A sharp image

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Original prototype crafted by Ken Spaulding sits atop a finished batch of knives ready to ship to a customer.

Brushing technology helps firm recoup production time while delivering consumer products with the perfect cosmetic finish

March 2017 - “Men are purchasing more handbags than ever before, and wearing bags of all types,” reports market research firm The NPD Group. “Manbags” contributed $2.3 billion to the accessories industry in 2014, which rang up sales totaling $11.5 billion. While fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, Coach and Prada are cashing in on the growing commercial space, Zodiac Engineering found a niche that caters to everyone from discerning gentlemen to modern millennials: everyday carry gear (EDC). 

EDC is code for those items a man carries in his pockets. The most common articles—aside from a mobile phone, wallet and keys—include knives, flashlights, multitools and diminutive gadgets of sorts like a pint-sized bottle opener. 

Zodiac, a prototyping and low-volume production shop in Orange, California, specializes in folding and fixed blade knives as well as general machining and CAD work. Owner Ken Spaulding’s materials of choice are titanium, aluminum and stainless steel. Many components made at the shop are deburred, cleaned and polished with 100 mm NamPower dot style abrasive disc brushes with a trim length of 18 mm and in every grit size (80, 120, 180 and 320) offered by Los Angeles-based Brush Research Manufacturing Co. Inc. 

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A NamPower dot-style abrasive disc brush evens out the surface finish of this Scout knife

“The everyday carry market is huge,” Spaulding confirms. “There are a lot of smaller shops making boutique items for collectors. In addition to my own products, I get part orders from other stores. I’m currently fabricating knife blades for a customer in New York.”

Spaulding’s penchant for making things goes back much further then consumers’ renewed interest in pocket-sized accoutrements. So does his liking for Brush Research products.

Beginning with bikes

Spaulding was introduced to machining in 2002, but not necessarily because he chose the vocation. The entrepreneur confesses to a love of riding BMX bikes as a kid. His interest in the off-road sport bicycle, used for racing and stunt riding, grew even deeper during high school. 

“I spent most of my time riding my bike instead of doing homework,” Spaulding admits. “I got behind on grades and credits. To make it up, I took a CAD class. I began designing BMX bike parts like stems, hubs and sprockets. My teacher saw my drawings and said ‘if you took a machining class you could make those things.’”

Taking his teacher’s advice, Spaulding discovered his affinity for design and fabrication. Upon graduating high school, he began working as a machinist for an aerospace manufacturer making flight critical components. 

“It was tight tolerance work,” he says. The need to deburr hydraulic components introduced Spaulding to Brush Research’s Flex-Hone aircraft and aerospace brushes. The specialty tools can be used for parts cleaning, precision deburring after machining or grinding, and for blending surface imperfections and inconsistencies. “I got to know the quality of the Flex-Hone tools and the company behind the technology,” he says.

After the day job, Spaulding spent nights at the shop working on products for his startup, Zodiac Engineering. “I was still making bike parts but when Taiwan began to dominate the industry, cycle shops here in the States couldn’t compete.” The industry shift prompted Spaulding to consider making knives. “I’ve always carried a pocket knife and enjoyed them,” he says. “My hobbies tend to become my passion and I’m passionate about everything I make.”

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NamPower’s abrasive nylon filaments conform to part contours on Zodiac Engineering’s aluminum and titanium sling shots.

Brush strokes

Spaulding found a machine shop community on Instagram and built a following for his line of knives. “Within a year I got so busy at night that I quit my day job in 2014 and went to work for myself full time,” he says. “About 90 percent of my business comes through Instagram.”

Spaulding also reconnected with Brush Research through the social medium. “We provided Ken with some support services,” says Heather Jones, executive vice president of Brush Research. “He showed a genuine interest in our product so I hand delivered some samples to his shop. I wanted to meet Ken in person, find out more about his applications, and see how we might provide additional assistance.”

Zodiac shares a co-op industrial space with three other businesses. In addition to precision CNC machining, Zodiac provides milling, turning, manual lathe work, heat treating, tumbling, surface grinding and CAD services. Aside from pocket knives, Spaulding has turned his hand to aluminum and titanium sling shots. A Kickstarter campaign for the sling shots doubled the number of orders for Zodiac.

The performance of the Brush Research samples quickly turned its dot style NamPower brushes into a staple for Zodiac. Available both in dot and turbine styles, the abrasive brush tools combine optimal burr removal rates with surface finishing for reduced cost and improved part quality.

“I use the NamPower brushes primarily for knife frames and handles,” says Spaulding. “Flat parts with holes, tapered or uneven surfaces lend themselves to the touch of NamPower’s abrasive nylon filaments, which conform to part contours, wiping and filing part edges and surfaces.” Spaulding adds that surface finish is especially important for the titanium knife frames, whose surfaces will show tool paths and marks that are not cosmetically pleasing.

“It’s faster in one pass to run a NamPower brush over all the pockets in a knife frame than to meticulously use a chamfer tool,” Spaulding explains. “If I’m running 200 pieces, I can deburr and surface finish a part with a NamPower brush in 8 to 12 seconds versus using a chamfer tool, which can take anywhere from one to two minutes per part.” As a result, he saves time that can be spent on other production tasks, and doesn’t require dedicated equipment, which together saves money.

FFJ 0317 deburr image3

This NamPower Dot-Style Disc 100 mm brush has an 18mm trim length and a 180 grit combination of silicon carbide and ceramic abrasive nylon filament.

In addition to knife and sling shot parts, Spaulding uses the NamPower brushes to finish aluminum hooks and titanium pocket clips. Choice of grits depends on the part, required surface finish and the details Spaulding wants to preserve. “I use a coarser grit to break the edges on titanium and stainless parts,” he notes. “I usually run about 30 or so titanium pocket clips at time. I band saw the clips apart and then deburr the interiors of the parts. For aluminum, I use a very soft grit so that I don’t deform the edges too much. The great thing about the NamPower brushes and the different grits that are available is that I can be very precise without worrying about the brush touching things I don’t want it to touch.” Spaulding uses brushes on many of the knife blades he produces to even out surface finishes.

Being neighbors of sorts has also allowed Spaulding to collaborate with Brush Research. “Because they are local, I’ve been able to test products and give them immediate feedback,” he says. “As a machinist, you want to see what each brush and grit size can do. It’s worked out really well.” 

Zodiac shares brushes with the fellow businesses in his co-op. “We pool our resources and help each other out,” he says. “I think that speaks to the flexibility of the tools.”

Brush Research’s NamPower brushes combine silicon carbide and ceramic with nylon filament, which “allows sharp, new abrasive grains to constantly come into contact with the work surface to expose fresh cutting particles,” Jones says. “It provides a consistent deburring action throughout the length of the bristles.”

Able to pick and choose the products he wants to make, Spaulding finds the NamPower brush technology crucial to his process. “I can come up with an idea in the morning, engineer the product and then go to the shop and make it,” he says. “The brushes add just the right finishing touch.” FFJ



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