Water Wizards

Chris Sharp, Don Wilkinson and Paul Jacques of Alchemy Studios know how to cut it in the business world

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Photos: Jeff Clarke

You might not be familiar with the name Alchemy Studios, but if you’ve recently bought a Burton snowboard, a pair of Tubbs snowshoes or a pint of Magic Hat beer in Burlington — or Denver, or even London or Tokyo — you’ve seen their work. Hi-tech, high-style display units are one of the specialties of this small, Winooski company, which combines the latest technology with artistic flair to produce point-of-purchase creations designed to tempt reluctant shoppers to reach for their wallets.

Founded three years ago by Chris Sharp, Don Wilkinson and Paul Jacques, this spring the company made a move to new premises on Tigan Street in Winooski. Despite the upheaval, the company’s star — the waterjet cutter — is already up and running. This state-of-the-art piece of equipment uses a powerful jet of water — “It can be as fine as a human hair,” says Sharp — to cut almost any type of material up to eight inches thick. “The water is going three times the speed of sound,” explains Jacques proudly. “We’ve only found one material that couldn’t be cut — some kind of ceramic-laced aluminum,” he adds. While there are three such machines in Vermont, the Alchemy cutter is the only one available for hire.

“There can’t be more than 200 waterjets in the entire country,” says Wilkinson. “Johns Hopkins University has one. They use it to cut frozen bodies for anatomy classes,” he says ghoulishly. The computer-controlled cutter is incredibly accurate, is cheaper to operate than conventional cutting equipment, and wastes much less material according to the partners.

“The extraordinary thing about this machine,” says Sharp, “is the fact that it combines this highly advanced technology with a sympathy for the environment. It’s the environmentally soundest of all cutting techniques. The cutting water comes out pure enough to be put back into the public system,” he explains, “and it’s safe to work around, because it produces no dust or fumes.” Because it generates no heat, it can cut several layers at once without fusing them together. The heat-resistant tiles that protect the Space Shuttle are cut on a machine similar to the one at Alchemy. The waterjet allows the company to explore a new area: light industry.

Wilkinson & Jacques

Alchemy Studios can cut almost any material with its waterjet cutter. The Winooski company was founded by Don Wilkinson (left), Paul Jacques (right) and Chris Sharp.

The company, which employs what Jacques describes as “a floating population of around 10 people,” began as a sign-making business. “The first year was terrifying,” Wilkinson remembers, “and we all took serious financial hits. I think I made $7,000 that year.”

“We began by figuring out how the business wouldn’t succeed, then worked backwards from there,” says Sharp. It’s an approach that paid off. The business expanded, adding a 3D router, a machine that can cut in three dimensions, allowing sculptural, free-form effects to be produced. The waterjet cutter has allowed them to take on more demanding projects.

The company produces parts for Blodgett Ovens and cutting stone counter-tops and sinks for Barre Tile, the waterjet slicing through aluminum or granite with equal ease. Acquiring the cutter was the catalyst for Alchemy’s move from Burlington to Winooski. “Because we were on the second floor and the building was pretty old, we didn’t dare take delivery of heavy stuff like slate and granite, in case the beams gave out,” says Wilkinson.

Three times the size of Alchemy’s old premises, the company’s new home combines modern office space with a large industrial workshop. The heart of the new set-up is a large, hangar-like area abuzz with the sound of machines at work. The waterjet cutter stands in one corner, the cutter itself (which looks like a conventional drill chuck without a bit, grafted on to a baffling array of robotics, wires and hoses) poised over a huge water-filled table containing gleaming, freshly machined oven components. Elsewhere, copper plates that will become menu covers for Atlantica, a Boston-area restaurant, are being embossed. Against a wall are stacks of copper, slate, granite and acrylic waiting to be transformed.

Upstairs from this hive of activity is a very different but equally vital part of the operation: the screenprinting studio. Here the materials shaped downstairs acquire the sharp graphics that are the Alchemy hallmark. Here, too, other projects take shape. Jacques points to a mock-up of a snowboard displaying a white skull cut from a sheet of P Tex, interlocking with a black negative cut-out of the same material. “This is a brand-new process we helped realize for Burton,” he explains. “P Tex is the material snowboards are made from. Using this technique, any shape or image can be cut and bonded directly to the board before finishing. Because the image is part of the actual board, it won’t wear out like conventional graphics and it looks incredible.” Burton ordered 11,000 boards featuring this new “mosaic” technique, which will soon be on the market.

All three owners have a strong artistic background. Wilkinson, from Massachusetts, has a master’s degree in printmaking and one in painting from the University of Massachusetts. He worked as a silkscreener in New York City where he met his future wife, Elizabeth. They married eight years ago, and soon afterward came to Vermont “in search of a better life,” says Wilkinson. “I’m a family man now,” he says — he and Elizabeth have two children, Nigel and Isabelle — “but I still try and paint when I get some free-time — which isn’t often,” he adds.

Jacques was born and raised in Vermont, growing up in Alburg. He majored in electronics at TCI in Connecticut before moving to Daytona Beach, where he earned his master’s degree in graphic design at the South East Center of Art and Photography before moving back to Vermont. He lives in Milton, where he tries to find time (plainly in short supply at Alchemy Studios these days) to work on the Porsches and MGs he loves to restore.

Burlington-born Sharp combines full-time partnership in Alchemy with his job as an art-teacher at Burlington High School, where he specializes in jewelry and metalwork. He lives in Shelburne with his wife, Christy, and daughter, Isabel, and is working on converting his old carriage barn into a sculpting studio. “The first two years were tough,” he says. “I was involved in setting up a business, while at the same time pursuing my teaching career and trying to find time for my sculpting. Basically, I was burning the candle at both ends.”

Within the organization, Sharp is the financial manager; Wilkinson is the logistics manager; and Jacques, the production manager. “Basically, I handle the paperwork, hiring and firing, ordering and trying to make sure that everything’s in place to do the job,” says Wilkinson. “Paul makes sure that the actual job gets done.”

“Taking over responsibility for finances means that I can work non-traditional hours,” says Sharp, who is installing a direct line from the office to his home.

Sharp and Wilkinson met while working at a signmaking company in Burlington. Sharp was doing metalwork and Wilkinson was screenprinting. They began thinking of setting up their own studio. Shortly afterward, they met Jacques, who was also working for the company. Three years ago, they took the plunge and set out on their own. The combination of skills and talents has been a fortunate one. “Chris, as a sculptor, brings a 3D perspective,” says Jacques, “while Dan and myself, with our graphics backgrounds, lean towards two-dimensional.”

Wilkinson & Jacques

The high national and international presence of Alchemy clients like Burton Snowboards and Magic Hat, means the business has no lack of exposure. Inset: Pete Foytho (left) and Jake Rifkin operate the waterjet cutter.

Wilkinson brandishes a beer tap: There’s a bright green fly swatter grafted to the end, on which luxuriates an enormous plastic bee (see photo). This is the prototype for Magic Hat Brewing Co.’s Hocus Pocus ale taps that are gracing bars across the nation this summer.

“They’re great to work with,” says Lisa Carpenter from the Magic Hat art department. “They’re very creative, have a lot of good ideas, and understand what we’re looking for. I think they’ve really helped us to stand out from other brewing companies.” Alchemy produces all Magic Hat’s one-off display pieces, high-profile items like menu boards and signs.

They also produce all the store signs for April Cornell, another local business with national outlets, as well as the point-of-purchase items for high-profile companies Burton, Tubbs Snowshoes, Wolverine Outdoors and the Canadian shoe company Kamik. Locally Alchemy’s work can be seen in Howard Bank branches, and at the Shelburne Museum. The company produces the distinctive copper giftware of Ancient Graffiti, something that has become a significant part of the business.

The high national and international presence of those Burlington-area companies — particularly Burton — who have close, long-standing links with Alchemy Studios means the business has no lack of exposure. “We can keep a high profile nationally, just by staying at home,” says Jacques. Putting the waterjet cutter out for hire has brought in a fresh flood of work. Scores of jobs, some little, some demanding, are pouring in.

“We’ve just been hired to produce 18,000 vinegar bottle holders for Gourmet Art, a local company,” says Wilkinson. “That’s a big job. But today Barre Tile will be cutting a single stone sink, which will take maybe 45 minutes. We’ve never turned a job away because it’s too small,” he adds. “We do $60 jobs all the time.”

“We keep our turnover as fast as possible,” emphasizes Jacques, “because the waterjet is so easy to set up, we can get work done fast.”

“The key to our success is that we’re not trapped,” says Sharp. “We’re going against the trend towards specialization. We’re always trying to do things professionally — better than the customer wants it, if possible, and at a better price than the market is bearing. I think we succeed in this by not being greedy,” he adds.

“We’re always looking to expand,” says Wilkinson. “At the moment we’re exploring the possibility of developing our own product line. We’d also like to focus more on the graphic design element of our work, as well as display and product design.”

“What will we be doing in a few years’ time?” considers Jacques. “What we’re doing now, except 10 times more, 10 times better.”

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London. This is his first article for Business People.