At Carolina Metal Castings, a foundry in the Hardeeville Industrial Park, sand is found all over the property. There are piles of it behind the main building. It is kept by the ton inside the plant. In front of the four furnaces, the sand is deep enough to record footprints. There is much less of it in the office, but a reddish grit is discernible on the floors where sales and accounting functions are performed.
It is everywhere because the molds into which hot metals are poured are primarily made from sand.
“Once we pour the molten metal in, it’s done. We break it up,” said Jim Harwood, the president of Replacement Metal Castings, which owns the Hardeeville plant.
A sister operation, Capps Sutton, based in Jacksonville, Fla., supplies the wooden models that are used for making the sand molds. Unlike the single-use molds, models typically last for many years before they need replacement.
Inside Carolina Metal Castings, sand is dispensed into models from a piece of machinery that looks like a giant red arm mounted in the floor at the shoulder that swivels at the wrist and elbow.
“It comes out of the mixers looking like wet beach sand,” Harwood said. A binding agent is added to the mix and acts as a type of glue. There are two halves to a mold, and these are joined after the sand hardens. “Our sand, it’s a specialty sand. It has to be cleaned. I can’t just go down to the beach and fill up a pickup truck and use it,” Harwood said.
Replacement Metal Castings, which is owned by Harwood and his mother, Carolyn Sutton, took over the Hardeeville plant at the beginning of 2002. In addition to producing wood models, Capps Sutton supplied some customers with cast metal items. This actual casting work was subcontracted to different foundries, including the one in Hardeeville.
By 2000, the foundry, then known as Carolina Casting Corp., was experiencing financial problems. After the death of their father, two brothers began running the operation. They stopped investing in the plant, Harwood said, and each time he visited Hardeeville, he become more convinced the siblings would be forced to close the doors.
″(Their) dad did a real good job training them how to do their respective parts of the business,” Harwood said, “but he forgot to teach them how to actually run the business.”
Outside, the aesthetics were improved. Photographs on a wall in the office show aerial views of the property in 1998 and 2015. In the older photo, the works looks like a derelict steel mill or an oil refinery. The more recent image shows clean walls of corrugated metal.
A sand recycling system added two years ago allows about 90 percent of the sand used in molds to be sifted, heated and used again to make new molds. Carolina Metal Castings specializes in small production runs. It makes parts for customers who build products by the hundreds or thousands, not millions.
“In general, we do heavy industry here,” Harwood said. “We’re doing industrial bearing housings, wheels for trains, things like that.”
On a recent Friday, the foundry was making parts for specialized machines used by paper and glass manufacturers, parts for dredges, parts for hoists and parts for industrial pumps.
The base metal for most of the items cast at the foundry arrives as flat pieces of steel sealed inside 55-gallon drums. The pieces, from 1 to 10 inches in diameter, and ¼- to a ½-inch thick, are byproducts from when presses punch shapes into lengths of plate steel. Harwood buys it from a company that cleans, washes, segregates and packages the metal for shipment.
When Harwood assumed control of the foundry, base metals had come from scrap yards in and around Savannah. “We had to deal with weird shapes, sizes that were sometimes hard to manage and horribly dirty, rusty and oily,” Harwood said.
He began buying the punchings about nine years ago. Whenever a new batch of metal is heated in the furnaces, a coin-like sample from the melt is placed in a machine that uses argon gas to determine its metallurgical properties. The facility keeps a store of alloys — carbon, silicon, manganese, chrome and nickel — that are added to the melt until the desired metal is available for casting.
“It becomes like mom’s kitchen,” Harwood said. “We just throw in our recipe, and we can make a wide array of steels.” Some iron castings are made regularly at the plant, and Harwood said about 15 percent of business comes from casting stainless steels. For this type of steel, ingots or certified scraps are used for the base metal.
Carolina Metal Castings has 18 employees. If the industrial economy continues to grow, Harwood plans to hire additional employees — if he can find them.
“We’ve done a disservice to our country and raised a couple generations of kids who’ve forgotten that there are trade and labor jobs,” he said. “We’ve tried to make everybody into doctors and lawyers and real estate salespeople. And there’s a huge, huge shortage throughout all industries of skilled labor.”