Custer & Wolfe: The Start of American Manufacturing + Mechanical Watches

Custer & Wolfe: The Start of American Manufacturing + Mechanical Watches


American Made.

What companies do you think of when you hear that phrase?

Some of the more notable brands include RedWing’s Heritage Boots, Maglight Flashlights, and Airstream Trailers, but the list is small and seems only to grow smaller every year.

With distributed manufacturing, increased automation, and “Made in USA” labeling requirements, the amount of American-made products appears to have declined. However, that doesn’t mean they are about to go extinct.

made in usa watch

In our opinion, you really can’t beat truly American-made products. The level of craftsmanship, quality, and dependability you gain from something developed and produced right here in the USA is just better. Not only that, but by purchasing an American-made product, you are supporting the national economy at a deeper level.

That’s why we, R.T. Custer & Tyler Wolfe, decided to build an entirely American watch company in the face of adversity. We built the only 100%  US-made watch brand — Vortic Watches.

We’re excited to share our story on Custer and Wolfe: Building a Watch Company through our YouTube channel and article series. We hope you enjoy coming along for the ride!

In this premiere article, we get into how we met, the backstory of Vortic Watch Co., and our plans for future expansion. Let’s get into it!

Custer and Wolfe: How We Met

Think back to 2011. The King’s Speech won the Oscar for Best Picture, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, and gas was around $3.50 a gallon — everything wasn’t perfect, but overall, it was a pretty decent year. 

During that summer, we were in college, wanting to make some extra cash, and it just so happened that College Works Painting was looking for students to start painting businesses in the area. We went to orientation, wound up sitting across the table from each other, and decided to go in on starting the painting business together — even though we’d never painted houses before.

We really found our rhythm as painters for the next few months, and the business took off. And in all honesty, it was shocking how much we were able to make in that first summer.

As the summer continued, we got to talking about ourselves and what we like to do in our free time. When you spend all day painting a house together, it’s hard not to get to know each other — and one thing we really bonded over was a love for golf.

RT & Tyler playing golf

When we got back to Penn State for the following semester, we started spending a lot of time together on the golf course. One sunny day as we were playing a round, the idea for Vortic Watches was born.

Great Ideas Are Born on the Golf Course

If you’re a golfer, then you know this situation well: You have a terrible shot, so you start looking for reasons why that shot didn’t turn out quite like you had seen it going in your mind — we really like blaming the weather, wind in particular.

Well, one of those particular rounds was happening for Tyler when the first idea for Vortic came about:

“Essentially, I blamed my bad shot on my loose-fitting watch. From there, that kind of launched the idea of a fine-adjustment wristband that we went forward [with] and patented.” – Tyler Wolfe

In the early stages, we didn’t have the ambition to become the only American-made watch manufacturer. We also didn’t expect to become a company that restores the inner workings of antique pocket watches and repurposes them into wristwatches. 

 vortic watch on the golf course

We wanted to create a complex solution for a simple problem — a watch band that could adjust incrementally to fit the wearer’s wrist perfectly. And now, our initial idea is still in the name of our company — Vortic.

“The idea of Vortic’s name is actually from that concept because it was a twisting mechanism. So we combined vortex and ‘tick-tock’ to make ‘Vortic.’ Later on, when we pivoted, the only reason we kept the name is because we already had the LLC and website.” – Tyler Wolfe

Our initial twist-to-fit concept was really cool. We had talked to a bunch of people about the design and even won a business planning competition about it in school. Still, there was one key issue with actually producing a twist-to-fit watch band: cost.

“Everyone one that we talked to [about the idea] — all of our advisors and professors that we bounced the idea off of — were like, ‘It’s a great idea, but it’s going to cost a fortune to make.’” – R.T. Custer

After consulting with people who were much more knowledgeable about manufacturing processes and striking out with gaining investment, we realized that even though our idea was revolutionary, manufacturing a twist-to-fit watch band just wouldn’t be feasible for two college guys. 

But we weren’t about to quit. We started researching to find something else we could make within the world of watches, and soon enough, we struck gold. 

Vortic Watches: Built, Not Assembled

During our research period, Tyler owned a small iPhone repair franchise in Philadelphia. One day, we hung out while Tyler was making his rounds to people and businesses in Philly and started kicking around ideas about building a new kind of watch company.

Our conversation inspired the idea that became the current Vortic Watch Company — What if we used antique American-made pocket watch movements in a 3D printed body? 

“R.T. was in town for the day and rode along with me. And over the course of that day, somehow we came up with the idea of combining 3D printing and American-made pocket watch movements.” – Tyler Wolfe

how vortic watches are made - construction view

This idea checked off a lot of boxes for us. We would be able to design a unique product that no one was attempting to manufacture. We would have the only entirely American-manufactured watch company, and we wouldn’t have to build everything from scratch.

Not long after we had the idea, things started falling into place to start building our prototype watches, and we launched a Kickstarter campaign for our first watch line, the American Artisan Series:

“I took a job here in Fort Collins, CO. You were kind of over the business in Philadelphia, came to visit me, and [said], ‘This place is awesome. What if we started that watch company?’ [We] filmed the Kickstarter [video] in our garage, and [created] a minimum viable product.” – R.T. Custer

Version 1 of our watches was rough around the edges, to say the least. It was essentially two case halves that sandwiched the old pocket watch movement inside. The watch definitely wasn’t waterproof, all of the parts were 3D printed, and it was super-glued together. 

vortic watch prototype version 1

But, it was an antique pocket watch built into a wristwatch, it was all American-made, and people on Kickstarter thought it was cool. Since our first run of the American Artisan Series, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds — and we’ve sold every one of our watches typically before even manufacturing them.

Moving Out of the Garage and into the Workshop

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we needed a manufacturing space upgrade — R.T.’s garage in Fort Collins only had so much room. So we started looking for a better place and bounced around town for a little while.

From the garage of that house, we moved into a tiny space at the Rocky Mountain Innosphere — it would be surprising if we had 400 square feet. And during those times, Tyler was hand-assembling every watch that we produced.

“It was me in a room. If you emailed us, I responded. If you were on Vortic’s website, I built it. And if you were wearing one of our watches, I made it.” – Tyler Wolfe

tyler in the vortic shop using machinery

At that point, our plan was just to assemble parts and have other people make them. We used a lot of contract manufacturing to build many of the watch parts for us, and we also had originally planned to restore the antique watch movements on our own.

“I was a watchmaker [for the company], which was not a good idea. If you’re not familiar with watchmaking and what goes into it, it’s really, really difficult — especially when we’re talking about antique, American-made pocket watch movements.” – Tyler Wolfe 

We quickly learned that sourcing parts for the antique watch movements that were so integral to our watch building process was incredibly challenging. You can’t just buy new parts for an antique movement, so when we built those early Kickstarter watches, we either had to have parts made or take them from another watch’s movement.

“If you’re wearing one of those original Kickstarter watches, there’s a good chance that it was serviced by me. It was very rudimentary, … but that’s how we learned. We learned by doing. … There is no class about American watchmaking and how to make a watch in the United States.” – Tyler Wolfe

Those early-year mistakes and struggles really framed what we needed to know so that we could grow. Looking back on those times when we were literally working out of a room the size of a closet, it’s incredible to see where we are compared to where we started.

Expanding to In-House Parts Production

In our early years, we relied heavily on machinists and other manufacturers to keep production going. It definitely wasn’t an ideal situation, but it’s what we had to do to keep things moving — literally and figuratively.

Initially, we were working with a fully 3D printed product, which made the machining process difficult. The 3D printing process is incredible, and it can do some amazing things, but parts made with a 3D printer are incredibly challenging to machine.

“3D printed parts are tough to hold onto, and they’re not perfect. Handling [the parts] as you machine threads and holes — which we needed for our product — [is virtually impossible]. And everybody really hated doing our work.” – Tyler Wolfe

vortic watch 3D printing cases

Our machinist actually convinced us that we needed to make the shift from outsourcing parts to manufacturing in-house. While picking up an order from him in 2017, he told us that we needed to buy a machine. 

And when we told him that we couldn’t afford that, he responded by saying, “For what you're paying me, you can.”

In fact, he went a step beyond telling us that we needed a machine and actually walked us through the process of obtaining one. He got us in touch with the people we needed to contact about leasing a mill and even sent the Haas machine salesman to our shop!

“It was at the end of 2017 when we placed an order for a Super Mini Mill, and that opened our eyes [to what we could make] because we were just machining cases at that point. But when that machine was on our floor … we quickly realized that if we can make perfect parts ourselves, it’s incredibly valuable.” – Tyler Wolfe

Having a milling machine drastically improved the parts we could create, and it also opened new doors to being creative with design. Instead of waiting for up to a year to build prototypes and get parts back, we could design, develop, and test parts within a matter of hours.

Fast-forward to today, and we now own six machines and are only continuing to grow.

Go Watch Our Premiere Episode Now for More Custer & Wolfe

It’s incredible how much we’ve grown since having that initial idea to build a twist-to-fit watch band on the golf course in 2011. Our built, not assembled philosophy permeates every aspect of Vortic watches — from the restored antique movements to the custom-designed cases. 

If you want to learn more about our growth process and what it took for us to create the only American-made watch company, watch our YouTube premiere now!

Since the first run of our American Artisan Series, we’ve expanded our offerings to two more lines of watches — the Military Edition and Railroad Edition. And if you have an antique watch you’re interested in repurposing, we also custom-convert watches for customers.

To stay up-to-date with all things Vortic, subscribe to the Custer & Wolfe YouTube Channel. There, we’ll keep you informed on everything going on with us, including our warehouse expansion, manufacturing process, and thoughts about growing a business that makes an impact! 

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