Spinning’s in the Family

Father and son keep craft of metal spinning alive in CNY

By Elizabeth Doran
Staff Writer
The Post-Standard
July 10, 2004

At Hy-Grade Metal on Burnet Avenue, the father-and-son team of Michael and Michael Donegan practice the craft of metal spinning, turning flat sheet metal into everything from replicas of antique parts to Advent wreaths.

Metal spinning is probably the least known of all metal-forming techniques. It takes knowledge and skill to produce the range of unusual concentric shapes that form products such as light fixtures, antique replicas, candle burners and holders and prototypes.

“You can’t just spin a piece of metal and hope what you want comes out,” says Michael Donegan the younger, who bought the business from his parents in January. “You need to have a feel for the material and what it’s doing as you spin it, or it will buckle and ripple. Some pieces require more pressure than others to stretch the metal the right way.”

The process of metal spinning involves pressing flat metal sheets against a form or pattern while it is spinning on a lathe. Pressure is applied to the metal as it spins, causing it to take on the form of the pattern with the aid of rollers or a hand tool. Hy-Grade makes all its own tooling, or forms.

Hy-Grade, founded in 1918, is one of only about five companies performing metal spinning in New York, Donegan says. Across the United States there are some large players, but most are small.

Hy-Grade’s claim to fame is spinning R2-D2’s head for the recent “Star Wars” movies, but its products usually have more practical uses. Hy-Grade started out making church goods such as candle holders, burners and remembrance lights, and gradually expanded into other products.

Today, church goods still make up Hy-Grade’s core business, giving it a strong base when other markets are down. Locally, Hy-Grade sells to Emkay Candle and Cathedral Candle. It also sells to other wholesalers across the country.

Son hopes to expand family business

The versatility of metal spinning helps a small business like Hy-Grade survive in tough economic times. Hy-Grade can spin aluminum, cold-rolled and galvanized steel, copper, stainless steel and other alloys. Diameters that can be spun range from under a half an inch to 94 inches.

Finished pieces include antique and ornamental reproductions; air/liquid movement devices such as screens and filter baskets; electrical switch covers; microwave filters and conductors; and candlesticks, holders, burners and molds for the ecclesiastical market. Then there’s miscellaneous stuff: pontoon noses, floor polisher bodies, washing machine doors, clock bodies and parachute cases.

Hy-Grade has also made parts for Gardner Denver, Carrier, Crouse-Hinds, Morse Manufacturing, RAF Manufacturing, Inficon and Cryomech. It crafted medieval helmets for use at the Renaissance Fair, several 1937 Jaguar headlights, an aluminum sphere sculpture at the Fulton Mall, a radar reflector dish for Anaren Inc., and more.

Hy-Grade is now making thousands of parts for air conditioning units being used in a New York City subway car renovation project.

Metal spinning is a Donegan family tradition. Mike and Karen Donegan, the owner’s parents, ran the business for 25 years. Son Mike started at Hy-Grade in 1991, at age 22, after studying physics at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

“I enjoy the work,” Donegan said. “When you’re working with materials, there are certain things they will and won’t do, and with my physics background I know what shapes will work, and which ones won’t, without a lot of extra work.”

Now that Donegan owns the company, which employs five people, he’s hoping to grow it by purchasing a $500,000 CNC (computer numeric controlled) spinning lathe. Here, an experienced operator controls the machine using joysticks while it “learns” to make the component, and then it can reproduce what it’s learned for larger production runs.

“Right now, my dad and I do all the spinning,” he said. “This new machine will increase our production, accuracy and quality. You still have to spin the part on a CNC lathe, but it’s more like operating a video game.”

One of the challenges Donegan faces is a lack of awareness about spinning.

“Not many people know what metal spinning is, and they don’t know what products we can make or what our capabilities are,” he said.

Drawing parts in a press or machining a metal part can be more expensive or more time-consuming, but many people don’t know that spinning is an alternative.

Much of Hy-Grade’s sales comes from word-of-mouth. Sales can be cyclical, as evidenced during the recent economic downturn, when Hy-Grade’s sales dropped 30 percent. Now work is picking up, and Donegan is spinning in the plant four days a week, and out on sales calls the remaining day.

Over the next five years, Donegan says he hopes to gradually expand and eventually employ 10 people. “A lot of times people don’t know our capabilities, so they don’t come to us,” he said. “They’ll see a piece we did and say they had no idea we could do that.”

© 2004 The Post-Standard, Syracuse, NY

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