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home : business : business January 22, 2018

12/26/2017 12:02:00 PM
Ponderosa Forge celebrates 30 years
Jeff Wester got his start shoeing horses out of the back of a truck. photo provided
+ click to enlarge
Jeff Wester got his start shoeing horses out of the back of a truck. photo provided

By Katy Yoder

Like iron and steel, Ponderosa Forge has proven it's tough enough to stand the test of time.

Founder Jeff Wester is celebrating 30 years of growth and serving Central Oregon customers. Wester has a storyboard with photographs that show his company's progression. The images start in 1981 when he moved to Central Oregon.

Wester's love for blacksmithing began in high school. He grew up in the coastal town of Tillamook and left home to attend Central Oregon Community College, where he studied engineering for two years.

He met Joe Davis, a blacksmith and farrier who taught him about working iron and shoeing horses. Joe's father, Larry Davis, had a shop east of Bend where they'd fire up an old coal forge and transform used horseshoes into marketable items.

He loved the machine and welding shop and hands-on learning, so he transferred to Oregon Institute of Technology where he continued classes in welding and machining. In 1986 he graduated from OIT with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Wester was always an entrepreneur. During college he put his farrier and blacksmithing skills to work to pay for school.

"I always kept things I'd made in my pick-up, which was also my mobile blacksmith shop," he recalled.

Farriers travel from barn to ranch, and each location is different. Some lack even the basic necessities. Wester's horseshoeing rig included the typical anvil and forge as well as a portable hitching rail. It swung out from his truck so there was always a place to tie up horses.

After graduation, Wester found that all the jobs for his major were in aerospace and manufacturing. That meant moving to a big city like Los Angeles or Seattle.

"Everybody was going that way," he said. "But I didn't want a city job, so I moved to Bend where I already had shoeing clients."

For the next three years, Wester shod horses all day and taught night classes in welding and machining at COCC.

His first brick-and-mortar blacksmithing shop was in Tumalo, in a former butcher shop at the old Bend dairy. He rented the shop space and lived there, too. When he had the opportunity to buy his own place, Wester purchased property on Crooked Horseshoe in Sisters and had his blacksmith shop in a yurt. In the summer, he and his horseshoeing friends packed up the yurt and took it to the old fairgrounds in Redmond where they shod horses, did blacksmithing and sold items they'd made.

But that kind of temporary set-up didn't last long. In 1989, Wester built a Western-style shop where the yurt had been - but he soon outgrew that, too.

When he had the opportunity to purchase land where the current business is located he jumped in with both feet. He built the original shop in the industrial park in 1991, and has been adding on ever since. The first building was 2,800 square feet; over the years it's grown to 14,000 square feet.

Wester is quick to give credit to a local old-timer who helped many Sisters businesses get their start. Back in the 1980s it was hard to get a bank loan and interest rates were high.

"There was this old guy, named Joe Fought, who would loan you the money for a new business. He owned a few lots in the industrial park and financed many of the businesses around town. If you had a good idea and business plan, Joe charged 12 percent and sold you the land. I picked the place where the shop is now so I could walk out my back door to the lumber yard," said Wester.

"I had a connection with Joe Fought. He took an interest in my business because he had emigrated from Germany and started work in a blacksmith job in Portland. He ended up building a business into a very large steel fabrication company called Fought Steel. I couldn't have bought this lot or built the first building if it wasn't for Joe Fought."

Recently, Wester joined forces with Seattle artist John Fleming, who is known for his highly acclaimed public art installations. Their first collaboration was the Mt. Washington/Simpson roundabout art in Bend known as "High Desert Spiral." Fleming got the bid from Art in Public Places and was looking for a Central Oregon fabrication shop to build his piece. He contracted with Ponderosa Forge to do the work. The two men found they worked well together, and more public art installation projects followed.

To date the team has done seven projects.

"We just finished one in San Francisco," said Wester.

They're hopeful about their newest job prospect: "We're in the running for the Sisters roundabout artwork. Working with Fleming has been inspirational and just plain fun. It's totally different from blacksmithing. It's my job to make his designs a reality."

There's a few things Wester has learned over the years. At the top of his list is a simple truth: "Having good employees is the most important part of running a business. That component either makes it or breaks it."

Valuing his employees was one thing; figuring out how to keep them was another.

"In the early years, I was gradually adding on to the building and making new equipment," he said. "That way, when times were slow I didn't have to lay anyone off. Then when it was all built out and we had slow times, I created a line of hand-forged products to keep us busy."

That strategy has become a big part of his business. Because of that, he hasn't had to send anyone home for lack of work.

Another important ingredient in his success is to diversify.

"We have a full-service shop that includes welding fabrication, structural steel, blacksmithing, heavy welding repair, machine shop work, CNC cutting and sheet metal work. I also have 150 items in an online store and in the Sisters showroom," said Wester.

Ponderosa Forge has worked on numerous public projects such as the remodel of Sunriver Lodge in 1995, the Lodge at Black Butte Ranch and the Deschutes Brewery pub. Ponderosa Forge products are found in many custom homes in Central Oregon and all across the country. Top-selling products include fireplace, hearth and door hardware and light fixtures.

"I did most of the designs up until a few years ago," said Wester. "Now my shop manager, Chris Corcoran, is very involved in the day-to-day operations and some of the design work. Most of the products were designed a long time ago, but we like coming up with new products."

Wester's business has been very generous in its support of the community and all kinds of children's activities. Since 2004, Sisters Folk Festival has held their annual fundraiser, My Own Two Hands, in the forge. For the past 13 years, Wester and his crew remove equipment with forklifts and open up the building to art patrons and artists. White linen tablecloths cover solid steel tables and beautiful art is displayed and sold in an exciting auction.

"I like to be able to support the community and help the Americana Project and Sisters Folk Festival," Wester said. "It's a great way to support kids."

The blacksmith is also a banjo player and a member of the band The Anvil Blasters - named after an old blacksmithing tradition in which celebrants on holidays like the Fourth of July would blow an anvil sky high with a charge of black powder.

Wester knew to be a successful businessman his company had to be nimble, diverse and have top employees doing excellent work. What he didn't anticipate was that his love of iron and steel would turn him into an artist, too.

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