Pennsylvania company creates premium wooden baseball, softball bats

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GLEN ROCK, Pennsylvania — It might sound weird, but Drew Kelley has wanted to start making his own wooden baseball bats for more than five years.

Living in a town house with his wife, he knew it wouldn't work. Not until he could find a place for the woodwork and finishing work.

But then he met Dylan Acker ... and in three weeks, the two purchased a used lathe and began creating wooden baseball and softball bats in a barn outside Seven Valleys in Springfield Township.

This first year has been an adventure. The two suffered through the miserable polar vortex weather in winter, when they could be found inside the barn, wearing parkas to work as the temperature dipped into the teens. How cold did it get in the barn? The two warmed up by taking a break to sled down the nearby hills. Then they trekked back to the barn.

Acker and Kelley's company — Dead Red Bats — became a limited liability company in April. They have started to build a market in York County, primarily serving local adult leagues like the Central and Susquehanna leagues. They have also shipped a set of bats to the Mexican League for former York Revolution player Matt Padgett. And since American Legion baseball switched to wooden bats this season, they have been inundated by teenagers looking to purchase their first wooden bat. They can cut a bat out of a billet of wood — using ash or maple, and birch might be their next option — in one hour.

A high point for Kelley came when Windsor played Jacobus.

"Sixteen of the 18 players used our bats," Kelley said.

Although they have made about 150 bats, this is not a full-time gig. Acker works for his father's company, William M. Acker Builder, as an assistant project manager, and Kelley works for M&M Quality Solutions. But they have a passion for making bats.

Acker typically works the lathe, handing off the bats to Kelley to paint, stain or dye them.

"We're both highly detail-oriented people, so we wouldn't sell anything that was sub-standard," Acker said. "We want quality to be the mark of our company."

They can take measurements of any bat and make a copy of it in their barn. And they can customize it. So if a player comes to them with a 33-inch bat that weighs 30 ounces, the player can ask that the bat be customized so it weighs more or less to match the player's preference.

"The way it works with baseball bats, there's no real copyright on the bat itself," Acker said. "So a lot of different bat companies will reproduce that bat style. We can't call it the same, but in essence it's the same shape."

It has not always been easy breaking into the business.

No one wanted to give away any tips on where to buy wood.

"That's like a guarded trade secret," Acker said.

And while big companies like Louisville Slugger own their own mills to find the best pro-grade wood, Dead Red has found a mill that takes wood from Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia and sells pro-grade billets — cylinders of wood. They found a supplier of pro-grade ash and maple — a big improvement, Kelley said, from the wood in bats he's purchased through the years at retail stores for his own personal use. Not only that, but he's also able to customize the bat to his specific needs.

"I feel good about where we are getting our wood," Acker said about the out-of-state shipments. "We spent a little more for our wood, but I feel like its quality is outstanding. We're definitely not switching our wood."

Basic Dead Red ash bats cost as low as $70 and maple ones cost as low as $80. Customizing the bats with special paint jobs or logos can add $10 to $20 to the final price.

Each billet has a different weight, and Acker and Kelley had to decipher what weight billet to use for what type of bat design. For instance, if they used a 91-ounce billet to create a certain design with a thick barrel, the weight of the bat could be too heavy and undesirable. So they needed to do some fine-tuning.

"That's where my computer background helped," Kelley said.

Able to draw a 3-D sketch of a billet on a computer program and calculate the volume of the billet, he found a formula for matching billet weight with bat design.

Another obstacle was figuring out how to cut a cup out of the end of the barrel, giving it a distinct look while also shaving off ounces of the bat. After doing some digging, Kelley found the type of router bit to use, but he ran into a stone wall. One bat-making insider told him essentially that the company had spent too much money and too much time perfecting its process to give away the information. After making more calls, including one to his father, Kelley built a contraption that allowed them to cut cups into barrels.

They've also learned to specialize. Kelley insists Acker is "the master" when it comes to working the lathe. So Acker cuts the bats, then hands them off to Kelley so he can stain and finish the bats — providing the custom product that most local players can't find elsewhere.

The finishing work has also improved.

They have a vinyl cutter that allows for customized designs on the barrel. Want a trophy bat with stars and stripes? They can do that. Want a team name across the barrel? They can do that. Want a tie-dyed paint job with your name on the barrel? They do that, as well.

Kelley dyes maple bats — maple does not stain particularly well — and stains ash ones.

Acker wants to build a shop onto his barn, something that is climate-controlled so the pair can avoid working through freezing nights in winter. Even more than that, though, a climate-controlled workspace would eliminate the changing humidity levels that can alter the billets' weight — a problem they combat now by storing their wood in a custom climate-controlled box. Acker also wants to purchase a hydraulic lathe, a machine that would allow them to cut a bat in minutes, as opposed to an hour.

Kelley estimates the company has doubled its orders about each month. He and Acker expected the demand to slow down as fall approached, but were surprised when Mount Wolf recently placed an order for 11 bats for the playoffs.

"The market is right in this area right now," Acker said.

They can turn around and build a bat in as quickly as 48 hours, but most times — since it is not their full-time job — they still take several days to finish a bat. But that could be changing. The new lathe will help, and the duo attempts to accommodate its customers. For instance, Acker and Kelley can rush orders — like the Mount Wolf order — understanding the team needed the bats for the playoffs.

Kelley said some players still seem taken aback by the process. They begin to quiz him on what styles or looks Dead Red offers, and he stresses that the bats can be painted and finished however they want.

"Each time I finish a bat, I realistically believe this is the best bat we've ever made," Kelley said. "Then we make another bat, and I think, 'No, this is the best bat we've ever made.'"


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Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com

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