Norristown Manufacturer's Product Line Proves to Be a Real Hit
Not all bats in Norristown are at the Elmwood Park Zoo.
In fact, last year, about 20,000 of them flew out of a warehouse of a former 1920s furniture store on West Washington Street. These aren't hairy, winged bats that spark fears; these are sleek wooden bats that spark cheers.
The employees at Chandler Bats, in business since 2008, have but one purpose: Oversee the painstaking process of turning clunky wooden dowels that are somewhere around 2 7/8ths inches around, into home run hitters for players ranging from those in the majors to college-league.
For Dave Chandler, company founder and owner, the company is based on the principle that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.
In this case, the "mousetrap" that needed betterment were standard baseball bats that were unable to withstand the high-speed impact of balls being hurtled at them at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour. The resulting shards of shattered wood were injuring players and spectators, and by 2005, Major League Baseball had stepped in to identify bat-breakage as a significant safety issue.
Chandler's background in production techniques (gained through the cultural osmosis of being born in Detroit), business administration and woodworking design (he was a high-end furniture craftsman) all came together to create a better bat.
"I recognized that the reason bats were breaking included a lack of understanding of wood grain and its effect on strength," Chandler says, describing his entry into the business. "It was the same concept in use when I made rocking chairs. The wood that forms the rockers has to put the direction of the grain in contact with the floor to withstand the stresses. The design has to engage the wood grain's ‘memory' to perform."
He goes on: "There were other factors, too, like the amount of humidity that the bats were exposed to during their processing. But I understood what MLB was doing in terms of addressing this process and making its recommendations for change. None of the other bat manufacturers seemed willing or able to incorporate new standards into their factories, so I saw a market opportunity and acted on it."
Chandler's staff is well-versed in the physics and artistry of creating sluggers. Allan Donato, Director of Professional Sales, leads a tour through the plant, beginning with an explanation of the selection of the maple and ash woods.
"We get a lot of our supply from Pennsylvania and New York, but the truth is, where it's from isn't as important as how it's milled," Donato informs. "We have the wood vacuum dried, after which it is stood on end and split along the straightness of the grain. The pieces are then cut into four-inch cylinders and shipped here."
Prior to being shaved down to the proper shape, the wood sits in a humidor, a step unique to Chandler. By giving the cylinders the fine-cigar treatment, the company is better able to control the amount of moisture they contain. "Humidity makes a big difference in bat breakage," says Donato, raising his voice over the hum of a large air conditioner at the far end of the sealed room. "We look at 40-50 percent humidity as being ideal. Lower than that, the wood gets drier and is brittle. Higher than that and the wood gets mushy."
Once properly aged, the dowels are brought to a milling machine, where it is positioned between two rotating pegs. Preset calibrations determine the width, and at the push of a button, the dowel is attacked by a set of three whirling knives. I wonder briefly what horror author Stephen King's imagination would make of this monstrosity, but within seconds, the bat takes shape. As the blades travel from the handle to the barrel end, they chip away the excess wood. A huge duct whisks away the resulting sawdust, and the process is amazingly clean.
The detail work, shaving the rest of the bat down to specifications that are accurate to the hundredths of an inch, is done by hand. Workers armed with sandpaper stand before a series of lathes, and they carefully smooth, measure and smooth again. Once a bat meet their standards for perfection, it is painted, and the trademark "C" - often visible during network television's coverage of games - is affixed.
The craftsmanship adds to the cost of a Chandler bat, but users appreciate the care. "When Louisville Slugger makes a bat," Donato relates, "it is touched by hand maybe twice. When Chandler Bats makes a bat, it is touched by hand at least 17 times before it's finished."
Duplicating a hitter's favorite swatter is a common request, and to ensure that the reproductions are exact, Chandler maintains a wall of hundreds of favorites. Caliper measurements make the match precise.
Donato is so attuned to his product and the sport that when he leaves the plant, he spends at least some of his time at home surfing through various games across different leagues. "If I turn away from the TV and a bat shatters, I can pretty much tell why it failed just from the sound of it. I don't even have to see it," he states.
He and Chandler and the rest of the crew often text back and forth as games unfold, commenting on performance of both the players and their bat choices.
The 5,000-square-foot manufacturing site of Chandler Bats is open to the public and available for tours. Visitors can call ahead to ensure availability (especially in groups), but often guests walk in right off the street. High-profile Chandler bat users include Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles and Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals; several major-league players have taken the Chandler tour for themselves.
After witnessing the production process, visits include a stop at Chandler's batting cages, where a few swats can be taken to "test drive" the product line. I nervously step up and thankfully Donato offers a ball on a tee, alleviating my apprehension at being asked to hit a pitched ball. Nonetheless, even with a stationary target, the resulting WHAP sends the ball spinning to my right (argh, foul!), and I'm immediately filled with a sense of performance anxiety I haven't felt since my little league days.
At present Chandler bats are available only online, but Dave Chandler is looking to widen his distribution channel. The company has purchased a second warehouse, neighboring its present site, with plans to open a retail store.
If after a day on the go at Chandler Bats and other Montgomery County sites, you find yourself in need of a seventh inning stretch, you'd be hard pressed to find a better place to unwind than one of the fine accommodations listed on our website. And if you crave a meal that is more savory than mere peanuts and Crackerjack, the chefs at Sullivan's Steakhouse are clearly no rookies.