Saturday, June 30, 2018

Good Influence: Wayward Machine Co.

Bobby and Kacy Middleton and the 18,000 lb Press Brake

Less than 3 years ago, Bobby and Kacy Middleton were living in a house in the suburbs with a yard the size of a football field.

Bobby had made a name for himself building vintage motorcycles under the name King Kustom. Over 15 years he’d won awards and been invited to build for the Born-Free vintage motorbike show for 3 years in a row. He had a social media presence and a following — kids who followed his work on instagram and aspired to make a living building award winning bikes.

But life in the suburbs left something wanting.  They didn’t particularly like yard work. “We were really bored,” Kacy says.

When their friend Daniel moved into a cool storefront on Morgan Street, they told him “If you see something else like this, let us know.”  A few days later, Daniel called to say that his landlord had bought the building on the corner of Morgan and 32nd Place. They drove in to see it that night. It was a shell of a building with cratered floors, a retail storefront and a garage large enough to build motorcycles.

Leaving a house they owned to rent an apartment, moving a whole shop of machine tools, seemed like a risk.  “We were asking ourselves ‘ Are we really going to do this?’”

Five weeks later the landlord had built out an entire apartment, the Middleton’s had rented their house, they shipped 10,000 pounds of machine tools to Bridgeport and opened the doors as Wayward Machine.

They’d brainstormed the name with friends.  They wanted something with attitude, and broader than motorcycles, something open to the possibilities of the space.  Maybe they’d open a lifestyle clothing store.

Meanwhile, Meg McMorrow, a good friend, had asked Bobby to build a couple restaurant light fixtures for Siren Betty, the design firm she was working at.  The fabrication jobs just snowballed from there.

Wayward Machine has spent the past 2 and a half years growing furiously by every measure - employees, shop space, tonnage of machines.  And not least in social footprint which has taken on dimension with a videographer on staff, and their street presence in a real neighborhood.  Every contact they refer to in the Chicago restaurant industry industry is also ‘a good friend,’ or ‘a great guy.’

“He’s figuring it out,” Kacy says of a good friend who runs a complementary business, like Wayward is doing.

Milling Machine - the Tool That Could Reproduce Itself

Wayward Machine opened with the tools Bobby used to build motorcycles: a lathe, a bandsaw, a welder and an antique Bridgeport mill (from Connecticut) that’s so versatile Bobby says it could reproduce itself.

They worked out of the garage at the back of their apartment.  As positions opened up, they drew on Bobby’s social media media followers - other bike builders who knew how to weld - or on neighbors, the barista at the coffee shop who knew auto CAD, the young woman who lived upstairs.

Then Meg, their friend at Siren Betty, took a job at Heisler, a restaurant development machine responsible for the Queen Mary Tavern, Estereo and Bad Hunter.  Heisler advertises its work on forward trending projects, a design aesthetic of “rawness of refinement,” and a desire to “mentor and champion the people they work with.”

In its first year of existence, Wayward Machine Co. was busy building furnishings for Bad Hunter for the better part of a year.  They built chairs in the hundreds, they built giant back bars, kitchen partitions, dropped ceilings from steel frames inset with wood, or with frosted glass to look like skylights.  They built a lot of steel and glass doors.

Steel and glass, for doors, windows and walls, has turned out to be a big moment in the interior decorating world.  Wayward builds them for a growing list of private residences too.

To keep pace, Wayward Machine has added staff; they moved the shop to 1100 West Cermak Road in Pilsen, a space large enough for work stations, fabrications tables and an office, and they’ve filled it with machine tools from old industry machine shops going out of business.

They’ve bought a punch press, benders to shape tubing, and an 18,000 pound brake press.  It puts down 100 tons of pressure to bend uniform angles into thick steel plate. They bought a sheer that slices 10 gauge plate like it’s cold wax with the push of a button.  Cutting it by hand would take someone 15-20 minutes with an abrasive grinder.  It would also be a screechingly loud, filthy job, and even without error or injury, the cut wouldn’t be clean.

"Like a giant mechanical paper cutter"

The tools themselves are all analogue technology from the 60s and 70s, “We can’t afford half million dollar machines,” Bobby says.  “We had to mess with them to make them work, because they’re old.” But they work well for the scale of Wayward’s jobs, and analogue has other advantages for a skilled mechanic.  “I never hooked up a press brake before, but I can make stuff work,” Bobby says,  “I’m not afraid to jump in there and figure it out.”

They still draw on some tried and true contacts in the suburbs - a certain chrome shop, and a certain powder coater. “His paint is perfect, no bullshit,” Bobby says.  “But we have to pack up the truck and send it to Addison.”

That’s one big advantage of their urban location.  Their steel supplier is just down the street.  Since founding Wayward there have been more connections close by, a 3-D printer, a foundry, a stamping company on the far south side.

Especially around the restaurant industry, they tend to describe their associates as people they’ve become close with, like the mill worker who makes wood tops for Wayward’s metal table bases. The electrician they use is doing all the hip restaurants. He doesn’t advertise, Bobby says. “Everybody just knows him.”  Wayward Machine built metal for his house; when Wayward moved the shop to a much larger space in Pilsen this Spring, he wired the new shop.

Their upholsterer, is a young businessman in West Town.  “He’s one of our best friends, we love him to death.” He’s upholstered every barstool Wayward Machine has built - over 300 of them so far. His father ran a cottage scale upholstery business, Aaron saw opportunity to grow.  Father and son still work together at the new business, Urban Craft Custom Upholstery.  Urban Craft is 7 years old, with 20 employees.

“We thought that was shocking,” Kasey recalls.  Now they’re half way there themselves.  They’ve got a project schedule 50 jobs long, they can point out 6 different jobs in progress from where we stand on the shop floor.

As the jobs multiply, the problem solving gets more complex.  There are endless calculations of dimensions, quantities and costs, of schedule and logistics, of keeping 5 or 6 jobs moving timely from one phase to the next. Not to mention the problems involved moving really big, cumbersome objects through space.

A Shop Full of Windows and Walls

Bobby points out a large steel structure that’s been built to fit an industrial size window for a loft conversion in Wicker Park.  “We could make this in 3 pieces,” Bobby says, “but we’d put it in and it wouldn’t look as good as it does now.

“So me being a psychopath, I say ‘Let’s make it one piece and we’ll just figure out how to get it there.’  So we’re going to figure out how to get it to Wicker Park.  We’ll put it on a trailer somehow, move it late at night.  We’ll figure it out.”

There will be more problem solving when they do.  The building is an old warehouse, so none of the floors are straight, none of the windows are square, it’s built of old brick that will start to come apart as they’re working it. It’s going to take a lot of patience to fit it in just right.

Bobby says problem solving is the part of the job he likes most.  He says Stephen Adzemovic excels in that area too, if you’re wondering what he’s up to since leaving Bridgeport Coffee.  They hired him because he could draw in autoCAD, but a lot of people can use software. “We work really well together,” Bobby says. “We bounce ideas off each other all day long.”

Kacy problem solves on the marketing side. “I make sure that we’re visible to the people that I know need us,” she says. “I can steer what our jobs are.  I know if we post a picture of a brass hood, and we post it in enough places or in the right way, tomorrow we’re going to get an e-mail from somebody who wants a brass hood.”

Last year, she started shooting video of the crew working on the shop and posting that on social media.  Now they have Nicolette Nunez, a full time videographer who follows them around with a video camera.  She found Wayward Machine on instagram, she’d offered to work for free. They said ‘Let’s try it for 2 weeks and see what happens.’  “She made herself invaluable,” Kacy says, “so we hired her full time.”

Street Presence

There’s something about the thought of a lot of people who may never have worked in a factory, who may never have reason to weld 2 pieces of steel together, wanting to watch video of other people doing it, that seems almost wholesome. 

We often use the word ‘lifestyle’ with a wink, to refer to appearances not connected to real substance.  But if we don’t resent being social creatures, we can’t reduce the way we watch each other, the various social cues we read, and send, as if they only work as status markers.

The Middletons have been communicating an attractive lifestyle since before they opened Wayward Machine.  King Kustom's social media accounts built on a shared an appreciation of a common object.  Wayward Machine’s communicate a style of life tied in to a style of work, one where something additional to cash is in circulation. It spills out from the social media accounts into their work networks, and from their house in Bridgeport, it spills out into the street.

The building on Morgan and 32nd Place had a sweeping mural across the street-side wall before they moved in.  Bobby and Kacy didn’t like all of it, so they engaged friends to repaint parts with motorcycles, wrenches.  They installed goose necked lighting so the sidewalk is bright at night.  They engaged Pat Finley, an elder sign painter, to paint the Wayward Machine Co. sign at the center of the wall. 

“He just paints, he doesn’t do any vinyl stickers,” Bobby says appreciatively. “He draws a big stencil on paper, uses a pounce pad that leaves an outline, just as a reference, then goes and paints on there.”

And they sit on the stoop with friends, and talk to anyone who pauses to chat as they walk by.  They’re out there a little less this year.  It’s been cold, they may be working all the time.  But that’s why they can tell you about a half dozen creative businesses going on behind curtains and storefronts on Morgan Street.  Appointment only vintage clothing shops - one for ladies a block or so north, and one for gentlemen just south, a print shop, urban gardening, documentary film.  Other folks who are figuring it out.

Since they moved the shop to Pilsen this spring, the house on Morgan Street is bigger than they strictly need to live in.  They use the storefront as an extra living room; they’ve installed kilns in the garage.  Kacy uses them to make art and household objects that look like geologic curiosities.  They run on the electrical that Wayward Machine used for welding.

“We definitely struggle with whether it makes sense to stay in the space financially, because it’s so large,” Kasey says.  “But we love it there.  As long as we can afford to pull it off I think we want to stay.”