As an industrial salesman, Ken Blaisdell found himself looking for an artistic outlet that would balance out his long drives selling sensors, cylinders, valves, and other machine parts to quarries and light manufacturing companies across New England. Then, in the early 1990s, he had a eureka moment.
With access to his company’s machine shop, the now-73-year-old recalls thinking, “‘I should be able to make something,’ and lamps seemed like something that almost anyone could do.” So, he asked one of the machinists to teach him how to use the workshop’s machinery (lathes, saws, and grinding and welding equipment)—everything he thought he’d need to create the lamps he’d imagined.
Each day, after driving his routes, and after the machine work room had closed for the day, Blaisdell would settle into the small industrial shop and experiment with the materials he’d brought back from his sales visits. For six months, he tried and failed to fashion lamps out of soapstone, granite, slate, and metal. He didn’t give up until he found a material he could actually work with, and settled on metal.
Blaisdell did not draw out a design, rather, he puttered in the machine shop until he found a concept that worked. The final product is a floor lamp he’s named “The Brakelight,” after his choice to use a salvaged brake rotor as the lamp’s base.
This part of a car has a large center hole (for the axle) and usually four or five holes around the circumference (for bolts). The shape serves an important purpose when a rotor becomes part of a lamp, too: there’s already a hole for the cord and a cavity underneath for all the wiring. Blaisdell considers it a perfect base. But, brake rotors have to be deburred on a lathe to get rid of any sharp edges, and that’s not easy. He’s since turned that work over to a machinist.
“I [was] very lousy at it, actually,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t do it now. It’s actually dangerous. You have to have a certain kind of temperament to be in a machine shop, and I felt that I had to get out of there. Now I [subcontract] it out.”
Sometimes, though, he’ll find a rotor at a recycling center that doesn’t need too much deburring. “You could pick one up that was rusty, but the edges wouldn’t be so sharp. You could almost deburr it with a hand file,” he explains.
He prefers 9-inch brake rotors because they’re not too big for a lamp. Still, they’re pretty heavy (about 12 pounds). He sometimes uses 10-inch rotors, and likes ones that have an inch-high hub in the middle, for aesthetic reasons.
While still selling machine parts, Blaisdell began selling the Brakelight lamp at local craft shows. When demand grew and customers asked if he had a store, Blaisdell quit his job and opened Lampscapes in 1997, settling into a 1,200-square-foot space on a down-on-its-luck street in a down-on-its luck New England town—White River Junction, Vermont.
He’s in the same space today, but the street and town look different. Over the past two decades, the historic town has experienced a resurgence. Blaisdell’s double-storefront in an old New England-style flat brick building housing multiple stores is now flanked by high-end independent clothing stores and an artisanal shop. There are popular restaurants all around.
At first, it was just him building the lamps, but he hired an assistant about 10 years ago. Blaisdell still scavenges for the parts himself, though, spending about seven hours a week on the road in search of used brake rotors and steel pipes.
Once all the items have been purchased and prepped—there are nine pieces to the Brakelight lamp—it takes Blaisdell and his assistant only about 40 minutes to build one of them.
Blaisdell says he gets a lot of local and regional buyers and has a small wholesale business, too. Even his home state has come calling. Drivers who’ve just crossed the border from Massachusetts on Interstate 91 may catch a glimpse of one of three Brakelight lamps on display at the Guilford Welcome Center.
“They let me keep them there as an example of: ‘Look what our wonderful state produces,’” he says.
Still, though, Blaisdell finds himself looking back at the decision his younger self made and questioning the risk he took.
“It would be hard for me to make that choice again,” he admits. “Professionally, that was not the greatest move. But, it turns out, I’m still in business and I’m still enjoying it.”
Truly, he caught an excellent “brake.”