d gone in blindfolded and someone had said “dude, we’re in a warehouse at Area 51 and these are from an alien space ship” I’d have believed him – except I could see out a window and in March there is no mistaking Western Massachusetts for the Nevada desert. This was the room where the titanium nitride coating was applied to the teeth of Lenox Gold blades. Photography was definitely not allowed and this was the one part of the tour where no one offered to explain what was going inside of the machine.

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  • Our last stop was in the testing area – which I’ll cover in a separate story. These were my tour guides, Mary Kate Winters and Bethany Mousseau from the company’s PR agency, Matt Howell (product manager for hole saws) and Matt Savarino (product manager for recip saw blades). They’re smiling because the tour is over; they’re probably thinking “man, that guy asks a lot of questions. I didn’t think he'd ever leave.” ;-)

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Like most people who are interested in tools, I'm also interested in how they are made so before my last trip to New England I called the folks at Lenox and asked for a tour of their plant in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

The plant produces recip saw blades, hole saws, band saw blades, and a number of other items. This story focuses on recip saw blades. I'll cover hole saws in a future entry.

Lenox was reluctant at first to allow me to take photos inside the plant because there are certain machines and processes they don't want competitors to see. After much discussion it was agreed my tour guides would tell me what I could and could not photograph. They were good about it because they understood there would be no story to tell if I could not share with you what I saw during my visit. There were only a few operations I was not allowed to photograph. If you want to see more than what's shown here you here, you'll have to get a job at the Lenox factory.