Fast Cars to Guitars; Shop Plays the Lead in Manufacturing

Fast cars and guitars may be the makings of a country song, but for Wolfert’s Tool & Machine Co. Inc., they represent the broad spectrum of markets the job shop serves with its advanced machining capabilities. From its humble beginnings, the St. James, Missouri-shop’s diversity and willingness to take on any job kept it busy and growing, even in past economically trying years when most others slowed or were forced to close their doors permanently. 

The shop machines a lot of high-end aftermarket auto parts, mostly retrofit AC and power steering systems for late model hot-rods and other customized cars. It also produces medical crash carts used in hospital emergency rooms, parts for major aerospace OEMs and components for machines used to produce silicon wafer discs. But in addition to its part machining services, the shop manufactures and sells its own line of aluminum body electric guitars.

Ken Wolfert, with experience as a tool and die machinist, ironworker and auto mechanic, started Wolfert’s in 1995 in Rolla, Missouri. And after about eight years in business, he moved the company to its present location where, at that time, was the town’s only machine shop. 

Wolfert’s acquired its first CNC machine tool in 1996, a vertical traveling column (VTC) mill that is still in use. The machine features a large worktable and generated an influx of new and different parts from existing customers. So much so that the shop continued to grow and expand its machining capabilities with additional CNC machines.

Being so impressed with that first CNC machine – a Mazak VERTICAL TRAVELING COLUMN (VTC) 20B – Wolfert purchased a second one, then a Mazak VTC 200B, SUPER QUICK TURN (SQT) 15 MS Mark II Turning Center with dual spindles, QUICK TURN NEXUS (QTN) Turning Center and a VTC 16B. However, the shop’s most recent Mazaks are a VERTICAL CENTER NEXUS 510C Vertical Machining Center and a QTN 250-II MSY Multi-tasking Machine.

As an (MSY) configuration, the QTN 250 provides Wolfert’s extreme versatility with milling and Y-axis capability as well as a second turning spindle to process parts complete in single setups or DONE IN ONE® operations. The 12-tool turret machine turns parts up to 14.75" in diameter and accommodates a maximum 3.0" barfeed diameter.

The VCN 510C is a 3-axis model that Wolfert’s equips with a 4th axis rotary unit when needed. Medical crash cart components, among other larger plate-type parts, drove the decision to acquire the machine with its 21.65" wide x 51.18 "-long table and 41.3" x 20.08" x 20.08" X, Y, Z-axis travels. Along with its ample part size capacity, the VCN 510C’s CAT 40 spindle provides speeds up 12,000 rpm, and its tool storage holds 30 tools.

For continuous and lights-out operations, Wolfert’s equipped its QTN 250MSY with a 6' LNS barfeeder. And the VCN 510C is often set up with multiple vises to run parts sequentially that come off the machine complete.

Currently, the bulk of Wolfert’s machining is for customers in the aftermarket hot-rod and custom car parts industry. Components include aluminum dashboard panels, front serpentine belt pulleys, crank pulleys, water pump pulleys, AC unit covers as well as an array of mounting brackets and other components. One recent notable hot-rod job designed and machined at Wolfert’s was the control knobs for Ford’s replica Ford GT40 cars.

Single part orders can range from 50 pieces up to 1,000, and many jobs will repeat several times within a single month or year. Often, it is Wolfert’s responsibility to maintain customer inventories, so at any given time, the shop can have two or three of its milling machines, for instance, running constantly to produce the parts. And 80 percent of the time, the shop’s turning centers run hot-rod parts.

“Our production goals revolve around just in time (JIT),” explained Dave Bast, plant manager at Wolfert’s Tool & Machine. “All of our customers want short turnarounds. Jobs that used to have three-month turnaround times must now be done within two weeks, and several of our repeat/long running jobs have forced us to inventory some parts to keep pace with certain high-volume customers.”

He added that those customers try to project their future part needs, but the estimates tend to vary greatly from month to month. Wolfert’s has to run production in such a way that keeps it one step ahead of orders. To accomplish that, Bast said the shop depends on the speed and processing flexibility of its Mazaks. The machines allow the shop to quickly changeover for a hot job, finish it and return to the previous job. Or it will run the production unattended or lights out, depending on which machine is used.

“The Y-axis capability of the QTN 250MSY has opened up a world of part processing options for us,” said Bast. “As a result, we have re-evaluated how we process existing parts, and many that used to involve two or more process stages and moving from one machine to another can be DONE IN ONE if needed. We’ve increased our capacity and our capability to cost effectively produce parts and bid jobs at more competitive pricing.”

About 90 percent of Wolfert’s programming happens on the shop floor at the machines. So the commonality and ease of use with the Mazak control platform allows the shop’s machinists to quickly get up to speed on each new Mazak acquired. And according to Bast, going from print to part right at the machine is fast with the Mazaks, which eliminates a lot of extra steps as compared with off-line programming.

The majority of Wolfert’s parts are made from aluminum, while some are stainless steel, plastic, titanium or other exotics. Sizes range from 40" x 45" plates to parts made from 0.500" to 7" diameter barstock up to 8” long, and accuracies can be as tight as +/-0.0003".

Among the aluminum parts that Wolfert’s machines are the bodies and other components for its own Metalin’ brand of electric guitars. This product line represents the opposite end of the shop’s production spectrum.

In 2009, Wolfert asked Bast to design an electric guitar body that would be made from aluminum. Besides being a guitar player, Wolfert’s motivation was the fact that hardwoods as a commodity for the guitar industry would soon be scarce and even depleted, and he wanted to provide an alternative. Three years later, the shop was manufacturing and selling its aluminum-body guitars.

To create a Metalin’ brand guitar, the shop starts with a 23-pound block of aluminum and machines it down to around 3 pounds – about half of a finished guitar’s total weight of 7 pounds. The process involves a lot of material removal and machining very intricate structural details that are imperative to a Metalin’ guitar’s rich sound and tone.

What is unique about Metalin’ guitars is that they are stable and impervious to any severe atmospheric changes in heat, humidity, dampness or cold. In fact, the shop shipped one of its guitars from a 0-degree Fahrenheit climate to a 60-degree one and back, and the instrument stayed in tune the entire time. Such dramatic changes would have thrown a wooden guitar immediately out of tune.

There are two standard Metalin’ guitar models, an arch top and a traditional. On average, the shop can complete a guitar body within one day. Then there is a day’s worth of assembly work, quality control and fine tuning. Because of the performance consistency of its Mazak machines, Wolfert’s can make all the bodies and back covers of its guitars exactly the same from one to the next.

“The repeatability of the Mazaks and their consistency in running the same programs over and over is amazing,” said Bast. “But at the same time, they give us the flexibility to machine in certain custom aspects to each guitar we make. We easily filter these special requests into our standard cutting programs and quickly produce a custom guitar without adding huge amounts of additional production costs.”

The Mazak VCN 510C, in particular, does the bulk of the shop’s guitar body machining, along with the back cover plates. The shop machines out the back of the guitar bodies to average wall thicknesses of 0.080", which helps reduce overall weight.

The shop has also started designing a bass guitar that will be a bit different. As opposed to a hollow body with a thin back cover, the bass will have two fully machined halves fitted together. This design will have a completely different look as compared with the shop’s other two model types. It will also involve a lot more machining and contouring with the Mazaks.

Wolfert has produced several custom and commemorative guitars auctioned off at charitable fund-raising events. But by far, one of the most notable Metalin’ guitars hangs in Mazak’s World Headquarters Technology Center in Japan. And for both Wolfert and Bast, seeing it there was a true honor.

“We wanted some kind of presence at IMTS 2014,” explained Wolfert, “so we offered to make Mazak a guitar sporting its company logo. But instead of the logo being machined into the guitar body surface, we machined away all the material around it so it appears to protrude from the surface. And we made them a motorized stand that slowly rotates the instrument for 360-degree display.”

He confesses that the shop did look at several different machine brands in its early days, but Mazak was the one that continuously came through for them – in great part due to Mike O’Neil and the team at Municipal Tool & Machinery, Wolfert’s area Mazak distributor.

“Our first Mazak machine did exactly what it was supposed to do, so we stuck with them and purchased more,” said Wolfert. “The machines run nonstop, and lights-out capability is a big plus for us. It allows us to increase capacity to take on more work while continuing to provide our customers with the level of quality, fast delivery and high value they’ve come to expect from Wolfert’s.”


About Mazak Corporation

Mazak Corporation is a leader in the design and manufacture of productive machine tool solutions. Committed to being a partner to customers with innovative technology, its world-class facility in Florence, Kentucky, produces over 100 models of turning centers, Multi-Tasking machines and vertical machining centers, including 5- axis models. Continuously investing in manufacturing technology allows the Kentucky Mazak iSMART Factory™ to be the most advanced and efficient in the industry, providing high-quality and reliable products through its “Production-On-Demand” practice. Mazak maintains eight Technology Centers across North America to provide local hands-on applications, service and sales support to customers. For more information on Mazak's products and solutions, visit www.mazakusa.com or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.