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Red Oxx Factory #8 Renovation – Stairway to Heavy-n

As part of our 35th Anniversary Celebration, digging around for blasts from the past is more fun than a chronological timeline. The latest incarnation of our primary manufacturing facility began life when demand for our bags out-paced production capacity. Our little 2 for 1 showroom and production building (Factory #7) had reached its limits.

Casting about for ways to expand without breaking the bank, Red Oxx first investigated using shipping containers; combining several containers to create a unique structure located on our gravel parking lot next to the retail showroom. Our friends at the EPA quickly squashed that idea.

As they say, timing is everything and location, location, location is key to success. Not more than a block away a ragged for sale sign caught CEO Jim Markel’s eye in front of an abandoned bearing manufacturer’s warehouse. Jim reveals one aspect of the new renovation that proved to be a challenge of not only height, but great weight, the type that signifies the heart of the Red Oxx brand – Heavy-Duty Innovation.

Every Step Requires a Lift Up

As a creative person I like to imagine how things are first dreamed up and then figure out who actually gets to put hands-on to make that vision see the light of day. In our everyday lives we pass by, live in, or interact with, all the large and small projects brought about by creative thinkers and doers.

Sometimes these projects strike you and other times we just never give them another thought. Cruising down the sidewalk rarely gives the impression of who actually paced it out and poured the cement while carefully leveling and smoothing the final result.

Sometimes a sunken hand print or hastily scratched dates appear out of the blue. They might recall a hot July afternoon in 1954 when some naughty kids took a chance and made their mark. Only to be outdone by their dog who left his trail across the whole slab. Or at least that’s how I imagine it as I stroll past some tiny mark of urban archeology.

Our Factory #8 project was something that I was certain was going to leave a mark on our local community. Given the choice between building from the ground-up or refurbishing an existing structure, we decided at that last minute to take the hard road.

Being a manufacturer here in Montana requires a multitude of skills. From fixing machines to actually installing them requires a bit of do-it-yourself toolkit. Taking a rudimentary basic building and morphing it into a functioning factory is something we had done seven times. The previous moves where all ascending towards perfecting our production floor.

This time I had a little more leeway since bag production operations would continue without interruption in Factory #7.

Over the course of eleven months I would eat a ton of dirt, draw up plans, endure endless meetings with sub-contractors, bleed and have the amateur contractor’s journey of a lifetime right here in our little neighborhood.

The Right Man at the Right Time in the Right Place

Fate and destination are sometimes intertwined in ways we cannot predict. Sitting in a bar high in the Rockies I met another oddball like myself who was also not drinking on a Saturday night. Jordan Blasé, or Koombie as he is fondly nicknamed, has been creating amazing visions out of iron for most of his life. The discussion ran from fishing to travel and off-road vehicles. Since we were both there at the Land Rover Rally I guess that meant fate had brought us to the bar.

Working with metal and making things from it has never been my strong suit. My distaste for getting burned and cut from heavy chunks of iron go back to a summer long ago working structural steel. I will admit I had probably never been physically more capable in my life at the time, but the price was always paid with blood and burnt skin.

Tackling decades of poor remodeling decisions and trying to homogenize a sixty year old building requires a little bit of vision, a touch of clever engineering, and a whole lot of hard work.

Compliance Doesn’t Always Mean Boring Servitude

First task of business was addressing an out-of-compliance staircase. Sitting around the kitchen table Koombie and I sketched up a new staircase and stairwell that would be right at home on a Klingon battlecruiser. Taking our scratching’s to the structural engineer elicited a somewhat surprisingly excited response.

architectural drawing for Red Oxx Staircase
Architectural drawing for Red Oxx Staircase

"That’s cool" is about as excited as most engineers are probably allowed. I watched as he focused hard on the drawing. Soon he started making a waving motion to get the hell out of his office, he would be in touch.

3d Cad drawing with Steps Detail
3D CAD drawing of staircase with step detail

Demolishing the existing staircase and making the opening into a two story stairwell was the next step. Leaving a gaping hole this gave me even more wild ideas, like creating a unique light fixture from a jet engine exhaust.

Each day after work I would reflect on what I found in the bones of the gutted structure. This mulling usually resulted in a butterfly effect that would cascade through the project. In turn, it would take another creative solution to fix that new problem.

Finding a Dollar Plate at the local scrap yard actually made things somewhat easier for once. This large piece of precision metal is attached as a cover to the end of a high pressure diaphragm heat-exchanger during the oil refining process. "Coined" a Dollar Plate due to it’s similar appearance to a silver dollar. Kind-of-like a giant watch fob weighing a ton that would make the perfect base plate for our new staircase.

Dollar Plate Delivered
Dollar Plate Delivered

The sum total of the parts is sometimes not equal to the mass it will occupy once built. Looking at the single pallet of cut metal and two steel beams I was a little confused. How in the world was this pile going to become something that would fill the space and make the reach upstairs?

A jumble of staircase pieces
A jumble of pre-assembly staircase pieces

Answer: tack welding and lots of it. So my first welding lesson with Koombie was to assemble the steps and tack weld so Koombie could burn some serious wire. Just keeping up with that was more than enough to outclass my welding abilities, or lack thereof.

Koombie the welding God
Koombie the welding God

Piece by piece it started coming together and in turn each piece got heavier. Finally with the frame up and treads made it was time to assemble it by hand with a spud wrench.

Peering down the completed steps
Peering down the completed steps

Satisfied with how it turned out it was then time to disassemble it for powder coating. Then back together again.

Painted steps back view
Painted steps view from behind

Dangling from a ladder we managed to heave up and weld in the reclaimed jet engine exhaust formerly used on a dragster as our stairwell light fixture.

I’d been holding onto this engine for years. My partner Red Oxx President Perry had tried to toss it one day and got caught. The tug-of-war at the dumpster was something else. Finally, I got to keep it with a stern warning about not leaving town for too long.

Next up were the hand rails. These were made from bent tubing left over from a 4×4 roll cage job. Taking that styling cue we continued on with decorating the stairwell with steel gussets straight out of an off-roader’s dream. And finally from down the street our neighbors at Steepworld stopped in and hand-tied the stair safety cord.

Hand-tied safety rails
Hand-tied safety rail

As the stairwell project came to a close we moved onto more structural steel lodged deeper in the building as well as digging holes and yet more heavy lifting.

Today I sometimes just run upstairs never giving it a second thought. Other days when the light is just right I take a minute to reflect on what it takes to build a dream.

Cheers,

Jim Markel, CEO

Before and After Completed Red Oxx Factory Staircase
Before and After