The Wilson Foundry and Machine Co

Rob recently posted a photograph to his instagram of the urns and planter boxes in the front of my house. You can see that photo here:  Rob’s instagram page  A reader asked for more detail on those urns, and the story behind them. You can barely see one of the four in the right hand side of the picture above, just about buried in petunias.  As it happens, there is a story behind those pots, that dates back 88 years.

Some 23 years ago, my good friend Frech knew I was looking to move closer to a building and property that I had purchased that would become Detroit Garden Works. He called and insisted that I go look at a house for sale just 2 miles from the shop. I made an appointment with the sales broker, and arrived 20 minutes early.  I had a lot of time to look at those cast iron urns. I had never seen any urn quite like them. There were two at the front door, and two more at the driveway entrance. I fell for them head over heels. I am embarrassed to say that I had decided to try to buy the house before I ever set a foot inside. I loved those pots.

I have spent some time since then, researching them, as I have never seen any garden urns quite like them.  There was a long ways to go from the inquiry to an answer. I knew from the seller that the house was built by the owner of a foundry in Pontiac, which would eventually become a foundry for General Motors. I was able to determine that the Wilson Foundry and Machine Co, was established by A. R. Wilson. He was actually a huge help to Willys, helping to pull them through an economic down turn that threatened to bankrupt the company. He was a manufacturer amply endowed with vision.

His foundry would become the largest major supplier to Willys International, of cast iron engine blocks and parts. None of their parts were welded together from individual pieces of steel.  Each part was cast from molten steel poured into a sand mold. That process is complicated, and astonishing.

Though I am not a historian, I did find that Mr. Wilson had a son, Charles E. Wilson, who was the assistant general manager of the Wilson Foundry and Machine Co. A University Of Michigan publication from the 1920’s, part of which is pictured above, confirmed that a Charles E Wilson, who graduated in the U of M class of 1923, at one time lived in my house. I purchased my house from two men who had done an incredible job of keeping up a house of great age. They did give me lots of materials they had collected on the history of the house, all of which were lost during a flood in my basement.  But I do remember them telling me that the father, A.R. Wilson, built my house as a wedding gift to his son and daughter in law. The house is solid concrete block, finished in brick, copper and limestone.  The construction was commercial grade. Though I live but a block off a major roadway, my house is quiet inside. It stays cool well into the summer, and stays warm well into the winter.

The old paint on the pots was peeling, and faded.  I decided to have Buck media blast them, to remove all of the paint. I was shocked to see that the bare steel was gray. Raw cold rolled steel is dark. Literature from the Wilson Foundry speaks of their castings being “gray metal”. Once I saw them in their stripped state, I knew that the Wilson Foundry designed and cast them specifically for his son’s home. I have searched high and low for any cast iron urn that resembles mine. I have never found anything like them. They are incredibly thick cast iron, and incredibly heavy.

Once the countless layers of old paint came off the urns, the stamp of Wilson Foundry and Machine Co was easy to see.  Of course I believe that my four pots were more than likely the only garden urns ever produced at this foundry devoted to engine blocks for Jeeps. The urns and the planter boxes were powder coated 30% gloss black.  The finish should last a very long time.

My house is registered with the US data base of historic homes. But it was pure instinct on my part to speak for the house that was a home for these urns.  24 years later, I am happy for my decision. The Branch Studio made 8″ tall square steel bases for the urns, so they would sit up and stand out in the front yard landscape. They also made me almost 60 feet of planter boxes in between those urns  in which I could plant whatever I fancy in all of the seasons. The assembly is a container designer’s dream come true.

The boxy Branch base was set under the hexagonal urn base, and on top of the original brick and limestone pillars. A few weeks ago removed an old scraggly hedge of taxus densiformis, so my planter boxes could be seen from the street.

In place of the yews is a short but deep hedge of Green Gem boxwood.  A lower layer of landscape is so much better in front of the planter boxes.  I am so pleased that those gorgeous urns have become a major feature of my front yard landscape.

urns and boxes

the view from the sidewalk

The urns float just above the old boxwood flanking the front walk. I like the look. The boxes are planted with nicotiana mutabilis, nicotiana alata lime and petunias. No fancy plants – just a fair number of them.

Those urns and boxes read just fine, even from across the street.

Every day, I come out this front door with Howard.  He is not able any more to navigate the stairs to the basement. So I put him on the front porch, drive the car around to the front, and pick him up. It takes him a while to get to the curb. I don’t mind this. I have the Wilson Foundry and Machine Company urns to look at. The landscape here has a history. It has evolved significantly over the past 88 years, and these pots are part of that.

 

The Branch Studio Prototype Sale

If you read this journal regularly, you know I own a fabrication company known as The Branch Studio.  We manufacture garden ornament, boxes and pots for the garden. We also manufacture custom steel ornament, pots and fountains for private clients and designers nationwide. This weekend, Rob has organized a sale of Branch prototype pots at Detroit Garden Works. They are available for sale at or below our cost to manufacture them. I am sure you have questions, so let me explain.

Any company that designs a three dimensional object intended for production begins with drawings on paper. Some designs get test built in paper or foam core board. I cannot imagine how architects take a set of drawings for a building and review them, imagining in the third dimension. Some architects make a practice of building models of buildings they are proposing.  I have seen pictures of some that are beautiful in their own right. Buck and I have a much more low key process. We talk, and we trade sketches. As I am a designer, and he is a fabricator, there are fireworks. He wants a design that once fabricated is sturdy and serviceable. He wants a fabrication process that is smooth and reasonably quick. I want a design that is beautiful, properly proportioned, and with just enough detail to make it memorable. It is difficult to determine if a design for a container detailed on paper meets all the criteria that both Buck and I require to put that design into production. So we manufacture the idea, and take a good long look at the result. A prototype from Branch is an idea that gets spelled out in steel.

We were interested in a few designs for more contemporary garden pots to round out our collection of garden boxes. The round Barry tapers began with a half-oval rib detail that culminated in a round steel leg. The V-shaped flanges on either side of that vertical rib seemed like a great idea, visually. I find that many contemporary garden pots to be dry and lacking interest. Shape is an integral part of contemporary design for garden pots, but a shape without some detail seems blank and wanting.  During the production of this prototype, Buck had several issues. The subtle V flanges were flat, which made it very difficult to weld them to the curved surface of the round body of the pot. It was not possible to curve those small pieces mechanically by rolling them prior to welding them on.  Once the flanges were welded on to these tapered curved pots, the welding process threw the the top of the pot out of round. The flange sections were flat, and the rest of the container round. Viewed from above, the shape wobbled. Not pretty, this. The addition of a thin flat round ring welded onto the top of the pot to cover the the out of round result worked, but it seemed of  too meager proportion to the rest of the pot. In addition, welding the flanges to the surface of the pot took an incredibly long time. Of course I was interested that the flange that look like it had melted over the vertical rib. As Buck informed me, steel does not melt over anything. The V steel flanges were good looking, but just too labor intensive to create. It took Owen upwards of an entire day to weld the flanges for a single pot. A detail that takes an entire day to weld is too fussy. The picture above tells the story. The pot on the left features the subtle detail of the flanges. The top rim is too thin. The revised pot on the right has no flanges, and a rim with substance. The revised pot, which we have put into production, is simple and substantial.

Rob decided to relieve Branch of a various prototype pots they had made over the last year by staging a prototype sale. Most of all of these prototypes are available for less than what it took to produce them. I could say that I have mixed feelings about that, but I don’t.  It takes time, effort, and no small amount of investment to move an idea along. I will say that it is hard for me to let go of the prototypes we have available with my beloved flanges. But so be it.  Any person who purchases a Branch prototype gets a one of a kind garden pot at an incredibly good price. Then good news for us? We can go on designing, and we can manufacture new ideas.

The Dean pots. We love the farm and cottage look of them.  But farm and cottage style suggests a price that is equally down to earth. These Dean pots cannot be made for what it cost to manufacture a galvanized metal washtub.

These small Jackie boxes have an experimental finish that Buck calls a polar finish. A second wash after the galvanizing process brings out the white in the finish. These prototypes are about a finish we decided not to pursue, but that does not mean there is any defect in the finish. Someone out there may quite like them.

So pleased to see so many Branch Studio prototypes together in the same place. Today, 7 experimental pots found new homes. I a so pleased about that.Seeing how Rob has arranged the new contemporary stock boxes intermixed with the contemporary Branch Studio prototypes – terrific. You can see what changes have been made. And as we will not produce them again, they are one of a kind pots.

We have a new design we are looking at-Branch produced 4 of them. We are calling them the framed tapers. They are loosely based on a pair of pots Rob brought back from France. He really likes them, so we’ll see if other people do too.

Interested?

the Branch prototype sale

At A Glance: More On The News From Branch

The Stuart garden dining table was so many years in the making. To see that table in production is a dream come true. I am a designer, first and foremost. To see a design come together and get built is what keeps me designing.

I am very lucky to have a steady stream of clients asking for landscape design. Everyone who approaches me for design is individual-and different. I appreciate that. My landscape design firm is very busy. But the years I have spent designing this garden dining table came from a different part of my design heart. So happy that Branch is ready to ship.

Ipe foot detail on the Stuart garden table

Stuart table top detail

Stuart table base detail

Stuart tables

Buck’s first bar edge rendition of the Stuart table, 2005

First 21 foot long Stuart table in place, 2006

The Barry tapers

The interior of the barry tapers

The square Barry tapers

The leg and flange detail on the square Barry tapers

The rim detail on the round Barry and square Barry tapers

the metro pots

the metro pot interior top rim helps keep the steel sides straight during the galvanizing process.

the interior of the metro pot.  The holes in the corners are required by the galvanizing plant, so zinc does not get trapped under this rim.

the basin (58″ top diameter)  and bowl (40″ top diameter)

exterior detail on the bowl

bowl interior

the square Hudson tapersthe square tapered Hudson pot bottom is comprised of 2 loose plates that sit on a rim. This helps the molten zinc to drain off the pot quickly. And it helps to insure that water drains away just as quickly.

The Dean pots

The Dean elliptical fountain

the brake form fountain

custom table and benches

Buck designed and fabricated these lattice strap steel spheres from an idea he had-no drawing. He tried to explain to me what a classic lattice pattern would look like in 3 dimensions – to no avail. Now I see. They have been a mainstay of our collection for a good many years. I am pleased to see these spheres have some contemporary style company. We are installing a pair of custom made and very contemporary planter boxes from Branch this morning-more on that later.

 

 

 

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The Stuart Garden Dining Table

Though I have not posted in a good while about the Branch Studio, their work has been newsworthy. Every week they are shipping out stock and custom made steel ornament for the garden. It has been an incredibly busy season so far for them. Stock? Branch manufactures a stock line of garden boxes, pergolas, and fountains in a variety of sizes. Should you be interested to see what the Branch Studio makes and tries to keep in stock, Branch has its own section on the Detroit Garden Works website: The Branch Studio  The design of most of our garden boxes, pergolas and fountains represents our modern version of classic European garden ornament. I am pleased to say that I think that my small midwestern factory is producing some of the most gorgeous and beautifully made planter boxes, pergolas and fountains for the garden being made and available for sale in our country. Just my opinion!  I spent a good year researching garden boxes, many of which were fabricated from cast iron, wood, and lead. I spent another year building boxes and revising the sizes and proportions.  Buck took the lead engineering the most efficient weather and wear proof construction. What Branch fabricates is the result of a lot of what is commonly known as research and development. Even now, it amazes me how much time and effort gets swallowed up by that phase. Branch is about to release a product line featuring more contemporary containers, and the Stuart dining table.  The initial idea for this table was generated over 20 years ago. Don Taylor, an old school artisan/craftsman, was hard at work redoing my kitchen. I wanted a long, thin, and tall island table – on wood wheels, just for fun. My only request was an under structure for that table that would look like an arch bridge, or aqueduct. He was happy to oblige. That pine table on wood wheels has been in my kitchen, and in the back of my mind for better than 20 years.

When Branch first opened, our primary fabrication was concrete faux bois. Faux bois, translated from the French as “false wood”, is an ancient art in which garden ornament and pots are fabricated from concrete formed and carved to look like wood. Troy made this faux bois birch sideboard at Branch 7 years ago. I sketched the design for him which included a bridge arch underneath. Though we eventually gave up fabricating in concrete for steel, I still treasure this early Branch piece. I could be my favorite detail is how Troy made the log legs look like they had been whittled down at the ends. That graceful detail would resurface in the Stuart table.  Buck made early incarnations of the Stuart table by special order. And he built a prototype for our deck. His very important contribution to the design is what he calls a bar edge. The frame of the top of the Stuart table angles down. That angle is really friendly to elbows. This detail creates a profile that is thin, spare, and elegant. My interest in designing a contemporary dining table for the garden was a product of my research into what was available. Traditional tables are available in lots of sizes and configurations.  But what if you have an interest in a contemporary outdoor dining table?

Both the Stuart table top and feet are fabricated from Ipe. Ipe, commonly known as ironwood or Brazilian walnut, is four times denser than teak. It is so dense, it sinks in water. It has the same fire rating as concrete and steel. It is just about too is too dense to catch fire. That density makes this wood very hard to mill, plane or cut. But it makes it just about the most indestructible and desirable wood to use outdoors. Ipe decking has been available for a number of years. But we thought to use this incredibly hard and rot resistant wood in our handmade garden dining tables.  Pictured above, our contemporary version of the whittled birch log legs at the bottom of a faux bois piece we fabricated 10 years ago. The upper portion of the foot would be inserted into to each table leg.

During the prototype fabrication phase, Buck brought this steel Stuart table leg with an Ipe foot home for me to see. Oh yes. I really liked it. I had a specific request that that the top boards have spaces in between them, so rain water would drain off quickly.

The Stuart table is named after Buck – his middle name, that is. His bar edge is a beautiful feature of this table, is it not? He stuck by me throughout the conversation and noise that marked the design phase. And he went on to engineer the construction of the table. The base is more than adequate to support the considerable weight of the Ipe top. Best of all, this table is able to withstand anything the weather might dish out, both summer and winter.

Every Stuart table manufactured at Branch is hand made.

Stuart table top under construction

table bases

The steel and ipe leg assembly is handsome and sturdy.

We make the table in 3 stock sizes – 7′, 8′, and 10′ long. It took 4 men and a front end loader to stack them up for this photograph. The three tables together weigh just shy of 1000 pounds. Rugged, I’d say.

Left to its own devices outdoors, the wood will weather to a gorgeous silvery gray.

Another special feature of this table is the generous overhang at the ends. The persons sitting at each end will have plenty enough room for their legs and feet. Branch is able to make custom versions of this table.  Last week we finished a 9′ table with accommodation in the center and a specially constructed base for a garden umbrella. Finished yesterday was a version in which the slanted bar edge was flipped up side down, adding more flat space to the table surface. Another client placed this table on her enclosed porch.

Interested in the particulars?     The Stuart garden dining table

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