By Benjamin Ikenson
Playwright/author Alice Childress has written, “Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice.” It gets pretty close with Willie Kaster and his grandson, Eric. Kaster remembers the start of his apprenticeship in his grandfather’s workshop. “He loved using block planes over electric routers, sanding blocks over electric sanders. He always preferred manual tools over power tools,” Eric says. “Since I worked next to him, I often gravitated towards the same tools he used. When he saw me using them, he would get this cock-eyed smile looking over the top of his spectacles and laugh, or he’d say ‘good boy.’” Willie was obviously proud of his grandson, then 16, and of his trade.
Patternmaking involves the production of detailed wood positives used to make molds for metal castings. “Tooling for metal casting,” as it is called in the industry, marks the origins of a great variety of everyday things, from enormous industrial structures, to the blades of bulldozers, to the iron scrollwork of ornate streetlamps. All owe their existence to the old world craft that requires a mastery of precision woodworking, a strong engineering sense, sand an inherent sense of artistry. Willie Kaster was endowed with all three — and a fitting surname to boot — when he was hired by Willamette Pattern Works (soon to play a part in the war effort by repairing parts for Russian ships and building patterns for the cargo ships then being built in Portland.) “I started working there in September of 1935 for twenty-five cents an hour,” says Willie, now 91.
“It was a big step up from gardening for a dollar a day. I was able to buy my first car! I paid $100 for an American Austin. It needed a lot of work but I fixed it up.” Not only did Willie take a step up in the workplace; he established a legendary devotion to craftsmanship. Throughout his industrious career, as electric powered machines fast became the chosen tools of the trade, he opted to continue working the old-fashioned way. And, as if to spite the growing number of his power tool wielding counterparts, Willie worked fast. “He would push you out of the way if he was headed to a piece of machinery,” recalls Eric. “He’d be so absorbed in his project that he just wanted to move to the next process without an interruption in his work flow.”
In 1962, Willie was offered a bigger slice of the pie when the original owner’s son wanted out. He said, ‘If you run the business for me for five years, I’ll give you a percentage each year and then sell it to you for book value at the end of five years.’ That’s what we did. I saved every penny of that percentage to make sure I was in a position to buy the business when the time came.” Under Willie’s guidance, the company excelled, Willie’s son was given a managerial role and eventually, two year before Willie retired in 1988, Eric came along to learn the tricks of the trade for the family business. But Eric managed to find time to pursue art and design hobbies outside of work.
Over time, he grew a little restless at the job, and feeling a bit of the misfit, like an art student on the business school campus. “The work at the pattern shop was mostly tooling for heavy industry,” says Eric. “Pump housings and impellers, rock crushing equipment, materials management, these kinds of things. This was the hardest part for me because there wasn’t really anything creative going on with the work other than how you chose to make it.” Like his grandfather did more than six decades prior, Eric decided on a job change in 2000, when he was compelled to establish his own company. At Eleek, he and his colleagues design and create stunning architectural and residential building parts. From an array of custom light fixtures to sleek and stylized hardware, sinks and even surface designs, just about anything one might wish to have built at Eleek. In fact, “What can’t we make?” is company mantra. With a range that seems limitless, Eleek keeps an eye on conserving resources that are unfortunately not limitless, by championing green products and practices.
“I felt that I needed to to promote sustainability within an industry that really didn’t take sustainability seriously,” says Eric. “We have to make what we sell, so it’s always a challenge to find new ways to become more sustainable.” In business for almost a decade, Eleek has already racked up some impressive recognition, including an Outstanding Sustainable Practices award from the City of Portland and an Architectural Choice for Excellence award from Architectural Lighting. It doesn’t appear that Eric will be begging for his old job back any time soon, though pride was less of the issue to begin with that the guilt associated with forsaking the family business. “My grandfather was a little disappointed that I was leaving the family business,” says Eric. “But he came around as I got him into my shop from time to time so he could see exactly what it was we were doing.” After all, it’s still patternmaking, and both must know that much of the new company is about the basics that his grandfather personified his entire working life. In fact, the Eleek website, www.eleekinc.com, pays a modern tribute to the old school ways: “As computers take over patternmaking, fewer and fewer people know how to do it by hand. But doing it by hand makes all the difference when you want a hand-crafted feel.” These words bring a familiar cock-eyed grin to Willie’s face; some patterns, after all, do repeat themselves.