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Wharton: He spins copper into treasures

Published February 28, 2013 12:22 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Midvale • Some people seem to be born into a trade.

Take copper spinner Bill Ganz.

His father, Floyd, became fascinated with finished copper products when he worked at the Kennecott Utah Copper mine in the 1930s. After moving from Bingham Canyon, the elder Ganz, now deceased, purchased a garage in Midvale, where he taught himself to make copper souvenirs for the tourist trade.

"He knew the superintendent of the mine," Ganz recalled from his Midvale home and shop. "There was a little shack. Mom would make the hot dogs and hamburgers and Dad would make souvenirs for tourists up there. He made a variety of candy dishes, platters, salt and pepper shakers, miniature coal buckets, vases and planter holders that could be hung from the wall."

Floyd slowly developed a product line using copper and other kinds of formable metal. He began selling his creations wholesale to places such as the House of Copper near the old Bingham High School and at the Lions Club observation deck.

He also managed to pass on his difficult-to-learn skills to his sons. Bill carries on the trade today, using many of the tools, skills and spinning molds he inherited from his dad.

"You can't go to a trade school and learn how to be a metal spinner, at least in this country," said Ganz, surrounded by dozens of machines, lathes and cutters inside his workshop. "The Internet didn't exist [when I started to learn]. I tried to find books. I know people in the trade. And there was trial and error. It was kind of a semiguarded secret about how metal spinning actually worked."

Ganz not only creates copper souvenirs from finished sheets that are 1/32 of an inch thick and come in 3-by-9-foot dimensions. He also spins parts to repair military helicopters and F-16s. Some of his metal parts are used as nose cones for ultralight airplanes and parts of flagpoles. He makes light reflectors used in theaters. He is most proud that some of his creations have been used in LDS temples.

He said Kennecott produces coppers in ingots, so he can't buy directly from the Utah copper producer. While he suspects the sheets he purchases contain Kennecott copper, he is not certain.

Ganz begins the process of making something out of copper by shearing off rectangles from the larger sheet. These are then sheared into smaller squares. He cuts the corners off the square to get a circle.

"You put that on a lathe, similar to a wood lathe, and spin over the shape you are making," he explained. "After a number of passes or strokes, you create something near the final shape."

He has dozens of shapes he puts on the lathe to create the product he is manufacturing.

The process also works with aluminum, stainless steel, brass and even silver.

"It allows you to take a part that is flat," he said. "After being spun, it creates a seamless three-dimensional part like a bowl."

Ganz proudly puts a Utah's Own sticker on his souvenir creations, which are mostly sold at the This Is the Place Heritage Park gift store and the Salt Lake Visitors Center gift store inside the Salt Palace.

He said that not many younger people seem inclined to take up the metal-spinning craft.

"The mindset of a lot of young people today is that 'I want to work with computers and make big bucks rather than work with my hands and get dirty,' " he said. "This job is not too demanding physically but, if you do this all day long, you get sore hands right off the bat."

The skill also can be dangerous. If it's not done correctly, hands and fingers can be maimed or lost. Pieces can fly off and hit heads or eyes.

Regardless of the risks, the metal-spinning skill Ganz inherited from his father continues for now, turning simple sheets of metal into all sorts of useful or beautiful products.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton