Like many innovative products, FINEX is a new-old idea. Take something beloved, assumed to be a terminal stage of evolution, and find the threads of dissatisfaction and tinker until it's the product of your dreams. Sounds easy, but it also takes passion and dedication and quirky obsession to pull off. Flash back to when the company debuted on Kickstarter and you might recall their clear passion for cast iron, their pragmatism, and their attractive design work. Their American-made ergonomic octagon proved compelling, even for the non-gourmand. After being 844% funded, FINEX hit the ground running. Since then they've been knocking out their Kickstarter orders and as of now the general public can get in on the well-seared action too.
To see how their company functions and celebrate Hand-Eye Supply becoming the first vendor, I visited their historic Portland factory and interviewed founder Mike Whitehead. Mike is an obsessive cast iron collector and passionate about the process. Between checking out cool vintage waffle maker handles and jumping into his own machinery, he gave me the rundown on how these updated old-school skillets get made.
We're partnering with Western Foundries for our casting. We make the patterns here [in Portland] at Willamette Pattern. Everything they make is normally the size of this room. They do like, nuclear reactor coolers, massive casting the size of cars—so this is like a dinky little thing for them. Then they go up to [be cast in] Spokane. Then they go to heat-treat in Clackamas. They're heated to 1,100 degrees for at least an hour, with a slow cool-down, which releases the inherent stresses in the sand-casting process. If we didn't do that, when we machine these we might get some warpage because there's a lot of stress in casting.
We take 60 thousandths off the surface, and it's in a state of tension at all times, so it wants to move. Then it goes to our machinist Matt in Aurora. It takes him seven minutes, and a two-pass process. Then they come to us. So we do machining [in Portland], the seasoning, the springs and bronze caps. When the caps come in, they look like bronze dog turds and they go through a lot of expensive secondary operations to get them to look like that and fit tight so they don't wobble or wiggle. They're beautiful, like freshly laid birds' eggs. The springs are too—they get wound in Canby, then we trim and polish them here.
The first thing we do is put them in a big vibratory tumbler, and we tumble them for an hour with an angle-cut triangular ceramic media. It's actually a German ceramic that looks a Toblerone bar. That breaks the tooth off, because otherwise these are really rough. We have customers who put these on a glass range or ceramic cooktop. I don't really recommend that, but we're happy that they buy them, so we want that smooth finish. Without the tumbler, we couldn't get that finish, so that's what really got us into this building—we can get 30 skillets into the big tumbler at once.
As soon as they come out of the tumbler, which is a wet process, they'll start to rust, so we immediately air dry them and then season them with organic flaxseed oil. And then we put them in a commercial oven at 400 degrees for an hour. It's kind of like developing film! It's fun, what goes in is silvery, sort of like aluminum, and what comes out looks like iron. You wouldn't recognize it! It comes out of there, we let it cool off, then it goes through multiple operations where we drill the handle for the spring pin.
It's a stainless steel spirol, they're pretty common in firearms and they do not come out, they expand and hold themselves there. Plus it's under tension. It takes about 70lbs of pressure to compress the spring, so it's pretty locked in. We trim the spring so it doesn't rotate. We clock it, put the cap on, it gets drilled in one direction and another direction.
The springs come in unpolished and untrimmed. The spring house can only get these dialed about plus-or-minus five degrees, which is damn good, but we don't want any wiggle left to right, so we do a secondary cut. Then we test them and send them out for polish, check again, and stick them in a beautiful box—these are show-quality motorcycle polished! That's not chrome, it's high polished stainless. And same thing with the raw brass castings, we tune them up and machine them out, then send them to polish. They're bright and gorgeous when they come in, but they'll patina really nicely.
It's a beautiful color combination but it's also that brass is easy to cast, right? Everybody and their brother casts brass. In Portland, I have probably five... We're going to start casting our own brass, it melts at like 700 degrees whereas iron melts at 2,100, you're at a whole other level there. Brass is a little harder than say, jewelry, it's messier and stinkier, but it's soft and easy to machine. I can't think of anything else as good. We'd rather not polish them, but they look so good that way!
As it does get patina'd, it'll still have that feel and form. There are a lot of satisfying shapes on here, which I really credit to David Lewin, our industrial designer. With these lines, your eye can't tell where they start or stop. You couldn't really pinstripe this because you wouldn't know where to put the stripe! That imperceptible transition between an octagon and a circle is what we really drove for, and it's also difficult to make a pattern for. In Solidworks and other programs, it wants to pull in an existing shape; it's pretty complex math to get this modeled and scalable. We're working on an 8-inch version, and it's not a 1:1 shrinkage. The handle is a little smaller, otherwise it looks like a teenager with huge feet, but you're hand's not getting smaller. That's where the footwear guys are so good—on Nike shoes the swoosh gets smaller between a 7 and 5 and you wouldn't even notice unless you laid it all out. It wouldn't feel like it was out of tune. That's something engineers can't do.
Aaron Draplin did a great job with the logo, which is sized so that we can go down to a number 4 skillet and it'll all still work. All part of a graphic system. We do want to do some smaller skillets... maybe even a size 0! Griswald did one—it's more of a salesman's sample, more of an ashtray. I want one for an egg sandwich too! You put one egg in it, it's square, and it gives you a perfect bread-sized... yeah I'm pretty obsessed with cast iron.
Someday we'll do everything we can under one roof. We're doing all of our QA, we measure and check what we get from the foundry for casting flaws or warpage. Product design happens between here and the Industrial Designer. Right now the design team is me and David Lewin. The other employees will look at the design and say "Yeah, that doesn't really fit," but it's tinkering on a base design. There are a few companies around town who will print things for us as 3D models. The first place didn't really want to, they'd rather sell you a half-million-dollar printer, but I sort of charmed them into testing some stuff for us and then dared them and said "I don't think you can do this." What happens is you buy a half-million-dollar printer, and it's out of date in six months because printer technology moves so fast. So you put your STL model up on the web, and depending on how busy they are they'll bid on it.
For the skillet, we printed here in Portland we printed in four pieces, glued it together, blend it, paint it. The ones in house are pretty rough. A lot of times you'll over print it and sand it down. A problem with some printing is that the print quality is better than the casting quality! People think they're going to get a fricking perfect part. Then your client is disappointed, or the engineers are disappointed, or you get a design where the 3D printed parts fit together but the casting can't.
This little F is about as far as you can go in sandcasting, the fact that it's there is amazing! We 3D printed it, impregnated it with superglue like ten times, and inserted it into the pattern. You can't even machine the inside of that very well, same with the logo. That's a 3D-print job that's inserted and screwed in. One reason is that you can't really get a ball-end mill in there and make a sharp D. And when you sand cast everything gets a little wonkier, you lose all your crispness. So if you don't start out crisp it'll just get worse. You'd never get that sharp F. Right now we're using 3D-printed models for our sand castings, but after that we'll go to a pressure-cast match plate, where they make an aluminum cast off the model.