Aug 31, 2023

From machine parts to dumbbells: How a cast

Making weights was the answer for one company when its industrial orders took a hit during the pandemic.

A Goldens' kettlebell

Goldens' Cast Iron didn't always make workout equipment. Founded by two brothers in Columbus, Georgia, in 1882, the company spent its first century building things like machine parts, sugarcane syrup kettles and, during World War II, steering engines for Liberty ships. It was a lot of important stuff, though nothing you were likely to find in your home.

It took COVID-19 to change that. When the pandemic cut demand for machine parts and construction equipment, Goldens pivoted to making consumer-friendly things like dumbbells and kettlebells. It may feel like a peculiar move, but it makes sense if we go back almost two years.

Finding dumbbells in early 2020 was a difficult feat. When lockdowns forced gyms and fitness studios to close, people began shopping for home fitness equipment in droves. But as restrictions also forced companies making this equipment to temporarily close their factories, skyrocketing demand met with plummeting supply. Stores and online retailers sold out of everything from exercise bands to treadmills, and by autumn buying a kettlebell was nearly impossible.

Pandemic-caused vulnerabilities in the global supply chain didn't help. The offshoring of American manufacturing to China, Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries meant that products have to travel thousands of miles to get into the hands of US consumers. As something like a dumbbell moves from a factory to a container ship (you don't move something that heavy in an airplane) to a truck and to your doorstep, it passes through many checkpoints, and a delay in any one can cascade down the chain. It was a problem Goldens' Cast Iron recognized and one it hoped to fix by transitioning to making something in high demand inside the US.

The Goldens' foundry in Columbus, Georgia.

"Companies realize they can make their products cheaper overseas, but that means they get supply chains that are thousands of miles long, and they're fragile," says George Boyd Jr., vice president of Goldens' Cast Iron. "When you have a disruption, even if it's a disruption like a pandemic that only occurs once in however long, it's devastating because there's no resiliency in that supply chain."

The idea to make dumbbells and kettlebells was originally sparked by an interview in the spring of 2020 between Boyd and GQ writer Alex Shultz about the kettlebell shortage. As Boyd tells it, Shultz suggested that if Goldens' could make kettlebells, they would probably sell, given that few other American manufacturers could do it at the time. Goldens' had made cast-iron weights before, so bringing them back wasn't out of left field.

Shortly after the interview, Boyd recounts, "I hollered across the hall and said, 'Find a picture of a kettlebell, Photoshop our logo on it and put it for sale on the website.' When the story ran [on April 7, 2020], all of a sudden orders were coming in, and we were scrambling to actually make the tooling to cast them."

The timing couldn't have been better, since Goldens' industrial business had started to pause because of lockdowns. "These kettlebell and dumbbell orders that were just pouring in were a godsend for us," says Boyd.

Goldens' realized it was onto something and ramped up production to meet the demand. Though the company would be largely unaffected by global supply chain meltdowns -- it was using iron sourced in the US -- getting back into the weights business wasn't just a matter of dusting off an old machine.

Boyd says the company started with a computer model of a kettlebell. "To walk through the process, start by imagining the kettlebell you want to make," he says. "It's like a ball with a handle. Now slice this kettlebell in half, as if a guillotine blade fell longways through the handle and then the ball."

That computer model of a bisected kettlebell is sent to a machine that carves the designs out of an aluminum block. These aluminum halves become the pattern that's used to make the mold for the finished product.

Next, a flask -- a box with no top or bottom -- is placed over each half of the pattern. Goldens' fills the flask witha mixture of sand, clay, water and a few other special ingredients, a process that's called green sand molding. The mixture is packed tightly into the flask, creating a perfect impression of the kettlebell half.

Workers at Goldens' cast-iron foundry pour molten iron into molds.

It's kind of like going to the beach and pressing your hand into damp sand -- in this case, your hand is the pattern and the imprint your hand left in the sand is the mold. The sand hardens and the flasks are lifted off the pattern halves, creating a mold that's ready to be filled with molten metal.

Goldens' uses ductile cast iron for its weights, which is more impact resistant than typical cast iron -- a great attribute for a product you'll be throwing around and dropping. The metal is heated to its melting point, around 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, and poured into the mold.

Once the kettlebell cools, workers break the sand mold to get it out. It then goes through a series of machining processes where it's cleaned, shot blasted and ground down to the final dimensions.

Goldens' promises that its dumbbells and kettlebells are ready to ship in five to 10 business days, allowing it to make the products from scratch. That helps keep costs down, because the company isn't sitting on unsold inventory.

Just a few weeks after the GQ interview, Goldens' was shipping its kettlebells and dumbbells to customers. It currently sells pairs of dumbbells up to 50 pounds and five sizes of kettlebells (more sizes of each are on the way). And, yes, you can still buy heavy-duty grills and fire pits, too, if you like.

Goldens' still sells kettlebells and dumbbells on its website.

Prices of the weights range from $20 to $155, depending on the product and size. Customers praise them for their quality -- one reviewer says, "I have some kettlebells from other manufacturers, but my favorite might be my 44-pound kettlebell from Golden: it's study, well-built and looks good after near daily use for six months."

Boyd says that if the demand for kettlebells were to disappear, the company could simply stop making them, finish selling what it has and focus on its traditional products.

"When that demand comes back, we can just put the tool back on the machine," he says.

Today, the supply of weights has caught up with demand, and even products made overseas have returned to store and virtual shelves. Sure, they may cost less than Goldens' options, but you're buying more than just a kettlebell or a dumbbell. You're supporting a centuries-old tradition of metalworking in the United States.