For the last century, Ka-Wood Gear & Machine has been manufacturing precision gear products that include spur, helical, and worm gears, as well as producing spline shafts, racks, timing belt pulleys, and sprockets for a vast array of  industries.

It’s not every company that can boast it’s been in business for a century, and that milestone is not something the owners of Ka-Wood Gear & Machine take for granted.

Those 10 decades were filled with a lot of ups and downs for the gear industry, but being able to change with the times while offering its customers top-rated service and products has made Ka-Wood Gear a consistent leader in gear manufacturing.

A large part of what keeps the company going strong is its product and industry diversification, according to Lenny Tuttle, co-owner and operations manager.

“We do a wide range of products in a variety of sizes and configurations,” he said. “We want to offer our customers one-stop shopping. We can hob, shape, broach, shave, mill, or grind any gear product.”

An example of promoting the one-stop shopping mindset was when rack components were added to Ka-Wood Gear’s capabilities once Tuttle and Co-owner and VP of Operations Don Carlson came aboard in 1996.

“We had a rack supplier whose service was not up to Ka-Wood Gear’s standards, so we bought that equipment and brought rack manufacturing in house,” Tuttle said. “We also added precision gear grinding and the ability to EDM both wire and sinker under Ka-Wood’s roof.”

Ka-Wood Gear purchased the Fellows 70-15 gear shaper in 2001. (Courtesy: Ka-Wood Gear)

Staying ahead of the curve

A big part of what keeps Ka-Wood Gear successful in staying ahead of the curve when it comes to manufacturing trends is equipment purchases, a point Co-owner and President Joseph Kloka III stressed.

“Lenny and I went to an auction in Philadelphia in 2001 right after 9/11, so the industry was really slow,” he said. “Everything was slow. Everybody was nervous. And we happened to see a large 70-15 shaper, which I had never even seen a picture of. So, we called Don (Carlson) back at the shop and said, ‘Measure the door; we need to make sure this machine will fit.’ Luckily, we had six inches to spare, so we made the purchase.”

That machine gave Ka-Wood the ability to shape parts up to nine feet in diameter with an 18-inch stroke.   

“There are only a few of those machines in the world,” he said. “It was just a very interesting purchase that positioned us for success ahead of the demand in the wind-turbine industry.  This purchase ultimately led to a very successful three-year program in that industry.”

Prototyping is also a big part of Ka-Wood Gear’s offerings, thanks to an investment in several CNC machines, according to Don Carlson.

“Due to our investment in CNC gear-grinding equipment, we do a lot of precision prototypes for every industry and market,” he said. “We also bolstered our CNC inspection capabilities to enhance our quality checking for those prototypes.”

Additionally, Ka-Wood Gear has purchased numerous CNC gear hobbers and shapers, including a CNC shaper that is one-of-a-kind. It has a tilt table capable of shaping tapered teeth up to 12 degrees. The company’s machines can also produce helical and crowned tooth forms.

Another service Don Carlson said Ka-Wood Gear is proud of is the company’s ability to do “hot turnarounds.”

“When a line’s down at the automotive plant and they need gears, or if a customer has a critical machine that breaks down, we offer that quick turnaround,” he said. “If we have to work two shifts or through the night to help our customer get that machine back up and running, we will.”

With that in mind, Don Carlson said Ka-Wood has helped many customers with last-minute problems.

“We’ve gotten a lot of people out of a pinch,” he said. “We’ve even made temporary pre-heat-treated gears to get our customers up and running. This allows the customer to continue operations while we manufacture a gear to their print specifications.”

Kloka emphasized that Ka-Wood doesn’t let the lack of a blue print stop them from helping customers.

“We will manufacture product from a sample, whether it be for a machine, a classic car, or even a broken snow blower,” he said.

Ka-Wood Gear’s Madison Heights, Michigan, location has 23,000-square-feet of manufacturing space. (Courtesy: Ka-Wood Gear)

Keeping it honest

The quality is a given, but an essential element that keeps Ka-Wood’s customers coming back is also the company’s honesty, according to Tanya Carlson, co-owner and controller.

“We don’t need to have a salesman on staff since we’ve built our reputation based on our product quality over the years.” she said. “We’ve developed a reputation in the gear industry for having knowledge, but also for being honest. We try to be fair in our pricing, and we try to meet everybody’s delivery, and that’s how we’ve been able to maintain that kind of reputation in the gear industry. We also treat our employees and our suppliers with the same integrity and respect.”

Tuttle took that a step further.

“Whether you’re the guy that brings us three jobs a year or you’re the million-dollar customer, the same rules apply,” he said. “We’re going to treat you fairly and with respect. We understand that we have a relationship and that we’re in this together.”

And Kloka said it’s important that Ka-Wood treat its vendors extremely well, too.

“That’s important,” he said. “Pricing is not the most important element. We want the best quality and delivery. So, it’s important that we treat them well.”

Ka-Wood Gear’s state-of-the-art CNC gear grinder (RZ 550). To the right are managers Lenny Tuttle and Don Carlson. (Courtesy: Ka-Wood Gear)

110 percent commitment

Going that extra mile for its customers and just the simple act of caring can go a long way to keep those customers coming back, according to Tuttle.

“I had a customer who had a noisy unit, and the answer from our competitor was to just throw more backlash at it,” he said. “They came to me and asked me to solve the problem. I asked them for all the prints, and we looked at the planetary setup and — lo and behold — we found something as simple as a typo on a print. Our customer was impressed that I took that time and that care to solve the problem. Needless to say, we continue to do work for that customer 23 years later.”

And when it comes to special needs, Ka-Wood Gear not only has the ability to make sure the job gets done, but the fortitude as well, according to Tanya Carlson.

“We had a customer who needed a lot of product for an extended period of time, so we actually ran a second shift,” she said. “We did this for about a year and a half. That was the first time we had done this for that kind of extended period. Our customer was thrilled that we were able to do that for them. This would not have been possible without our well-trained, knowledgeable, and flexible employees. Our employees are incredible, and they have the same moral values as the company.”

Ka-Wood Gear’s first location was in a two-car garage in Detroit, Michigan. (Courtesy: Ka-Wood Gear)

1920 beginnings

Ka-Wood Gear was started by Kloka’s grandfather, Joe Kloka Sr., in 1920. His father, Kloka Jr., took over after World War II. Kloka III became involved after he returned to the U.S. after serving in the Vietnam War.

“I was ready to get a real job in the world, but my mother asked me if I could cover for them at Ka-Wood because they hadn’t had a vacation in four years,” he said.

Kloka said he had run the machines to pay for his college, but he had never run the actual operations. His mother assured him he would do fine.

“They left the next day for a month, and when they came back, I was running it and doing so well that I never left the family business,” he said.

Over the next few decades, Ka-Wood Gear moved and expanded from a 3,300-square-foot facility in Detroit, Michigan, to a 9,000-square-foot facility in Madison Heights, Michigan, in 1981. The company has continued to grow to its current size of 23,000 square feet of manufacturing space in a custom-designed facility.

The next generation

Much of the company’s expansion has also involved adding CNC machines, including ones for hobbing, shaping, and grinding. Those additions were made before the industry as a whole saw it as a need — a credit to the owners’ vision.

Tuttle also praised Ka-Wood Gear’s forethought.

“Joe has definitely brought that mantra that he wants to be on the leading edge,” he said. “He’s allowed Don and I to go out and purchase modern equipment, whether it’s the CMM gear-inspecting machine or some other piece of equipment. We didn’t have any customers forcing us to do it; it was a proactive move. Same thing with the CNCs. We agreed that to make that next step in the industry, Ka-Wood needed to purchase CNC shaping and hobbing equipment.  The next logical step was to expand our capabilities to manufacture precision gears using CNC grinders. We’ve always been one step ahead of our customers’ needs, and that’s kudos to Joe and his philosophy through the years of investing back in the company.”

Don Carlson expanded on the thought.

“This leap of faith for these capital equipment purchases has helped us in the areas of quality, through put, and capacity,” he said. “We quickly realized that our employees were up to the challenge of learning new technology, which gave us confidence to make future purchases.”

And that has meant adding valued staff in other areas of the company, according to Tanya Carlson.

“In addition to our manufacturing staff, we have added Kevin Collins and Mike Estes to our management team,” she said. “They believe in our core values and have done a fantastic job to help us move forward as a company.”

For its 100-year anniversary, Ka-Wood Gear had planned a celebration this summer.  Unfortunately, celebration plans have had to be postponed as the industry — and the world — deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, but Tanya Carlson said an anniversary function would happen.

“It was initially scheduled for June, but we had to put it on hold,” she said. “We haven’t come up with an alternative date yet. We are waiting to see what happens because we want to make sure it is safe for all of our guests. We’re definitely hoping to have the celebration this year. We are proud of the advancements Ka-Wood has made, and we want to share that with our customers and suppliers.”

Ka-Wood Gear’s inspection room has CNC gear checking equipment and a CMM machine. (Courtesy: Ka-Wood Gear)

Committed to quality and continued service

What isn’t on hold is Ka-Wood Gear’s commitment to its customers and the industry, and as the industry continues to change, the owners of Ka-Wood Gear all stressed that the company will continue to do what is best for its more than 700 active customers.

“We have changed and evolved with technology and the gear industry,” Don Carlson said. “I’m sure there are more things in the future that are going to change. We are committed to evolving with those changes and trying to be on the leading edge, which includes investing in the equipment that’ll keep us ahead of the changing markets.”

But as the industry changes, one thing that won’t is Ka-Wood Gear’s commitment to treat both the small guy and the big guy with equal respect, according to Tuttle.

“The industries we service right now range from aircraft to machine tools to automotive, printing, packaging, off-road, mining, fastening, pharmaceutical, defense and, again, even the sample gears,” he said. “We have gears all over the world that we manufacture here. We have perforating gears that are going to Russia and China. We’ve also manufactured nut-driving units that ended up in Belgium and France. As the tide rolls and as that wave changes, Ka-Wood changes with it. We’ll be ready for that future.”