Clarksville Foundry

We're As Durable As Our Castings

News & Notes

Clarksville Foundry thrives after 162 years

Age-old process stands test of time

By Stacy Smith Segovia, The Leaf-Chronicle

Businesses come and go, some prospering during boom times then folding when the economy is shaky, as it is now. But Clarksville is home to many businesses that have weathered good and bad times.

One of Clarksville’s oldest, longest-lasting businesses may be a surprise, because rather than keep up with the changing times, it has, in a sense, defied them. Although Clarksville Foundry uses the latest technology to digitally analyze the composition of its metals, the process of building molds, melting metal and pouring it is virtually unchanged since the birth of the company 162 years ago, and since the birth of metal casting, some 5,000 years ago.

“We were in business during the Civil War and did some work for the Confederacy,” said Charles Foust Jr., president of Clarksville Foundry since 1981. “There’s always going to be a demand for what we do.”

Most of Clarksville Foundry’s work is creating specialty parts for industry, such as metal components for air conditioners or engines. But they also create some ornamental iron work, such as park benches based on the design used for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, now seen around the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville.

“Organized in 1847 as Clarksville Foundry & Machine Shop, Clarksville Foundry is one of the oldest operating foundries in America,” said a written history of the foundry. “The company has withstood civil war, economic depression, technological changes and environmental mandates thanks to the owners’ unique vision and a strong desire to not merely survive, but to thrive. Today, the company manufactures high-quality custom castings in a variety of materials and in sizes and weights ranging from a few ounces to over 1,000 pounds.”

The industry
The biggest threat to Clarksville Foundry’s continued prosperity is cheaper foundry products available from China.

“The niche we fill is kind of a specialty that’s relying on quick delivery or quality,” Foust said. “You don’t have time to ship it to China or the volume is not there to justify it.”

Foust said there was once a foundry — or several — in every big city, but foundries in China have taken away much of that business.

“There’s just not a lot of what’s called jobbing foundries in this country that do small-run, specialty things,” Foust said. “People don’t realize that metal casting is a very basic industry. Like the engine block in your car. It’s very basic.”

Foust relies on modern technology to ensure products meet strict quality standards. Foundry employees use a spectrometer to digitally analyze all of the elemental components of any metal alloy.

“We purchase scrap — pretty high quality scrap — and we alloy it with whatever materials are needed for that job,” Foust said.

Foust said there will always be a demand for metal casting, for its unparalleled versatility. Like plastic that can be poured into any mold to become any shape, so can metal be formed into any shape, and is much more resilient material.

The basics have not changed since metal casting was pioneered around 3000 B.C., but improvements in control and selection of metal makeup allow vastly superior finishes and properties of end products.

How it works
To create a product, the foundry first builds a pattern, usually out of wood. James Lumpkin is a master carpenter who creates wood patterns from which molds are made. He roughs out shapes, then refines, planes and sands them, just as would an artist making a wood sculpture. Lumpkin must make his patterns using a special shrink ruler, which compensates for liquid metal’s tiny but variable rate of shrinkage that occurs when it becomes solid.

The wood pattern is then coated with sand and a binder, which forms a mold.

Then, metal scrap heated to extreme temperature — a recent batch was at 2,593 degrees — is poured into the sand-based mold.

“I’m used to seeing it, but when people come through here, they’re amazed,” said Larry Hale, a furnace operator at Clarksville Foundry for 16 years, as he stirred a vat of writhing liquid metal.

The metal looks like molten lava as it fills the molds.

“This stuff is so hot, it commands respect,” Foust said.

After they have cooled and hardened, metal parts are taken out and finished, removing seams from the molds or spouts left attached for pouring in the metal.

What they make

A list of products created by Clarksville Foundry includes:

Foust is the third member of his family to lead Clarksville Foundry. He loves his work, but especially loves being a part of any creative venture, such his recent making of a reproduction Civil War cannon.

“We do things for artists from time to time, such as Mike Andrews and Jim Diehr,” Foust said. “You can make an incredible variety of things.”

Originally published in The Leaf Chronicle, Tuesday, February 24, 2009.

(Copyright 2009, The Leaf Chronicle, reprinted with permission. For more about Clarksville and Montgomery County, Tenn., please visit www.theleafchronicle.com).

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