The Intersection of Hands & Tools – Or, How We Remain Handmade with Machinery

29 July 2020 |
Here’s a little big secret: everything at Submaterial is made by hand. If you’re here, you probably know that already. But what exactly does that consist of? And in the age of mass production, why do we still insist on working so slowly?

First things first, a backstory.

In our startup days, literally everything was cut, glued, trimmed, or formed by hand. Every strip of felt was produced with human hands and handheld razor blades. They were incredibly thrilling and dangerous times. As proof of the beauty and quality of handmade objects, popularity and demand grew; a number of new employees were hired, but more was needed. We had to forge an intersection of our handmade ethos with large scale manufacturing.

Basic machinery was eventually purchased allowing us to still remain very hands-on. The efficiency of these hand-operated beasts made it possible to increase our output – and still hold true to our values of Made-By-Hand. We are now capable of producing thousands of square feet of product in a single week.

Click press and strip cutter


Currently, the only machinery and tools we use are completely operated by a fabricator – no continuous feeds and nothing automatic or programmed by a computer. We view our machinery as hand tools with more power or speed. The two most heavy-duty machines on site reside in our sizing department: the area where felt or other materials are prepped to be built into products.

Upon entering our production area, the first that catches the eye is our die cutter/click presses. These are used with dies which produce beautifully stamped out shapes, either simple or complex. Die making is a fascinating process and the dies we receive are works of art, truly, as they are all made by hand: razor sharp blades of metal carefully bent and punched, then secured by pressure-fit within wooden cradles. In conjunction with our 25,000 ton hydraulic press – handsomely designed by Italians and fashionable in army green – we can stamp out multiples of various designs such as our Figure wall tiles or Spindle Coasters all by hand, as each and every stamp is loaded, stamped, and controlled by us.

10 yards away you’ll find the workhorses of our studio: our strip cutters. Also Italian in origin with its purpose to cut belting leather, we’ve found them perfect for cutting literally thousands of linear feet of felt day in and day out. Fabricators control intake via pedal, and the circular blades slice any width strip that is manually loaded in. We now have four of these on site and use them daily.

But then there’s the humble, trusted mainstay. Not at all produced in Italy, but rather, by our own team: our glorious, beautiful jigs.

Jigs are extremely helpful tools that ensure we get repeated results for each product we make. When a new product is being developed, we run into various problem-solving issues like making sure a curve is exactly the same on every acoustical panel. Our woodshop team meets with various departments to dissect the constraints, then gets to work creating these tools that help standardize our products – and oftentimes facilitate and speed up the process of making the products. Made from wood, plastic or metal, jigs are indispensable to making our products and you’ll find them in every room of our studio, a sort of purposeful industrial studio décor with interesting shapes and markings.





The real heroes of the story, however, is our team full of resourceful human beings that possess all sorts of skills and knowledge from various fields. Woodworking, bookbinding, screenprinting, architecture, industrial design, knitting, sewing, photography, painting, and quite a few musicians (who happen to make their own instruments, too). And we depend very much on said skills for coming up with solutions to production, even if they don’t have any obvious common thread to Submaterial’s products. In fact, we prefer it that way – oftentimes we come up with incredibly useful, offbeat ideas that wouldn’t have been discovered otherwise. Skilled hands with minds that understand detail: these are far more important assets than any machine.

We may grow bigger, we may develop products that require new methods of production. While the material prep may be mechanically assisted, all products are all laid and finished by hand, and we intend to keep it that way. Why, exactly?

At the heart of Submaterial is a group of individuals with the credence of using our hands to make beautiful things – and we will always stay true to that.

Using our hands

to make beautiful things