Columbia Falls’ Acutech creates custom chandeliers and light fixtures with modern and age-old techniques

HOME STORY BY MOLLY PRIDDY | PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG LINDSTROM 

Walking into Acutech’s workspace is a full-sensory experience: Sparks burst from torches touching down on metal, the short blasts and buzzes of the plasma cutter slice the air, and the smell of hot metal and oil waft from a far corner.

At first blush, it’s a highly technical, rigid and rigorously controlled environment, where humans use modern machinery to tame and shape wild, raw metal. And while that is true, it’s only part of the picture.

Take a deeper look, and there’s an undercurrent of creativity and beauty in the workshop that wouldn’t be out of place in a painter’s studio, especially in the large workspace farthest south, where crews piece together humongous, steel chandeliers.

Acutech co-owner Dean Grommet is particularly fond of this part of the metal manufacturing company’s repertoire; it’s a place he can get artistic with the materials and make something beautiful.

“It’s good for the spirit to create something you enjoy,” he said. “It’s fulfilling for everyone.”

The project taking up most of the space and time at the shop in July and August was an order for about a dozen chandeliers to light a large home in Lakeside. Initially, the clients ordered one, Grommet said, but when they saw what Acutech came up with for the style, they decided they needed more for the rest of the house.

The main chandelier is a massive piece of lighting, weighing in at about 700 pounds, with multiple tiers of rolled and hand-hammered steel tinted black with the company’s signature patina mixture.

It’s the result of weeks of collaborative work among the clients, Acutech’s engineer, and the crews building the fixtures.

First, a client comes in with an idea for custom work. The company’s engineer produces a 3D rendering of the concept, and once that gets approval, the code from the rendering heads to one of the shop’s cutting machines, whether it’s the super-hot plasma cutter or the powerful water jet.

Grommet’s crews could cut everything by hand, but that would mean inevitable imperfections and a slower pace, along with a significant cost differential.

“The fixtures could cost a lot more if every component was handmade,” Grommet said.

From there, the basic pieces undergo a transformation at the hands of the blacksmiths and the steel-rolling employees; each piece is usually rolled through an embossing machine to get a pattern going, but employees usually add hammered accents by hand.

Other pieces, such as the large hooks connecting one tier to another on the main chandelier, are beaten into shape by the blacksmiths.

Applying the patina mixture of oil and wax is an art in itself, involving heating and reheating steel pieces in a 250-degree forge, and the black formula steams as it is painted on the hot metal.

Once the base pieces are in place and the light fixtures are connected, a UL-certified electrician from Spokane comes to the shop to wire them, and then crews add any glass or acrylic parts.

One of the most popular designs coming out of Acutech is the wagon-wheel chandelier, Grommet said, several of which his crews recently shipped to Denver for a restaurant.

The light fixtures range from the ultra modern to more basic, classic design, such as the Lakeside pieces, which are built from three-quarter-inch thick steel and will accent the house’s heavy log and stone formation, and wouldn’t look out of place in a castle.

Some of Grommet’s own pieces sit in the Dick Idol Signature Gallery in Whitefish, lighting the doorway on the inside of the gallery. They are meticulously crafted sconces, designed to resemble war bonnets from the Blackfeet tribe, with steel feathers standing up straight around the actual light bulbs and then draping elegantly down the wall.

Whether the custom order is a handmade blacksmith’s creation or one that can largely be created on the high-tech machines in the shop nearby, all of the work on the chandeliers from start to finish is done under one roof, which Grommet said is a big selling point for customers.

Acutech builds other architectural art, such as railings, but the chandeliers are especially eye catching, which is just how Grommet likes them.

“More or less, it’s a piece of art or a sculpture that’s electrified,” he said.

For more information on Acutech, visit www.acutechworks.com.