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A brass industry player: Rustrap Manufacturing Inc. quietly thriving in Edgerton

Phil Huisken, who has owned Rustrap Manufacturing Inc. since 2000, works with brass heat-sealing dies and high-tech CNC machines. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)1 / 2
Jim Huisken, who works at Rustrap Manufacturing, uses one of the older machines to trim brass parts. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)2 / 2

EDGERTON -- There's a modest building on Howard Street that houses Rustrap Manufacturing Inc.

Most people in Edgerton know it's there, but few are aware of what happens inside and even less know that over the last decade, Rustrap Manufacturing has quietly become one of the top players in the brass die industry nationwide.

In business for more than 30 years, Rustrap's original claim to fame was the patent on a water filter that does exactly what the name says -- traps rust and other material. But according to owner Phil Huisken, the filters are now about 1 percent of the business. What the company specializes in now, he said with a laugh, is "making the things that help make the things."

The things being made are brass and aluminum heatsealing dies and vacuumforming molds. Using stock pieces of brass and aluminum, computer-operated machining and custom designing, Huisken and his crew of four full-time and two part-time employees create tools that manufacturing companies use to "weld" plastics into a particular form.

Confused? Here's an example: Imagine two sheets of plastic needed to form both sides of a medical IV bag. Brass dies are used to cut and melt the two pieces together, giving it a particular shape and sealing the plastic into a bag.

"We make the dies for these," Huisken explained, holding up an IV bag. "And for all this."

On the shelves in the lobby are hard plastic security packing for items people buy every day (the ones people often curse when they're trying to open them up), portfolio binders, the bags for nonrebreather face masks, tagholders and the soft plastic padding for inside Riddell football helmets.

Huisken, who purchased Rustrap in July 2000, is equally comfortable in the front lobby of his building showing off products his company has a part in producing, sitting behind a desk working on the CAD program that is baffling to the average eye, or walking through the back shop to make minute adjustments on a complicated CNC machine. Walking through the shop, he stopped briefly at an older-style machine, all hand-operated, and peered inside a box to see how many small brass pieces needed trimming.

"This is some hand work that needs doing," he explained. "We don't use the big machine for this."

Rustrap started making the move from water filters to dies when an area meat company needed molds for its meat snacks. It started repairing dies for another area company, Fey Industries, then branched out from there.

Huisken, who was born and raised in Edgerton, had gone off to college to study natural resources, but when he returned in 1995, he took at job at Fey in the machining department and enjoyed it. After five years there, he bought Rustrap.

His customers are based all over the United States -- from California to Florida to Illinois to New York and in between. In the heat seal industry, he said, the larger businesses are getting larger and the small shops are getting out.

"There used to be die shops all over, but a lot of them are gone now," Huisken explained. "We've survived and picked up business. There are really only two big players left -- one in Los Angeles and myself."

Like any craftsman who is unexpectedly confronted with his own product, Huisken chuckled recently when he received a bottle of cologne as a gift. It was sealed in one of those dreaded hard plastic security packages.

"I made the tooling for this package for a company in New Jersey, who distributed it to another company, who distributed it to Walmart," he laughed. "It's kind of neat to see the whole loop."

He can't stop himself from checking out all sorts of plastic products to see if he recognizes the designs. After all, the die for that product may have come from his own shop in Edgerton.

Some companies send the exact specifics of a die, others send basic information and Huisken needs to do the CAD designing.

"Either way is fine," he said.

He's just as comfortable working with CAD and the CNC machines as he is using the older-style machines that require hand-turning and constant attention.

The CNC machines he owns are state-of-the-art, only 5 or 6 years old. On one, several bits can be attached, and the machine knows when to rotate forward to the next one. Once the "go" button is pushed, the machine will go to work for hours at a time.

"They work great, but probably don't have as much memory as the newer ones," he stated.

The information is programmed, and the machine carves away everything that isn't the die Huisken wants. It's methodical and accurate to a degree a human could never be.

On the side, Huisken makes custom auto and motorcycle parts, working with a friend who does body work.

"I did engraving on the door sill plate of an old car, I made a grill ... when we couldn't find an old part, I just made one," he said.

He's also created as few other things, etching things into aluminum to see what those machines of his will do. It's all about geometry, he explained, whether he's creating dies, auto parts, engravings or whatever new project he's undertaking.

"There has to be lines and arcs -- they have to be usable. That's what the machine goes off of," he said.

Surprisingly enough, no, he wasn't one of those guys who blew the curve in math in high school.

"I hated that stuff back then," he said, then laughed. "I probably could have done better if I had just applied myself."

High school aside, Huisken must be applying himself when it comes to Rustrap, because things are looking good for 2011, he said. The economy hit hard in 2009, but things have bounced back. On a map in his office, pushpins dot the various spots across the United States where Huisken has visited customers. But, to be honest, they are looking for him these days.

Having grown up in Edgerton (his parents own one of the grocery stores), Huisken is now raising his three boys, ages 20, 16 and 12, in that same town. The older two are already employed at Rustrap after school. The oldest is going to school for CAD.

"Do I want to see my kids in Rustrap? Maybe some day," Huisken stated. "I would like to see it grow yet. It has a lot of potential."