When asked about his background in metalwork, Bob Commons, founder and owner of Sun Valley Bronze, simply shrugged and said, “I had eighth-grade metal shop.”
What began in a friend’s basement in 1992, with homemade casting and foundry equipment, has now expanded into a multi-functional, family-run hardware factory with 47 employees and six dogs, right on the quiet Main Street of Bellevue.
Bob decided to start the business 20 years ago, he said, because of the lack of quality materials available in Sun Valley. “I was working as a contractor on some very high-end homes, but there were no high-end options available when it came to hardware,” he said. Recognizing a niche, Bob decided to teach himself how to melt and recreate metal parts with equipment borrowed from some Southern Idaho high schools.
He remembered with a chuckle and a shake of the head that the first six months were a complete failure: “They were very humble beginnings,” said Bob. But flipping through the 2012 brochure with hundreds of hand-polished products, patented pieces like the adjustable lift-off door hinge and “The Minimalist” escutcheon-less door handle—not to mention a clientele that reaches all the way to Belgium, New Zealand and Thailand—it’s obvious that failure was not something to be long-lived.
Recently, Bob has handed the business reins over to son Josh, who began working in the shop when he was only 16 (their third employee after wife/mother Debbie). Josh now does everything from answering corporate emails and phone calls to computerized drafting, design and pattern-building.
“Back in the day, you just started carving a hunk of wood until it felt right in your hands,” said Bob. “There was no such thing as perfect.” Nowadays, Sun Valley Bronze uses Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Haas Robots to machine parts with up to 50,000 lines of code that can get precision within one ten-thousandth of an inch (that’s the thickness of a Post-It note).
“It’s a very Old World process, but now we use state-of-the-art equipment for designing and creating it,” said Josh. “It’s very much a balance between the two.” And you can see that balance being equalized by father and son: During a tour of the factory, Bob jumped on a WWII-era turret-lathe machine and made a lever (manually) within a matter of minutes, while Josh stood by and explained the CNC’s modern computer coordinate and coding system. “These machines do essentially the same thing,” he said, pointing from the shiny robot back to the old grease-stained lever-maker. “But we know how to use both.”
And while advancements in technology have greatly improved the precision and productivity of an ancient art, Josh said he likes both the Old World and New World aspects of his craft. “I enjoy computer design as much as I enjoy getting something in my hand and feeling it being created,” said Josh. “My favorite part is the innovation because that’s where I get to be creative.”
And in the true spirit of Idaho-grown men, they started by building a business with their hands—and they never stopped. “Everything is 100% handmade,” said Josh (and environmentally-friendly). Their products range from 800-pound bed frames to dog collars and bear-proof doorknobs. But everything is made with the finest grade, non-ferrous, silicon and white bronze and all “built for life,” as Bob said. “It can all be pretty, but it has to be functional,” added Debbie with a nod.