If you’ve never thought of a skillet as a work of art, you’ve probably never seen a Borough Furnace skillet. Poured by hand in a Syracuse, New York, workshop, Borough’s cast-iron cookware has been celebrated for its beauty and functionality everywhere from Food and Wine to the Wall Street Journal. Still in its first year of online sales, Borough has already earned honors on best-of lists from GQ and Gear Patrol along with the Saveur 100.
For Borough Furnace co-founder John Truex (’04), a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native who studied architecture and then sculpture at UT, the art is as much in the act of creation as the product. His skillets are made of scrap iron and fired in a furnace he designed to run on waste vegetable oil from area restaurants.
“One of the exciting things about cast iron art is that the process is just as important as the outcome. Even though I work in a slightly different field, designing functional objects rather than creating artwork, I’m still very much focused on the process of making,” he says. “The handwork, the transformation of waste materials into valuable objects, figuring out how to make custom equipment to do the job that I want—these are the fun parts.”
After earning a graduate degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art, Truex was working in furniture design and production when he and his cousin, Jason Connelly, began creating prototype skillets in a backyard furnace. The designs were well received, and the two began what turned out to be a frustrating search for a US manufacturer to handle production.
“We quickly realized that if we wanted to control the whole process, to make sure that the core values were there all the way through, we would have to manufacture everything ourselves,” says Truex.
Working from a strong commitment to sustainable manufacturing and green practices, he and Connelly began the work of designing and building a furnace that runs on waste vegetable oil.
“Most of the technology for the furnace and the filtration system was gleaned from online forums where people tinker in their garages, converting cars and home heaters to WVO [waste vegetable oil] or making aluminum casting furnaces as a hobby,” says Truex. “Getting these systems to a production-ready level was the hard part, and is still ongoing and improving,” he adds.
They named the fledgling business Borough Furnace, for reasons as traditional as its product. “It comes from the idea that preindustrial casting shops were called your local furnace. Where I am right now is not far from Geddes Furnace and Syracuse Furnace, where I would have bought skillets or flat irons in the 1800s,” says Truex.
A campaign on crowdfunding site Kickstarter raised $32,000 in thirty days—far exceeding the goal of $25,000. Once the initial funding and structure of the business were in place, Connelly returned to Nashville and Truex carried on. He now has one additional employee who helps with mold making and finishing work.
“The production process,” he says, “is the design project that I’m continuously working on, so improvements to the efficiency and environmental responsibility of the process go hand in hand with the design of new products.”
Truex’s most recent development is in-house filtration of the used vegetable oil with a centrifuge that uses minimal electricity. “Up next,” he adds, “I’m working on heat exchangers that hopefully will capture the exhaust heat of the furnace and use it to warm the vegetable oil and to heat the seasoning oven.”
The origins of Borough Furnace can be traced back to Truex’s time at UT. “Jason Brown and Jennifer Odem, my sculpture professors, were tremendous influences, and the grad students that were in the sculpture department while I was there as an undergraduate—David Jones, Ashley Carlisle, and Dan Dezarn, among others—first introduced me to metal casting and were amazing sources of information and inspiration. David was an expert at iron casting, building the equipment we used to cast iron and teaching the mold-making process.”
As much as the elegant design of his products, it is Truex’s focus on process that forms the artistic spirit behind Borough Furnace. “Responsible manufacturing was the driver behind the initial startup of the company,” he says, “and it is still the core value around which all of our decisions are made.”