Going the Distance for Sports Equipment

Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2022

By Sheila LaMothe

Arguably, sports are America’s favorite pastime. Whether you are a competitive athlete, weekend warrior, or an armchair spectator, odds are there is at least one sport that invokes your competitive spirit. Regardless of your sport of choice, it likely has a powder coating connection. Such is the case for three American favorites—soccer, golf, and football.

Achieving the Goal
It was 1981 and Andy Caruso, a soccer fan and coach in the Smithtown, NY, area, had a problem. At the time there were no dedicated soccer fields, so he had to transport equipment to and from the field every day, a particular challenge when it came to goals. Lucky for Andy, his brother Vinnie is a creative metal fabricator. Andy challenged him with building an 8 x 24-foot soccer goal that could break down to fit in his Plymouth Horizon subcompact car. After several prototypes, the brothers refined the design until it was highly functional and the envy of Andy’s coaching friends. Kwik Goal was born.

According to Brian Rush, vice president of Kwik Goal, initially the goals weren’t coated—just bare aluminum. When the decision was made to coat the goals, they started with liquid enamels, but found them difficult to deal with because of high VOCs and the associated intense cleanup and disposal requirements. Switching to waterborne paints alleviated disposal and environmental issues but created headaches with drying and durability. “Our product sat on the shop floor to dry. In the humid Pennsylvania summers product wasn’t curing completely prior to packaging and was getting damaged,” explains Brian. “As we continued our search for a better coating option, somewhere along the way someone recommended powder.”

Powder coating ticked all the boxes—the thermoset polyester powders are durable, hold up to constant exposure to the elements, and product can be packed almost right out of the cure oven. As an added bonus, they were able to convert the existing paint booth to a powder booth. The largest investment was in a cure oven, but overall getting up and running was not a huge task. Since their entry into the world of powder coating in 2002, Kwik Goal has upgraded their operations from a bulk feeder for one color to a system that enables a quick change between eight of their most common colors. The original batch booth and oven are still in operation today.

Local custom coaters also benefit from Kwik Goal’s success. Low volume and custom colors account for about 40% of the company’s powder coating volume and are performed in-house. The remaining 60% is outsourced to area custom coaters either directly from Kwik Goal for high volume parts, or their aluminum extrusion vendors. Regardless of the provider, the outsourced coating is all the same white thermoset powder developed specifically for Kwik Goal.

Over the past four decades, Kwik Goal has grown to 60 employees, carries more than 700 different SKUs, and processes and ships 35,000 orders and 6,000 soccer goals a year. While a good number of their goals require tools for assembly and dismantle, Kwik Goal still offers a product with a simple snap button construction very similar to the original design made for Andy’s Plymouth Horizon. Brian notes that the best goal they could make would be one welded piece, but there would be no feasible way to ship it. As a result, the two main types of goals they make feature easy assembly and breakdown, in shippable pieces.

Customer demand has driven new product development including training equipment, seating, and shelters. Powder coating is used in a variety of these additional products and is especially beneficial for seating and shelters because of its durability, colorfastness, and ability to be customized to match team colors.

Dubbed “the official goal of soccer” as a result of its partnership with U.S. Soccer, Kwik Goal products can be found at a variety of facilities throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, including MLS stadiums, Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports, and the new Legacy Sports Complex in Mesa, AZ.

It’s in the Hole!
While extremely popular, golf is likely one of the most frustrating sports, particularly for the recreational player. One day you shoot an all-time best and the next your absolute worst. Still, golfers continue to hit the links willing to try just about anything to improve. If your short game is causing you headaches, then be sure to read on.

The pandemic created widespread challenges for all, and opportunities for some. The latter is the case for Everett Farr, a mechanical engineer and career manufacturer. Working remotely to help care for his adult autistic son, Everett found himself with extra time on his hands, time he spent watching YouTube videos.

An avid golfer, Everett became fascinated with putter reviews and promotional videos. He listened closely to the explanations of why each claimed their putter superior. Ultimately, he found the overall engineering principles lacking and was convinced that armed with his diverse manufacturing background and engineering mind, he could develop “the last putter you will ever need.”

Everett brought in Matt Fuchs, a young engineer he partnered with to create Ledhrex, an engineering firm that designs and develops new products. They started with a solid piece of CNC milled aircraft grade alloy for the head and designed a customizable weight system to create maximum adjustability and performance for all golfers. The addition of their patent-pending Path of Inertia system which utilizes the weight, moment of inertia, and center of gravity location, produced a ball roll unique to their design.

To protect the tempered steel shaft, the team chose powder coating—a common choice for club heads but not for shafts, according to Everett. “Golf clubs take a lot of abuse, constantly shoved in and out of the golf bag, dropped on the ground, etc. We wanted a durable shaft with a certain look,” explains Everett. Familiar with liquid painting and its associated challenges from his early days restoring Corvettes, powder coating was a new venture for Everett, but he was ready to take it on. “Sometimes you just have to jump in the pool to learn how to swim,” he shares. But he didn’t just hold his breath, close his eyes, and jump in the deep end. Everett traveled to PCI’s Powder Coating Week 2021 and attended the Powder Coating 101 Workshop, where he absorbed as much information as he could. “In addition to the expert presentations, just talking with the guys at my table was helpful. Everyone shared what they do and exchanged stories and challenges,” he recalls.

Everett purchased a powder coating booth, application equipment, and oven. With their powder coating system in place, one of the biggest concerns was material waste. The shafts are 0.6 inches at their widest point, down to 0.375 inches at the narrowest—not a lot of surface area to work with. The team built custom jigs and carts to address this challenge. Shafts are placed upright in the jig which is mounted on a cart. Powder is applied to one side and the cart is rotated 180 degrees to coat the backside. With this system, 30 shafts are coated at one time and much to their delight, material loss is minimal.

The company’s first putter, the Makefield V-S, named in honor of Vince Sullivan, Everett’s close friend and mentor, was introduced at the 2022 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in January. To say the launch was a success is an understatement. “When the first day of the show you are on the Golf Channel, the next day Sports Illustrated is interviewing you, and the third day your product is included in the Top 5 Best Products list, that’s kind of crazy,” shares Everett. With success spurred by this response, production has increased to 1,000 putters a month.

Everett admits they only had a chrome shaft to display at the show because their powder operation wasn’t up and running yet. It’s also the reason the head on their first putter model is anodized. While they still offer chrome and gloss black shafts, it’s the satin black that has really taken off. With their second putter model in development, it is anticipated that powder will be the coating of choice for the head. “We’ve beaten it to death in testing and it’s held up well,” reports Everett. The customization powder offers is something else Everett loves. He envisions special colors like gunmetal and themed clubs, such as pink for breast cancer awareness. “You can’t do that with anodizing,” he states.

Tackling Face Mask Abuse
Football players take a lot of abuse, and the equipment protecting them must withstand hit after hit, tackle after tackle. As a result, banged up equipment must be replaced or refurbished. This sparked a “side-hustle” idea for New York City banker and football fanatic, Jay Elmore—reconditioning football helmet face masks.

Partnering with a friend in South Carolina to see if the idea had legs, the pair literally picked up the phone and called the top 25 NCAA football teams, asking them to send in their beat-up face masks. Those first 25 phone calls resulted in ten orders, including one for 700 face masks! While they had the basic processes in place, they had no capacity to handle all the face masks received. Luckily, it was the off-season, buying them time to figure it out.

While the initial response was promising for the company that would become Green Gridiron, it continued to be a part-time gig for Jay, who handled most of the financial aspects of the business. About three years in, the business was viable enough to warrant he and his wife walking away from their full time jobs in NYC to move to South Carolina to run the company. Simple economics drove initial sales and growth. Most new football face masks cost $50 to $75, but Green Gridiron could refurbish a face mask for as little as $15.

When the face masks are received, the existing coating is stripped by a local vendor using ovens hot enough to melt the material without impacting metal strength. The masks then go through a low-level acid bath and are sprayed with a rust inhibitor before being returned to Green Gridiron to be recoated.

Many powder applications in sports use traditional polyester powders, but thermoplastic powders are required for face masks. Jay explains, “While more expensive, the characteristics of thermoplastic powders are ideal for football face masks. They are durable, don’t crack, offer color consistency with little to no color transfer to uniforms, and colors don’t fade over time.” Jay goes on to share that the powder is applied by a fluidized bed process which enables a much thicker coating than a traditional electrostatic spray application. Green Gridiron uses custom-built hoppers for their specific needs. With over 35 stock colors, larger hoppers are used for the most common colors (black, white, and gray), while smaller hoppers handle the rest. Between 50 and 60 pounds of powder are required to fully submerge a single mask, although the hoppers hold about 100 pounds. Typically, 500 to 600 face masks can be coated before having to add powder. Masks are dipped one at a time and the longer they stay in the bed, the thicker the coating.

For a mask to fit into the helmet clips, the coating has to be 40 mils. Fluctuating weather and a non-temperature-controlled warehouse can make achieving a consistent thickness a challenge. Mornings in the spring and fall can be in the 40s before reaching 95 degrees by midday—add in the hot humid summers and adjustments are a constant. “Powder goes on differently when it’s cold vs. hot, and humidity certainly has an impact,” notes Jay. “Our operators have to know how to adjust to ensure a 40 mil thickness regardless of conditions.”

Even with a wide range of color options, there are teams that want a very specific color or finish that simply isn’t available. “In the spray powder coating world, those colors and finishes exist, but in the thermoplastic world they don’t,” Jay explains. “We tried spraying polyester powders on top of the thermoplastic. It looks good, but cracks on impact—exactly why traditional powders are not a good option for face masks.” In these situations, Green Gridiron turns to liquid coatings. Jay uses the University of Oregon as an example. “One of their face mask colors is an apple green with an anodized look. We choose the thermoplastic powder that is closest to that green, powder coat it, and then have it liquid coated. This way when the liquid coating chips, which may only take a few hits, the powder color underneath is exposed rather than bare metal. It just looks better.” Jay points out that the thermoplastics never chip, they just wear over time.

While some NFL and NCAA teams send masks in throughout the season (so they look good on TV) most of the reconditioning is done in the off-season. To avoid layoffs during the slow periods, Jay began selling custom assembled helmets for game use as well as collectibles—an undertaking that now accounts for 70 to 80% of their revenue. Jay explains, “There are only so many football teams with face masks to be reconditioned. There are a lot more players to sell to.” Stocking helmets from Riddell, Schutt, and Viscis, along with a wide range of visors, chin straps, hardware, and 600+ different face mask styles in bare metal, Green Gridiron can coat face masks and assemble helmets to order offering many more options than popular retail sports equipment stores that can only sell what they have in stock, most of which are more standard items.

Through Green Gridiron players and collectors can build a helmet that mimics the style worn by their favorite player. While helmet manufacturers offer a variety of configurations of face mask bars and grills, some players ask for something specific. Odell Beckham, Jr. (OBJ) is one of those players. “He wears a very unique mask and we have it,” notes Jay. “So, if you are a wide receiver and want a set up like OBJ, we can do it—configuration and color.”

Soccer, golf, and football represent just three of the countless sports with a powder coating connection. The next time you pick up a piece of sporting equipment or settle down on a Sunday afternoon with a cold drink to watch a game, look around, you are likely surrounded by powder coating.

Sheila LaMothe is editor of Powder Coated Tough.