A Tiny Dynasty for Over 130 Years
by Michael Dresdner
Their cans may not be a common sight on the shelves of the big box stores, but Lawrence McFadden, a family-owned finish manufacturer for over 130 years, is the king of the hill when it comes to certain specialty coatings. Among them are gel finishes, musical instrument coatings and high-end furniture and burial casket finishes.
"Back in the 1940s and 1950s, we used to sell a lot of finish and paste wood filler to the big furniture manufacturers in the South," recounted Peter Beck, the current CEO and one of the owners of the company. "In those days, only four salesmen covered the whole South, and ours was one of them.
"Today, we have become a niche business with about 45 employees, because these days, just a few huge companies command the bulk of the bulk market. Instead, we concentrate solely on interior wood finishes and a number of interesting specialty finishes." One such niche is the growing field of wipe-on gel finishes.
"My father invented our wipe-on gel finish in the late 1970s to sell to Heathkit, a company that sold build-your-own television kits," Peter explained. "One thing led to another, and the gel got into the hands of a huge unfinished furniture manufacturer who thought it would be a no-brainer to sell finish along with 'naked' furniture. We started distributing gel finish under the Mastercraft label in the 1980s.
"Bartley came up with a similar product later but sold to a different market, so we really did not think of them as competitors. Nevertheless, at the beginning of this year we bought the finishing portion of Bartley. We currently make gel stain and finish formulas for our own Lawrence McFadden label which is sold direct from our web site; the Bartley label, available from a variety of woodworking distributors; and custom formulas for other vendors such as Rockler, including the Rockler Polyurethane Gel and Mission Gel Stains."
Perhaps Lawrence McFadden's most loyal following is among those in the musical instrument field. "Almost every guitar manufacturer in the U.S. buys Lawrence McFadden finishes," Peter admitted. "We sell them a range of products including nitrocellulose lacquer, two-part sprayable polyurethanes, polyesters and even UV curable coatings. Guitar makers in particular have grown in their finishing sophistication, going from lacquer all the way to UV cured coatings, and several companies now have robots spraying and curing their guitars."
Why do so many musical instrument makers, people who typically pride themselves on their exceptional finishes, buy from McFadden? In large part it's because Peter visits their plants, takes a personal interest in what they do, and then creates finishes that fit exactly what they need.
"We are the only manufacturer who formulates specifically for guitars and meets the particular needs of acoustic guitar makers. We first started selling to Guild Guitars when they were still in New Jersey in the 1960s, and our customer list has expanded over the years to include Martin, Gibson, Fender, Taylor, Santa Cruz, Collings, Breedlove, Larivee, PRS, Ovation, Benedetto, Hamer, Tacoma Guitar Co. and both Deering and Stelling Banjos. Beyond that, there are piano and organ companies who buy from us as well."
As interesting as what they do is their long history and how they became the family dynasty they are today. "The Lawrence-McFadden Company, Inc. began in 1875 with a partnership between Bruce C. McFadden, Alexander Lawrence, Jr., and Harold Elliot," Peter explained. "They formed the Lawrence-McFadden and Elliot Company and trademarked L-Mac-E. Somewhere along the line Lawrence and McFadden bought out Elliot, then later Lawrence dropped out, though no one seems to remember why.
"Bruce McFadden had two sons and four daughters, and one of the sons, Scott, eventually took over the business. Two of Bruce's daughters had sons who also started in the company, working from the ground up to eventually become presidents or CEOs. One was my father, who, like me, started as a salesman and eventually became CEO." The other was the father of Doug Hampton, the current president, who runs the company along with Peter. That makes Doug and Peter fourth generation McFadden descendents, and Peter tells me that a fifth generation already works at the company.
"From the beginning," Peter recounted, "we had a plant in downtown Philadelphia making varnish, shellac and fillers. They used to ship around the country by railroad. In fact, our salesmen used to travel by rail. In the old days, oil and natural resins were cooked together in large pots to make traditional varnish. We used to cook varnish, which means we had a lot of open flames under some very big pots, and in 1934 there was a fire."
Shortly thereafter, they started making nitrocellulose lacquers, considered a quicker sprayable replacement for brushed varnish. The furniture industry wanted speed, and spraying nitrocellulose provided it. "Nitrocellulose lacquer is made by dissolving cellulose nitrate, which is a highly explosive compound. At a certain point of nitration it becomes gunpowder. Just below that it can be used for coatings, but it is still extremely dangerous to handle. We call it 'white gunpowder,' or 'cotton' because it looks like cotton. It comes soaked in alcohol to stabilize it, and it is extremely flammable. We store it outside in an open shed called 'The Cotton Shed' until we are ready to make the lacquer.
"By itself, nitrocellulose is very brittle and very hard. In fact, it is too brittle for use as a finish for wood, which moves quite a bit. To make it workable, we add other ingredients like maleic resins, alkyd resins and plasticizers to make a finish both flexible enough to survive and hard enough to rub and polish."
I know many of my readers have a hard time deciding just what finish to use, so I asked Peter to comment on the all too common question of what is the best finish. Here's what he had to say.
"There are no good or bad coatings. Instead, there are pros and cons to every finish. The key is to find the perfect coating for your particular application."
When you do, there's a darned good chance that it is one of the outstanding coatings Lawrence McFadden makes.