By Mike Klepfer
In the central East side industrial area, squat gray buildings crowd together, concentrating as roads move west towards the river. These are holdovers from the city’s industrial past.
Portland was (and still is) a major shipping destination, and it also played a part as an important shipbuilding hub for Navy fleets heading to the Pacific during World War II. Portland produced steel, and is still internationally-renowned for Portland cement.
When Portland gets media attention these days, the city is portrayed in a thousand different shades of odd, as a place crammed with allergenic vegans, feral cyclists and businesses consisting of dog boutiques, feminist bookstores and shops that sell antique knots.
Portland is weird, no doubt, but its blue-collar spirit remains strong. While the East side industrial area is gaining retail shops, busy factory space and warehouses keep things industrial.
One place in particular is Custom Stamping, an old-Portland stamping and casting concern that brings steel in and punches out a diverse array of industrial components.
Dave Stoudt oversees the business. A slim, taciturn man with graying hair and glasses, Stoudt inherited Custom Stamping from his father, who began working at an adjacent stamping facility, East Side Tooling and Die Works in 1951.
His father bought the business in 1963, eventually expanding the shop to a building across SE Main St. Stoudt says that there has been a stamping business on the property since 1936.
Custom Stamping is a small shop, employing 38 people. “The first time I showed up here, I think I was carried in here in 1951,” Stoudt says.
He went to Wilson High School, got his Bachelors at the University of Oregon and his Masters in Mechanical Engineering at Portland State. He tried different vocations before coming back to his father’s business in 1986.
Stoudt has traveled extensively. and his office is peppered with replicas of antiques people have bought him when they’ve heard of his travels: Chinese dragons, a map of Ethiopia, a faux Grecian urn, photos of ruins, chests of drawers. They sit among bare furnishings, white paint, fluorescent lights and filing cabinets. The other offices are the same, except without the decorations, a workplace in every sense.
What does Custom Stamping make? Parts. Anything from components for high-capacity tactical trailers for Portland military manufacturer Silver Eagle, to the roof tiles of the refurbished Union Station.
“We do a tremendous range of parts,” Stoudt says. “Our versatility is one of our strong points.”
On the shop floor are enormous punch presses with various degrees of pressure power, anywhere from 20 to 900 tons. Most have an industrial pale pea-green metal chassis. Some date back to the 1940’s and work well, considering their age.
There is the rhythmic, ever-present noise of presses chomping out pieces of metal. Numerous rooms feature lengths of coiled bands of steel being played out, de-burred and braced against its curvature, and then fed through presses, which turn out anything from clasp-bound brackets for irrigation piping to tiny dog-license tags shaped like bones.
Scrap falls out into hoppers and the finished part, with a thin coating of cutting fluid is deposited in others. There are work-benches with numerous dies, CAD drawings. Flakes of cut steel shavings like confetti are sprinkled around sparingly.
There are industrial computer terminals with workers punching in design information for casting tools and dies. There are racks of tooling to be mounted to the presses, workers trucking handcarts and standing at presses, snapping them down with trigger mechanisms operated by both hands; an important safety feature.
Stoudt says that when he started, machines were set to automatic pressing and workers fed steel in by hand. Accidents where men mangled their hands or lost fingers were not uncommon. Stoudt holds up both hands with some fingers curled down into his palms.
“I know some guys whose hands looked like this,” he says.
Stoudt himself didn’t come that close. He says that during summers, when he was first employed by his father, he’d manually punch rivets into some parts with hand tools—a punch and hammer.
“When I’d fall asleep from boredom, I’d give my hand a good whack with the hammer and it’d wake me right up,” Stoudt says.
Stoudt is cognizant of the nature of American manufacturing; the off-shoring of jobs overseas and the impact it has on the budgets of those businesses who contract out. The strength of Custom Stamping could be their ties to local business.
“We’re overwhelmingly regional,” Stoudt says.
Custom Stamping is a longtime resident of the neighborhood; enough not to be fazed by any one direction the East side industrial area experiences. Tektronix started in the neighborhood, as did Omark-Blount.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the composition in the neighborhood,” Stoudt says. “I can remember when there were a lot of other manufacturers, like ours. That’s changed.”