Profiles: Mainly Metals in Bristol

BRISTOL — David Durgin is a busy man.
The Bristol resident owns Mainly Metals, a machine and fabrication shop that uses a unique water jet technology to cut materials of all sorts.
“It’s a jet of water with garnet mixed in,” Durgin explains. “The jet is about 1/30,000 of an inch in diameter — the size of a mechanical pencil lead — that comes out around 50,000 pounds per square inch.”
What that adds up to is one extremely precise machine.
“The technology was around in the ’50s, but they just didn’t have sophisticated enough software to use it the way we do,” Durgin says.
Now, most of Durgin’s jobs come over email in the form of CAD (computer-aided design) files. The specifications are plugged into a computer that guides the automated hydro jet.
Durgin, who founded Mainly Metals in 1986, got his start working with sheet metal and traditional metal-cutting tools, making products like chimney lining connectors, “basically doing stuff other people didn’t want to,” he says with a laugh.
But with the acquisition in 2003 of a water jet from the Washington state company OMAX, his range of production expanded dramatically. In addition to metal, the machine can cut stone, wood, foam — you name it.
There is no typical customer, but recent projects include violin chin rests, foam tool organizers, tools for jewelers, and a photo lens cut entirely in half for a display. Durgin did a project for MIT graduate students, presented for the Swedish Consulate, cutting and layering sheets of polycarbonate to simulate a cloud.
A walk around Durgin’s Hewitt Street facilities makes it clear that he is a natural problem-solver. His shop, in the basement of his house, is geothermally heated and cooled and features custom-fabricated tracks for the jet’s arm.
In the backyard is a hydroponic/aquaponic grow operation housed in a shed Durgin built of 6-inch Styrofoam wall modules.
“It’s a closed system,” Durgin explains, demonstrating how ammonia produced by the waste from a tank of tilapia is turned into nitrates by naturally occurring bacteria. The nitrates fertilize a hydroponic bed of Swiss chard, kale and lettuce. The vegetables, in turn, purify the water for reuse in the fish tank.
“The plants grow 25-30 percent faster than they would outside, and there’s no bugs,” Durgin says.
The shed is heated geothermally and powered by an 8.4-kilowatt solar panel array. The main power draw is the LED grow lights, mounted on moving tracks.
Naturally, Durgin made most of the shed’s hardware with the water jet.
Durgin also has a number of highly modified boats in his backyard. He designed and fabricated an elaborate pontoon system for his fishing canoe, and he is in the process of gutting a 22-foot Starcraft, installing a variety of custom modifications.
Back in the shop, Durgin explains his business model.
“We’re a job shop,” he says, “we do work for other people. So we don’t really produce any of our own stuff. I think it’s better that way.”
“I definitely don’t think of this as a retail business,” he adds.
Any time Durgin considers investing in new equipment or a new process, he researches the subject thoroughly. He spent two years considering the pros and cons of the water jet machine before he bought one.
Durgin says learning to use the machine’s software was easy enough.
“You learn as you go … there’s a lot of trial and error.”
His secret to success?
“Well, we get a lot of jobs that were turned down by people with the same equipment. They didn’t think they could do it. It’s all about the thought process.”
DAVID DURGIN SHOWS off some of the wide variety of things he creates at his shop, Mainly Metals, in Bristol.  Independent photo/Weyland Joyner

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