Stoking up Business

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by Noelle Stapinsky

Ontario job shop redefines itself with OEM products

If the phone isn’t ringing, there’s likely someone standing in the lobby of Northern Metalworks looking for a custom solution or help with a project. “It’s become way more than what we ever anticipated,” says Darren Sharpe of his Sunderland, ON-based business. It’s all about word of mouth and the relationships this shop has cultivated with its diverse array of customers over the years. 

Sharpe’s first taste of the metalworking world was at the age of 16 when he got a job sweeping the floor of a fabrication shop, at which he ended up apprenticing as a fitter welder. After spending more than eight years there, he decided to open his own fabrication company with his wife Ann on their family farm. “I was repairing neighbours’ farm equipment, welding and whatnot,” explains Sharpe. “And then I ended up contracting and doing some welding and painting for Northern Mould and Metal Fabricating, which was in Cambray, ON, which we took over in 1993 and moved to the farm shop.”

Darren Sharpe, seen here, has diversified his operation by developing his own product line, outdoor wood furnaces.Sharpe and his wife ended up acquiring Northern Mould, a company that primarily produced rotational moulds for the plastics industry, and merging it with their family business. And for about a decade they operated the business out of its original 390 sq m (4,200 sq ft) location. “In 2007, we had outgrown the facility and made the decision to purchase a piece of property in Sunderland, where we built a 10,000 sq ft [929 sq m] building with 30 ft [9.1 m] eaves to accommodate a 10 ton [20,000 lb] crane,” says Sharpe. “At that time we also decided to modify the name to Northern Metalworks because we weren’t doing as much mould work.”

Today, Northern Metalworks provides solutions for anything from a short 15 minute weld to complex fabricating jobs. It makes conveyor systems for any kind of material handling, hoppers, weigh scales and production welding for bins or carts, for example. Some added value services include painting, powder coating, sandblasting, zinc plating, galvanizing and laser cutting. 

It also offers cut to size, special or bulk order steel sales and repairs of all kinds for agricultural, residential, commercial or recreational equipment. 

But what’s more is that Sharpe has also started building his own product — innovative outdoor wood furnaces that are branded Northern Stoker. He started building them on his farm for neighbours and friends. 

“We currently have 103 units working out in the field to make sure that there aren’t any warranty issues before we make thousands of them,” says Sharpe. “But we feel confident and we’re ready now.”

These outdoor furnaces are non-pressurized, open systems that burn normal cordwood to generate heat that is transferred to a water jacket and circulates hot water slowly underground to whatever building needs to be heated. This heat can be directly circulated to radiant in-floor or baseboard heating or converted for forced air heating, for instance. 

With three models currently in production, Sharpe says that the outdoor furnaces are designed to burn wood, but they’ve also recently unveiled a biomass feeding system. “This is what we call the Stoker. You can load any type of biomass from a hopper,” he says. 

This new addition is in response to rising energy costs. The Biomass Automatic Feed System can utilize a variety of fuel sources, such as mixed grain, wood chips, corn and pellets. Depending on the hopper size, Sharpe says the hopper can be loaded with the biomass every third day or once a week, an option that is not only cost efficient, but also ergonomic for those who may have time, health or age considerations.

“We’re currently looking for dealers for Northern Stoker and getting ready to go into production with them,” says Sharpe. 

This is one way Northern Metalworks is attempting to remain competitive. Of course, one major challenge along the way has always been finding skilled workers. “We always have apprentices and co-op students,” says Sharpe. “We try to encourage people to learn and always better themselves. If you don’t take them [apprentices] on, you can’t complain about having a shortage of skilled labour.”

And just like cultivating great relationships with clients, Northern Metalworks creates that culture with its employees, many of whom have been with the company for many years. 

For Sharpe, to run a successful business it’s more about looking at what they don’t do. “We do so much of everything. Any time you do a custom job, you always say that next time you could do this or that to make it better. But there might not be a next time,” he says. “That’s why I started Northern Stoker and building these outdoor furnaces. You learn as you go and get better and better at it.” SMT

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