Best Steel-Tooth Repair (by the Ton): The Gear Works

Let's say you happen to own a vital transportation link, a bascule bridge spanning a ship canal that was built around World War I. And let's say that bridge starts to shudder and make grinding noises every time it opens to let a sailboat pass. And then everyone starts honking and cursing. If it's not already broken, it's going to fail soon. Gridlock is around the corner. Who do you call for a swift, emergency overhaul? The Gear Works, a family-run business in South Park that, since 1946, has been steadily overhauling the metal guts of our Ballard and Fremont bridges and has clients all over the nation and the world.

Walking me through the sprawling, two-block facility close by the Duwamish, president Roland Ramberg points to World War II surplus cutting machines (properly "machine tools," many as large as your garage and worth more than your house) acquired by his late father, Ingwald. (Second son Sterling is in charge of sales and marketing.) "There's only a handful in the country as large as us," says Ramberg. "Almost everything is custom and built to order. We make bigger gears in smaller lots."

How big? From a few inches in diameter to 18 feet! Big enough for the power to drive the machinery in hydroplanes, tunnel-boring equipment, Washington state ferries, giant windmills, radio telescopes, farm equipment, wind tunnels, Chinese coal-mine excavators, the flaps on Boeing's new Dreamliner, even a fish-processing ship in Nova Scotia. The latter, Ramberg recalls, was losing $500,000 for each week it sat in port. "If your plant is down owing to a broken gear drive, you send it to us, and we'll fix it fast."

At any given time, 700 new gears may be in varying stages of production—several slowly spinning in the machine tools. "Some gears take days to make the cut," says Ramberg. "It's kind of like controlled chaos."

And the place just plain smells great—all the cutting oil and sawdust on the floor, the iron oxide residue, the steel slowly baking (to harden) before the final grinding to specs (which are then checked by computer; this is an industry where centuries collide). Curlicues of metal pile up like hair at the barbershop as each gear is cut; then the valuable remnants are recycled. "Tons and tons of steel we buy," says Ramberg. "A lot of time we've got it sold before we've got it delivered." It's a major expense in an operation that runs 24/7 in three shifts, with about 125 union employees who make seriously good money—like $25 an hour plus benefits. The trade is so specialized that Gear Works essentially trains from within. "It is difficult to find experienced, skilled people," Ramberg says.

All this because his father, a journalism grad from the UW who worked at The Hoquiam News, "found out you could barely make two nickels in the Depression. He did not have a formal engineering background." But Ingwald learned the trade by reading the manuals at another shop, jumped on the postwar boom with a few surplus machine tools in his Renton garage, and bought the ground beneath Gear Works in 1964 after the previous facility gave way to the I-5 trench.

Since taking over the company in 1982, Ramberg estimates business has doubled. "Twenty-five years ago, 75 percent of our customers were in a 75-mile radius. Now 75 percent are out of the state of Washington." (China is its biggest export market.)

And what was Gear Works' coolest small-scale, high-precision job? Says Ramberg, "We also have some gears on Mars"—inside the 2004 rovers that crawled over the red planet's surface. Meaning the local company now serves a market 250 million miles away.— 500 S. Portland St., 762-3333,

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