Custer & Wolfe: Creating our Dream American Machining Shop

Custer & Wolfe: Creating our Dream American Machining Shop

Business growth is excellent, but
growing pains are definitely real.

In 2011, we had a brilliant idea on the golf course, What if there was a watchband that could be adjusted to fit the wearer’s wrist perfectly? 

That round of golf became the brainstorming session we needed to develop the initial plan for Vortic Watch Company. But after winning a product design competition and talking to some more knowledgeable people about the manufacturing process, our initial idea wasn’t going to work.

So that left us with the decision, do we drop the idea entirely — or do we make a pivot?

After a bit of discussion and research, we settled on making a pivot that would open the door to opportunities we hadn’t even dreamed of. 

Our research led us into the world of historical pocket watches, which gave us our second crazy, yet brilliant idea. What if we used the movements from antique pocket watches and transformed them into wristwatches?

vortic tradeshow antique pocket watch

Fast forward to today, and Vortic Watch Company has grown exponentially. We’ve gone from R.T.’s basement in Fort Collins to working in some small spaces — they were honestly like the tiny houses of watch manufacturing. And now we’re in a 2,000-square-foot space, but it’s stretched to its limit.

Come along with us as we tour our current facility and discuss opportunities for the future on this episode of Custer and Wolfe! We’ll talk a bit about our current operations, what it takes to blend old and new technology, and why it’s time to expand again.

Let’s Talk About Our Current Facility…

We’ve been in our current facility off of Link Lane in Fort Collins since 2017, and when we first moved into it, it felt huge. But that’s partly because the largest space we had occupied before was 500 square feet on a good day. 

“Unit A,” as we like to call it, has been an excellent place to grow, and it’s undergone various evolutions since the beginning. We started with an open space and plastic hanging from the ceiling to divide work areas — now, we have semi-permanent walls with designated administration offices, assembly rooms, and a climate-controlled machine shop. 

vortic watches old shop sign

Our processes were drastically different when we first moved in — we didn’t even have milling machines to make our parts. And after some convincing from our previous machinist, we acquired our first Haas Super Mini Mill.

Since 2017, we’ve continued acquiring machines and experiencing steady growth, which led us to acquire “Unit B” in 2021. It’s a bit more open than the original, and we use it primarily to house our machines, air compressor system, and offices that didn’t fit in our first space.

 Haas Super Mini Mill

That being said, we’re still growing and rapidly running out of room, which means it’s time for another pivot in the story of Vortic Watch Company. But before we get into that, let’s talk a bit about our watch manufacturing process.

Building the Next Generation of American-Made Antiques

If you’ve been a fan of Vortic since the Kickstarter, you’ve seen how much our watches have improved

Our V1 watches came with a significant learning curve. Our background in engineering gave us technical understanding, but we were far from being professional watchmakers. However, years of trial-by-error, hands-on learning, and expert help have refined our processes.

Old Version:

old vortic watch model

New Version:

new vortic watch model

To keep everything 100% American-made, our process starts with the beautiful antique pocket watches that we convert into our one-of-a-kind watches. We test, analyze, and disassemble each watch movement to ensure we know what parts need to be repaired or replaced.

The Machines That Keep the Dials Turning

Once we’ve inspected the old movements, the manufacturing process begins. We’ve got a handful of machines used to create watch parts ranging from one-off movement parts to our cases.

Speaking of cases, our Haas VM2 machine works all day, every day, to crank out the cases for our watches — we’ve come a long way from the 3D printed models that we made for Kickstarter. From bezels to case parts to watch-backs, this machine has us covered. 

machine-made parts for vortic watches

Moving on from there, we have a small CL1 lathe that handles all of the limited-run items we need:

“[The CL1] is the smallest lathe that Haas makes. … [It’s] really good for small parts … and short-run parts that we’re not planning on making again. [Like] detent stems for some weird antique movements and short runs like the Military Edition that we’re not constantly producing throughout the year.” – Tyler Wolfe

In addition to our larger milling machines and lathes, our old reliable Super Mini Mill is still one of our go-to machines in the shop. We purchased it back in 2017, have done some upgrades here and there to make it even better, and it still handles everything we throw at it.

Once we’ve machined our parts, we need a place to store and sort parts to keep things organized — that’s where our trusty 3D printer, laser cutter, and simple tools come into play.

Organization Is Key to Our Restoration and Innovation

Building the watches is incredibly rewarding, but we’d have a hard time keeping things on track without the right organizational processes in place. And you can’t run down to the store to purchase “Antique Watch Part Organizers,” so we’ve had to get creative with how we store things during the manufacturing process.

One of the first places parts go after manufacturing them is an incredibly simple yet genius way to prevent damage to small and delicate parts — egg cartons. 

That’s right. The humble egg carton keeps everything sorted right out of the mill.

egg carton vortic watch parts

When you get into the assembly room, that’s where our organizational systems get more creative. We’re one of the few watch manufacturers that purchase old pocket watches in bulk, and it’s critical to keep everything in order.

Enter our handy 3D printer and laser cutter. Even though extruded PLA isn’t the best material for making watch parts — a lesson we learned during the Version 1 run of our watches — it’s incredibly handy for building our organizational system.

“We 3D print all the time, but not for production. We use 3D printing for printing jigs and tools for assembly, and storage. For example, we make these little trays that hold the watch cases once they’re in the drawers in the assembly room so they can’t run into each other. They’re nice and firm, and they’re stackable for good use of space.” – Tyler Wolfe

vortic watch pieces organization

We’ve got to get creative with every aspect of our manufacturing process when it comes down to it. From the watches themselves to how we store them, we need to think outside the box to make things run smoothly.

And even though we’re making it happen pretty well in our current location, it’s time to boost our growth by making a move. That’s why we’re getting ready to make the move to a new facility on Jefferson Street in Fort Collins.

Welcome to Our New Facility

Our built, not assembled philosophy at Vortic runs so much deeper than our watches. Nothing really comes in a “Plug and play” or “Bolt-on” format when you’re talking about antique watch conversion and manufacturing, so it’s safe to say that our new location will be full of fun hurdles to jump over. 

RT and Tyler in the new vortic building

Why Move?

Even though we have to solve many intricate problems when developing our product, choosing to move has not been one of them. Our current location on Link Lane has served us well for the last five years, but we’ve outgrown it.

One significant area where we need an upgrade is the electrical system, and it’s definitely not a possibility at our current facility:

“We’re fully maxed out at 300 amps total, and we’ve had to get really creative with the electrical capacity of the units [at Link Lane]. … We got a quote for [upgrading] Link Lane, and it was on the order of like $100k to upgrade the building. … We’d basically be upgrading the electrical capacity of that whole neighborhood.” – R.T. Custer

And since we are only renting the Link Lane location, every investment we make into it is a sunk cost. As great as they’ve been, our landlords aren’t going to reimburse us an astronomical amount of money to expand the electrical. 

In addition to the electrical issues, Vortic’s physical growth is just too much for the current location. We would have had to either rent or purchase the entire building to meet our needs size-wise for the time being, but we would have outgrown the whole building within a couple of years.

Because of those constraints, deciding to move is definitely for the best, and this new spot is incredible. It has plenty of space for us to grow, we’ve already upgraded the electrical system, and it’s really a blank slate for us to make into our own.

Overcoming Hurdles Before We Make the Move

The new location has been ours for a while, and each day, we get closer to our move-in date. However, we haven’t been without our fair share of delays in the process. 

“We’ve been in this awkward plan to move phase for [at least a year]. There’s been all kinds of issues with permits, supply chain issues, and other COVID related problems — [along with other] problems in the construction industry.” – R.T. Custer

Thankfully, as we said a second ago, our landlords have been incredible along the way. Our first landlord was honestly the best we’ve ever had, and she was super friendly to us and allowed for a month-to-month lease as we were trying to straighten things out at the new building. And our new landlord has kept the deal going with us.

In addition to having great landlords during this process, our employees have been incredible. It’s difficult to hear, “Hey, we know we said we were moving in December, and well… there’s been a bit of a delay.” 

We’ve been transparent with our team about everything going on, and even though we’re all anxious to make the move, everyone understands that the wait will be worth it.

RT and Tyler looking out of new vortic building

Go Watch Our Episode Now for More Custer & Wolfe!

We’re so excited about our continued growth at Vortic and can’t wait to take you along for the ride as we transition into our new building — it’s been a long time coming.

“It’s [going to be] super exciting just to have a permit. That’s really the next step. … It’s trying to get a permit for this building. Once we have that, then we’ll actually be able to see some momentum and show everybody, not just the employees, … there’s things happening.”  – R.T. Custer

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 our move and all things Vortic, subscribe to the Custer and 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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