The unique story of Pete Langley and the Port Townsend Foundry

Just as you get to Port Townsend on Washington’s Route 20 there is a turn off for the Glen Cove Industrial Park, where tucked around a bend in the road are two unassuming buildings that house the Port Townsend Foundry. Until I visited the foundry for the first time this year, I had always assumed it sat in the historic building on Port Townsend’s waterfront at the head of Point Hudson Marina. That is where I had always found Pete Langley and his crew during the annual Wooden Boat Festival.

Pete Langley

Pete Langley

When Pete Langley first opened his business in 1983, it was in downtown Port Townsend, amid the splendor of the well-preserved Victorian era buildings. In fact, his first location was just a few blocks from where the original Port Townsend Foundry once sat. Opened in 1883 and employing some 250 workers in its heyday, the original foundry produced streetcars, steam engines, and building parts, along with several boats.

Port Townsend has a long history as a shipbuilding town, and the picturesque downtown—featuring much of the iron work produced by the original foundry—was largely built on the speculation that it would become a major port city. As the city grew rapidly during the late 19th century, Port Townsend seemed poised to become the largest port on the West Coast. But when an economic depression hit, it ended the planned rail expansion required for the town to thrive.

A century later, when Pete’s new foundry started firing up the furnace, Port Townsend was known mainly as a destination for artists and hippies, with its historic downtown hosting film, music, and arts festivals, as well as the annual wooden boat show. To pay homage to the original Port Townsend Foundry, Pete set up shop as close as possible to where the original foundry was located. To accomplish that without violating any city ordinances, he built his first foundry on the back of a flatbed trailer parked on property just a few blocks from the historic site. More than 35 years later, Pete’s Port Townsend Foundry (affectionately called “PT Foundry”) now sits on the edge of town. There is no copper-topped cupola, no view of the waterfront here. But as I entered through the doors of this much simpler and much newer industrial building, I learned that these unassuming walls contain plenty of history.

The Friendliest, Saltiest Sailor

Pete Langley is full of energy, bursting with stories and knowledge. I met him in the warmly cluttered front reception area and office where he quickly launched into the history of his foundry and what drew him to this profession. Throughout the day, Pete wove tales that mixed the technical details of running the foundry with anecdotal stories from a life spent on the water from his earliest days. Rich with stories of the sea, Pete’s childhood is the sort that could probably have only existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of eight children, he grew up on the water; he was practically born right out of the salty brine of the Pacific. The Langley family—Pete’s parents and his five brothers and two sisters—spent time up and down the West Coast, living in Mexico, Southern California, and Port Townsend at various points, and traveling most of that coastline and beyond by boat.

A collection of family snapshots show Pete and some of his gang of brothers aboard Catalyst.

A collection of family snapshots show Pete and some of his gang of brothers aboard Catalyst.

In 1957, Pete’s parents bought a historic Pacific Northwest vessel, M/V Catalyst, still in service today as a charter boat. For several years they lived aboard, and it was clearly a formative period in Pete’s life. He tells harrowing stories of life aboard Catalyst, including the time his father taught the family survival skills by anchoring just inside Coos Bay, Oregon, and ordering them all to strip down, put their clothes in a bag, and swim through the icy Pacific waters to shore. And this wasn’t just some cruel character-building exercise designed by his father. It was all part of learning to live a life at sea, and the whole family participated. Pete says he remembers participating even though he was just a small child (“yeah, big,” he says jokingly as he holds his hand about three feet off the floor). He recalls jumping in, grabbing his dad around the neck, and holding his bag of clothes as the whole family swam—and his father towed him—to shore.

Pete's parents in front of Catalyst in California.

Pete's parents in front of Catalyst in California.

Throughout the day, more sea stories come up. There was the time they were caught in the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, 90 miles off Cape Mendocino and Catalyst had broken a steering cable. They rolled for seven days in the trough, with Catalyst going to 65 degrees on every roll. Pete laughs as he remembers being tied underneath the galley table with his sisters, their survival gear, and sea rations, as their father went out in the storm to chop out the steering cables so he could find and fix the break. With limited suitable materials on board, his father managed to jury-rig the steering just enough to give them a few degrees of steerage. It was barely enough to spin the boat in circles, but it allowed them to get the boat out of the trough and outlast the storm.

The Magic of the Foundry

We begin our tour of the foundry in what you would think was the storefront, which seems like an odd thing for a made-to-order foundry to have. But as Pete explains, many of the patterns they use to create their casting molds produce multiple pieces. While some patterns create a single casting, others may produce 10 to 20. The extra pieces end up here, on display and available for sale, mostly through the foundry’s website. The pieces range from portlights to bowsprit stars and beautiful fairleads to tiny decorative anchors. The room is a salesroom, storage room, and museum all wrapped up into one.

The foundry's gleaming work on display.

The foundry's gleaming work on display.

This is the room where the stories really begin. For starters, there is the story of Lyle Hess, designer of the well-known Bristol Channel Cutter and other acclaimed cruising boats. After Hess retired, he moved to Port Townsend and met Pete and his mobile foundry while walking through town. Cooling on the edge of the street was a piece cast for a Bristol Cutter, prompting Hess to ask why his sailboat parts were lying in the street. It turns out Pete was building a complete set of hardware for a client on the East Coast. He had acquired the casting patterns from Sam L. Morris, who ran the yard that produced Hess’s boats after he retired and closed the yard.

Then there are the numerous parts Pete has built for Eagle, the 295-foot sailing ship that the U.S. Coast Guard uses to train cadets attending the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. For Pete, Eagle has always been a fun attraction. His mother took him aboard when he was seven, during the ship’s first tour to the West Coast in the 1960s. The manual explaining how the ship was sailed was something he read and reread throughout his childhood. Years later he met a bosun who served on the ship (not as a cadet but as part of the permanent crew); they became friends and one day the bosun took him aboard and asked him how they could fix some of the issues they were facing. Pete began to engineer and produce replacement parts and new parts that matched the look and use of the originals.

For decades, Eagle used steel jib hanks that ran along steel stays. The hanks would rust when the sail was at rest and then the rust would be polished off as the sail was raised. This led to two issues. Not only did it streak the ship’s $30,000 sails with rust marks, but the rapid wear on the hanks required an order of new jib hanks every other season. Pete designed an aluminum nickel bronze jib hank replacement that he was confident would address both concerns. But based upon their past experience, the Coast Guard still insisted on purchasing spares. A decade later, Eagle still has the same bronze hanks that Pete first cast, and they have yet to replace any with the spares they acquired. An entire corner of the foundry’s front showroom is dedicated to parts built for Eagle, including hanks, shackles, blocks, and other assorted hardware.

The Renaissance Staff

As Pete starts to explain the process of patterning, molding, casting, and machining, it is apparent that running the foundry requires a highly skilled crew. Almost all of the work is done by hand. “It’s real craftsmanship,” Pete says. “These guys have to be engineers on the fly.”

Unlike the original 19th-century foundry, Pete’s shop employs only six people, himself included. And to make it all work with such a small crew, everyone is cross-trained on all the steps of the casting process. While each team member maintains a specialty, each is also able to fill in wherever is needed, making the whole process more flexible. When the foundry pours, everyone is involved. But if someone is out sick, production doesn’t stop. The Port Townsend Foundry crew are craftspeople, engineers, and artists all at the same time.

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The Process

When we enter the floor of the foundry, two staff members, Jesse Thomas and Daniel Burgess, are preparing molds for castings. Pete dives into the intricacies of several of the parts that are currently being molded, parts that I mistakenly assumed were fairly simple, like a bronze cap for the end of a spinnaker pole. But as Pete explains the process, I start to see the complexity of the work. Not only is a mold needed for the outside of a casting, but pieces like this spinnaker cap that fit over something like a bowsprit, spar, cap rail, or combing require a core as well to create the space inside the piece.

And, of course, everything must be extremely precise.

The Pattern Shop and Library

Precision exists throughout the entire process, starting with the production of the patterns from which the molds are built. In the loft overlooking the pouring floor there is a woodshop where the pattern creator, Lindsey Moore, works. As Pete shows us through the patterns, Lindsey pores over a CAD drawing on her laptop. Parts that need to be reproduced and multiple patterns in various states of construction dot the tables and workstations. Some parts are being finished, measured, and tweaked, while others are in an earlier stage, being glued up before they are spun on the lathe or carved down to their final shape.

As I walk around admiring her work, Lindsey remains intensely focused on building a new pattern for a large rudder gudgeon. There aren’t fancy CAD-controlled routers or lathes in this shop, just a talented pattern creator with an outdated laptop and a sense of spatial reasoning that far exceeds that of most mortals.

One of the intricacies of pattern making involves calculating for shrink rate. The pattern must be made bigger than the final product. When the patterned mold is filled with liquid metal there are risers that allow for excess metal to be stored and flow back down into the mold as the metal starts to cool. But once the metal solidifies it will continue to shrink as it goes from a hot solid to room temperature. The patterns have to account for this shrink so that the final product is the correct size.

Adjacent to the pattern shop is the pattern library. Through a nondescript door you enter a room packed with patterns. Many are stacked against the shelves and walls, some are filed away in boxes, some are piled on tables, and others are mounted to the wall. To a casual observer, the library appears minimally organized and trending toward overstuffed. And Pete admits he’d love to have a dedicated librarian to keep the patterns organized. But he thinks they have a relatively good system for keeping track of the patterns. I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical, but as Pete walks us through the library he finds what he is looking for with ease, pulling out historic patterns they have acquired from other companies and prized pieces they have created on their own.

Manhole pattern for the 1913 schooner Adventuress.

Manhole pattern for the 1913 schooner Adventuress.

The library consists of over 6,000 patterns, but not all are original creations. Some have been acquired from historic boat builders and designers like Lyle Hess and Sam L. Morris. Pete has acquired other libraries of patterns, including the patterns from Hugh Angelman’s Wilmington Boat Works. Pete also has patterns for Herreshoff designs; some are originals, some are pattern recreations that they have produced, and some are original patterns for parts they created for a couple of Herreshoff designs.

As Pete moves through the library pulling part after part off the shelves, I start to get the sense that every pattern in here has an intriguing backstory. He picks up a pattern for Santana, a Sparkman & Stephens schooner built at Wilmington Boat Works. The story quickly leads to Frank Sinatra.

At one point, Santana had belonged to Humphrey Bogart. As the story goes, one night when the boat was anchored out at Catalina Island, Sinatra came aboard for a visit. As the evening wore on, Sinatra wouldn’t leave, and he wouldn’t stop singing (of course). So (naturally) someone went below and lit the boat on fire just to get him to shut up and leave.

Now on the East Coast, Santana recently went through a major restoration at Rhode Island’s East Passage Boatwrights. During the restoration, Port Townsend Foundry helped provide numerous parts cast from the old patterns they had acquired from Wilmington Boat Works. You might think the fact that they had access to all these old patterns was the reason they got the job in the first place. But Santana’s current skipper, Connor Wallace, who was heading up the restoration, was unaware of their connection to those patterns when he called up the foundry requesting a replacement for one of the original parts that had disintegrated when they tried to strip off the chrome. All they had to go on was a part number, and Connor thought it was going to be a long shot. But when he explained his predicament, Pete asked what boat he was restoring. When Connor replied, “Santana,” Pete laughed and said, “I’ve got that exact part, and all the hardware I’ve already sent you was cast off the original Santana patterns from when she was built.”

Green Foundry Floor

Once patterns are completed or called upon for production, Jesse and Daniel produce the molds and lay them out on the pouring floor. Port Townsend Foundry uses an olivine green sand, a volcanic sand mined in Washington State that has some unique properties. Because it is volcanic in composition, it can withstand the intense heat of the pouring process. When 2,000-degree molten metal is poured into the sand molds, the heat does not damage the sand particles, allowing the sand to be reprocessed and used for multiple pourings. To create the molds, the sand is bound with two types of bentonite clay and water. Using bentonites instead of chemicals like silica helps reduce the environmental impact of the process and minimize the potential health impacts on the foundry’s employees.

Space suits and hardhats protect against burns and injury at the foundry.

Space suits and hardhats protect against burns and injury at the foundry.

The patterns are molded in a variety of ways, but once a pattern is molded it then must be removed to create the void that the metal will fill. This is accomplished with two-part molds that allow for precise alignment of the impacted sand so that the mold can be separated to remove the pattern and then realigned in the same way. Often patterns are designed to be split in two via a parting line. This allows for two halves to be molded and then the molds to be realigned before the pattern is removed. For Pete and Port Townsend Foundry the mantra is clearly that form follows function, but it follows very closely. The beauty of their patterns and castings is not lost in the process.

When it comes to pouring the castings, it’s all hands on deck. The crucible is hot and requires two operators. Dressed in reflective fire suits, the operators tilt and manage the large crucible to pour the metal into the molds. Another operator manages the large movement of the furnace around the floor by operating a mechanical bridge crane that carries the crucible full of liquid metal. Two more people manage the molds, making sure they are properly aligned and ready for each pour. They then check the poured molds to make sure they’ve filled correctly. A final crew member oversees the whole process to make sure everything is being done properly and safely. The furnace at Port Townsend Foundry can hold 300 pounds of material, allowing them to pour molds as frequently as every 90 minutes when needed, or multiple alloys in a day.

The furnace heats up for an afternoon pour.

The furnace heats up for an afternoon pour.

Master craftsmanship is not the only thing that makes castings from this foundry exceptional. The other component is the quality of the materials they use. Pete insists on using only the purest metals for strength and integrity, and his mindfulness extends to most parts of his practice. He buys all his alloys from a copper recycler, which means the copper alloys they use aren’t being mined from the ground but instead are coming from above-ground recycled sources. They also recycle every bit of scrap they produce, from the excess metal at the end of a pour to the cut-off pieces and even the bronze dust created during grinding. They return the scrap metal to their supplier to be recycled and receive credit towards new material for future projects.

As Pete explains, “Foundries are the natural recyclers; they take old and used parts and materials and convert them back into new raw alloy ingots. That has kind of been our emphasis. Why would we want to pollute our environment? [Minimizing environmental impact is important] not only for the health of our employees but also for the health of our customers and the health of our whole community.”

Finalizing the Castings

Once the castings have cooled and have been broken free from the sand, the cooled parts head off to the grinding room. Here the excess metal from the mold is cut off, revealing the shape of the pattern. The parts are sandblasted, ground down, and polished. This is where they start to look more like hardware and less like odd abstract pieces of metal. In the grinding process, the seams from where the parting lines or molds met are removed, and the rough, dimpled metal starts to shine like the marine hardware you’d see at a chandlery or on a classic yacht.

Once the pieces are ready for fine-tuning they head out across the yard to the machine shop. Inside the shop you won’t find any computerized CNC machines or jet cutters. As Pete says, “You still have to do all the math by hand.” He points out that is just how his shop runs; he could invest in the machinery to do that work but instead he prefers to invest in the skilled labor, folks that can work with the mechanical tools on hand. The foundry’s machinist, Kyle Reed, has been with the company the longest, over 15 years. He started working at the foundry as a junior in high school and has gone from pushing the broom to overseeing the machine shop.

In the shop, holes are reamed out; grooves are cut, cleaned, and polished; turnbuckles are tapped and their terminals threaded. Even here all the metal shavings are collected and recycled. Kyle double-checks measurements and tolerances, making sure the hardware leaves his shop the way it was designed. From the machine shop, the castings, now beautiful hardware, go back across to where we started our tour in the showroom. Orders are organized, packed, and shipped, and any extras join the ever-expanding display of parts in the showroom.

The Foundry Founder

How did Pete learn the skills of running a foundry? He jokes, “As my mother would say, it’s a genetic curse.” Both his grandfathers were in aviation manufacturing. But Pete attributes most of his development to Morro Bay High School, which had a tremendous wood and metal shop program. The metal shop had a foundry in it, and Pete got along with the teacher quite well. He quickly picked up the skills and began to take metal shop classes three times a day. He even became his instructor’s metal shop assistant. When asked if he remembers building anything special in shop class, he says, “Oh yeah, sure, it’s still being used here in the shop.” He walks over to the wall and pulls something off it. “I built this tap wrench.”

And while the Port Townsend Foundry of today won’t ever be the Port Townsend Foundry of yesteryear, Pete has carved out a healthy niche, serving not just the Northwest but boats and ships across the country. The focus of the Port Townsend Foundry today is to produce castings for historic restorations and custom needs. His hardware is designed to withstand incredible pressures and forces, making it the perfect fit for the sort of hardcore cruisers and racers who count on their boat—and its hardware—to get them from point A to B.

And in that vein, Pete has created a symbiotic relationship with many of the tall ships and historic boats along the West Coast, including Martha and Adventuress, two local historic schooners. In the pattern shop he shows us a detailed manhole cover they made for Adventuress to help the boat meet a new USCG safety regulation. Instead of making a simple cover, the foundry designed a new watertight cover that features the yacht’s name, the year she was built, and the designer (B.B. Crowninshield), as well as the foundry’s name and logo. It fits within the design and age of the schooner as if it had been there from her christening.

Pete explains that for him it is important to keep these historic tall ships sailing. And they work with him, paying what they can, when they can, and he provides what they need, when they need it. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, though. He can often write off part of the expense as a donation when needed, and it also allows him to show off his work, the quality and the beauty of it. The schooner Martha is also a big benefactor of the foundry. After being dropped and broken by a travel lift several years ago, Martha was fully restored and now competes in local regattas and more notable races like the Transpac, where despite being over a century old, she remains competitive.

Pete Langley coils a davit line on a Monk design at Point Hudson.

Pete Langley coils a davit line on a Monk design at Point Hudson.

Pete’s understanding of community, especially the sailing community, might be what really sets him apart. He runs a successful business that keeps him and his employees paid. But he doesn’t get caught up in every penny of managing the business. He sees the bigger picture: how his business fits into his community and the world in which he lives. This drives his philanthropy, pitching in to keep historical boats afloat, and his environmental stewardship, the sourcing of his materials and the recycling of everything he can. Pete also sees the bigger picture when it comes to his customers, who he provides with unique, quality parts. And above all, he sees himself as a historian and a keeper of nautical knowledge, not just of his personal experience growing up on the water and working in a metal shop most of his life, but in a much broader sense. He is a steward of technical know-how and the custodian of a vast library of patterns—and of the sea of stories they contain. 

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