Innovation – Mystic River Foundry

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The down-to-earth work of Mystic River Foundry

The down-to-earth work of Mystic River Foundry

Many know of Mystic Seaport and “Mystic Pizza.” As the visiting hoards migrate along the beaten Connecticut tourist path between these two landmarks — one seafaring, one cinematic — they pass a lesser-known institution where can be found this region’s true “metal.”

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Rising as one large block beside a dead-end boatyard lane just across the Amtrak railroad hump from Main Street, Mystic River Foundry’s cinderblock-and-brick building turns out castings in aluminum, brass and bronze. Your early Pearson needs a new tiller boss? Send the part here for reproduction. Your vintage 12 Meter could use replacement floors? Look no farther. You want bow cleats for your new line of mass-production bass boats?

Well, that’s another matter. It is true that owner Sharon E. (Sher) Hertzler always says, “Yes, I can do it.” But Hertzler, who is also half of the work force in this sweat-producing shop of roaring oven and glowing molten metal, doesn’t do mass production. While most in the marine industry are looking for the next technology to increase business volume, Hertzler uses bronze-age methods and a business model that yawns at the notion of growth. In place of volume, Hertzler has range. In addition to marine hardware, her shop, where she has worked for 30 years and owned for six, turns out architectural details for historic buildings, furniture, automotive parts, plaques, and memorials and artwork (www.mysticriverfoundry.com).

MysticRiver Foundry was owned by Elliott and Phyllis Borges in 1976, when Hertzler, then a recent graduate in print-making from Mount HoodCollege in Oregon, started looking for work. In casting, she found a home for her inner artist, doing work that is “all visual and hands-on. You have to think conceptually,” she says.

There are three parts to the work — called sand casting — done inside the foundry’s blockhouse by Hertzler and her employee of 10 years, David Nigrelli. First, sand is packed around a pattern or an object that is to be reproduced, which is mounted inside a wooden box-like contraption. Next, ingots of the metal to be used — different types of aluminum or bronze — are melted in crucibles inside an oil-fired furnace sunken in the floor. Finally, with the pattern removed from the box, the molten metal is poured by hand from the crucible into the cavity that remains in the sand mold.

Except for an office in one corner, cluttered with assorted patterns, the blockhouse is a dark cavern, two stories high, heaped with the tools and materials of this work. Outside, there are whistles and gate bells each time an Amtrak train passes the nearby grade crossing. Inside, there is the hammering of a large air compressor’s cylinders as the sand castings are being made, the scraping of metal shovels scooping sand from the concrete floor, and the jet-engine thunder of the furnace while the ingots are melting. Silent on one wall is a circular thermometer, its top number 120. There have been summer days when, Nigrelli says, “We’ve buried [the needle of] the thermometer.”

“It’s a very physical job,” says Phyllis Borges, who at 82 is retired but still goes to the foundry on occasion. “You have to have the endurance and the will and the muscle to do it.” She notes that Hertzler, the mother of four children ages 20 to 30, is a sailor who is agile and athletic. “I think she’s fabulous. She’s going gangbusters.” Borges says Hertzler has branched out into art castings and is “getting some really nice work from architectural firms.”

Indeed, the little foundry has become a mandatory stop for first-year architecture students at YaleUniversity in New Haven, Conn. Their professor, S. Edward Parker III, calls Hertzler’s work “really nice, quality, finished castings where you could use them right out of the blocks, without doing any extra polishing.” Parker says he used two other foundries before he found Mystic River Foundry. The work of those other shops “seemed to be less of a nice, finished product than what she has,” he says. “I think she takes extra time to set up her molds and uses a little bit finer-quality sand to produce her objects.”

Hertzler’s customers confirm Parker’s judgment. There might be other foundries that could do the work, says Earl McMillen III, whose Beaufort, S.C., company, McMillen Yachts, restores classic boats. “But we’re just so happy with her work. Does a nice job and turns it around quickly,” he says.

The foundry’s first job for McMillen involved work on a classic motoryacht that had been found in the back of a Chesapeake Bay boatyard. “The hardware was a little sketchy,” McMillen says. “She was able to reproduce any and all the missing hardware.” For example, Hertzler was able to create doorknobs by using an original brass knob found in the boat’s bilge as a model.

“We work hard with trying to get it right,” Hertzler says. “It’s very rewarding to get the boats going again.”

Even before working on boat parts at the foundry as an apprentice, Hertzler was familiar with boats. She began sailing dinghies at age 6 on the Connecticut coast and sailed with her father on his Charles Mower-designed Fishers Island 24. Now she races a Herreshoff-designed Watch Hill 15 and a C&C 33, crewing occasionally on bigger boats as a mainsail trimmer.

While the foundry had done its share of nautical castings under the Borgeses, Hertzler gained entrée to the Newport, R.I., boating community when the late Frank McCaffrey, a noted yacht restorer, came to her for work. She went on to work on Bob Tiedemann’s fleet, which included classic wooden 12 Meters, and for Mystic Seaport, among others.

Hertzler is fond of the work she is doing for students at Old Saybrook (Conn.) High School who are building a replica of the Turtle, a submarine invented in Connecticut in 1775 and designed for attaching mines to enemy ships. The foundry has built a hatch for this project. For the restoration of a World War II B-17 bomber, Hertzler and Nigrelli have reproduced an aluminum ball turret.

Other work has included parts for motorcycles and automotive manifolds. Yacht parts are not, Hertzler says, the major work of the foundry. But she can drop some impressive names of the nautical restoration work she’s done: Onawa, Ticonderoga, Brilliant.

“There are not that many people who are so dedicated as she,” says Tiedemann’s widow, Elizabeth. “She loves it. She has fun doing it.” Tiedemann recalls the time her husband came home from the foundry to report, “That woman poured molten metal in a tank top and Converse sneakers.”

Tiedemann notes that Hertzler was the main trimmer last summer on the Tiedemann yacht Mariner during a regatta. “I’ve never met another woman like her,” she says. “She likes challenges. She likes creative things. I think that’s the passion. I think she loves making parts that will function.”

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