Hang out with Jim Hummel at his business, Acme Brass Custom Plating, and you’ll quickly learn it’s not all about brass headboards and old lanterns.
In fact, late on a weekday, one of his regular customers comes in with a handful of what look like pipes. They are, in fact, instruments Hummel can’t precisely identify.
“They’re something a doctor uses, and they’re giving them to medical school graduates,” he says. His challenge? To gold-plate the instruments so they can be engraved with the grads’ names.
His is a business far different from the one his grandfather started 100 years ago. A team of six holds down the shop at 1315 Tracy Ave., not far from the spot where his grandfather worked on 17th Street.
As he walks through the front shop, he points to pieces retail customers have delivered. Retail work accounts for about 40 percent of his business. The majority comes from clients like architects, he says.
Customers who walk in with an unusual piece are the real challenges, he says, pointing to brass plates that were once part of a bookcase.
In the back of the shop, he explains the functions of the dipping tanks for nickel, silver, brass and gold. One room is for sanding and polishing; another for enamel.
A group of iron hinges undergoes a “before and after” that would challenge any daytime TV makeover show.
Hummel and his cousin Steve Gaunt run the business. He’s fourth-generation, Hummel notes. We asked the guru what kind of brass it takes to keep a business running for 100 years.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
A lot of what we do is historic preservation, so that’s what comes to mind first. I enjoy seeing antiques restored and reused. That’s rewarding to me. The other part of our business that I like is custom fabrication. For instance, there’s an old home in Mission Hills where we made shower enclosures out of brass.
Brass is in the name of your shop, so is that the work your business focuses on?
My grandfather learned the trade in Germany, and when they came to the United States, the business made decorative brass things like handrails and picture frames. But today, we’re a plating shop. We do gold, silver, nickel, copper, brass and different variations on those finishes.
What has changed in the business since your grandfather opened it 100 years ago?
Plating has improved through technology. It’s a science now, and we get more consistent results. And tastes have changed. Silver service used to be much more popular. Today, we refinish and re-plate some silver, like a tray where the brass is showing. But not many people are asking for silver when they get married anymore.
Is brass making a comeback?
In the ’70s, polished brass was all over the place in restaurants, homes and businesses. Now, it’s bronze finishes and brushed nickel that we’re seeing. We are starting to see antique brass coming back. It’s not highly polished and still looks aged. It’s a classic look in old homes.
What kinds of objects are you getting from those old homes?
Everything from brass beds to hinges. We have weather vanes in here, and piano pedals. When we get these treasures, we find out what people want us to do. Some want bright and shiny, others want a weathered look.
How do you care for brass?
If it’s sealed, it’s easy to care for. If not, it’s going to look green and yucky if you don’t polish it. If you have something that’s seriously green, we can chemically clean it with an acid dip that leaves it with a nice finish. After that, we polish and can put a clear coat on it so it doesn’t have to be redone. Things like nickel are easy to care for. It has a hand-rubbed appearance that doesn’t look shiny forever. It’s popular now.
What’s the most unusual piece you’ve ever seen?
That’s a tough question. Maybe mortar shells that weigh over 100 pounds each for a professor’s office.
What do you have in your own home that reflects your business?
I’ve refinished or plated several things in my house. But I’d have to say, this is what comes to mind first: I have my grandfather’s old roll-top desk that used to be in his office. That’s pretty important to me.