Interview with Toolmaker Chris Vesper
We originally profiled Chris Vesper back in 2016. Not long after that, he started building out a new space for his tool making business. We thought it was time to check back in with Chris and find out what has changed about Vesper Tools since we last chatted with him.
How long were you making tools in your old shop before deciding you needed a new space?
With the slow and steady addition of new equipment to do my work it was inevitable that I would run out of room sooner or later. I think around 2012 when I got my large surface grinder and the laser marking machine was probably the real tipping point. This required a mind bending reshuffle of the whole workshop layout, for the better of course, but yes it got pretty cramped in there in the end. I did a lot of good work in that small space for many years though. I have fond memories of that place.
How long did it take you to build out the space once you had it?
The new space took me 5.5 months of full time slog to fit out, plus trying to make tools after hours. Moving in only took a few days at the end of that because I'd laid all the groundwork for putting everything into place and starting right to work as soon as I was in.
Amusing addition to the story is: I was such a good boy when I was planning for the fitout and moving into the new place, for a couple of months prior to getting the keys I drew plans, made little cardboard cutouts of machines, laid it all out as I thought might work, tore it all up and started again three times before hitting on the layout that worked best for production flow and grouping of like machines together. Work bench area, assembly etc in one spot, milling and turning in one section, grinding in another, woodworking equipment in another section, with aisle ways between machines for moving trollies and stuff about easily.
So I did a spreadsheet planning out all the tasks to be completed for fitout before I could move in with an estimated timeline of 5-6 weeks. Little did I know if I'd swapped the word 'Weeks' for the word 'Months' I would have been spot on. It is a big space, and I seriously under estimated the amount of time and money required to fit it out properly to my requirements. Plus when doing all this on a tight budget one has to rely on ones self to achieve things rather than a paid team of contractors to do the grunt work. Simple tasks like painting the walls don't take 1-2 days when there are 50+ lineal meters of concrete wall to paint that are 7m high. Live and learn...
What new machines do you have now? Is the shop already full or do you have any plans for additional machines?
I'm very fortunate and grateful to have more than enough space to expand the business many years into the future. I've certainly gotten more machines in the 2.5 years I've been in the new place, including a thicknesser, more sanding and polishing machines, a large granite surface table, and more storage in cupboards of tooling and measuring equipment, among other things. In the not too distant future I wish to bring CNC machining in house. Quality control and delivery times will be the benefit there.
The new space allows more room for new hires, right? What is your hope in terms of tool production scaling?
Plenty of space for staff here, but I've given up looking for now. Which is a bit gloomy and grinch-like I know. For the last 8 years or more now I've been trying unsuccessfully to hire people to help me make tools and after many failures and some successes I'm back to working on my own. Admittedly I have very high standards of workmanship, yet I have reasonable expectations as an employer, and I know I'm not the only employer with the same problems. In fact many people in business I know say that the hardest thing about running a business is finding the right people, and then keeping them. So until folks come along into my life that tick all the boxes and are competent I will continue mostly on my own.
What has become of your old space? Do you still use it for anything?
The old shed on the parents property has a tractor and some lawnmowers stored in it now and nothing much else! It's not being utilised in any real useful way, unfortunately.
Does Bandosawrus still have a prominent place in your shop?
Yes it does, it's central to the woodworking area really and sitting in an area that affords good access around its working envelope to cut all sorts of large bits of wood, resaw long boards or whatever is required. Always nice to see it sitting there. When I moved it to the new place I had to make a new welded steel base for it to mount both the motor and the bandsaw body itself on the one rigid frame. In doing so I designed it such that I can move the whole unit with a pallet truck, which indeed sometimes I do. I also weighed it recently for the first time ever, the whole machine with motor and steel frame and a big wooden panel that holds all the blades and all comes in at 820kg.
Do you ever see a point in the future when this new shop will be too small for what you are doing, or does this seem like the place to be for the foreseeable future?
I see the new shop as my lifetime workshop. No need to look for bigger or better for a very long time unless crazy expansion things happen or I have a massive change in tact in the business and move into some other industry. Which is unlikely! I like making tools, I'm well known for my quality and the work I produce is in high demand all over the globe.