Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Featured Brand - Harder & Steenbeck

Guten tag plamo nerds! It was just another lonely and boring day, about three months ago during my business trip in California, when I suddenly had this bold idea to make my time away from the workbench worthwhile: I was already in the US, so why not try to get in touch with western tool and hobby brands? I could let them know what the blog is about, ask if I could formally introduce their brand to my readers, and perhaps even solicit some samples of their fine products for review. And so I went to work, searching for the right people to get in touch with, sending out emails and PMs left and right. Days passed. Weeks. A month went by without responses from any of the brands that I reached out to. I figured it was a lost cause, and was ready to scratch it off of my list of ideas for the blog - until finally, my phone beeped showing one unread message...

from Harder & Steenbeck.

I nearly fell off my chair. I mean I did send them an email, but knowing that the company was based in Germany, I never got my hopes up, and they were the last company I expected to respond. But there it was, a message from Harder & Steenbeck, saying they were interested in taking me up on my offer. After a couple more email exchanges, we finally set a date for a chat with a representative!

Click on the Read More link for the rest of this post...

Before we get to the interview, let's take a quick look at how Harder & Steenbeck came to be. Established in 1923, the company initially produced parts for radio receivers and physics experiment equipment. During World War 2 the factory was re-purposed to manufacture parts for naval sonar systems. After the war, the decline in demand for sonar parts prompted the company to shift again, this time producing paint spraying equipment. They developed their products throughout the 1950's, supplying painting equipment to porcelain and toy manufacturers, medical and cosmetics companies, and artists throughout Europe. The company continued to grow through the decades, introducing the world renowned Evolution design in 1998, and buying out Hansa in 2000, taking over production of the company's airbrush models. In 2009 the company moved it's headquarters to Norderstedt, where they modernized their production processes according to ISO standards for maximum efficiency and the strictest quality control, and in 2011 they released the Infinity CR+, which remains to be one of the best airbrush designs in the world.

Now that we're all up to speed on Harder & Steenbeck's colorful history, here's an excerpt from my hour-long chat with Rick from Harder & Steenbeck. I just kept the meat and potatoes for the sake of brevity.

Otaku: I've been using the Infinity CR+ to paint my most recent projects, and as a blogger that promotes building on a budget, one of the most frequent questions I get is why did I decide to spend so much on an airbrush? My answer is always the same: once you've used it, you'll understand why it is worth the price.

H&S: Here at H&S we have principally three airbrushes, the Ultra, the Evolution and the Infinity, with the Ultra being the least expensive. Of course, one would expect the most units sold to be Ultra - but it's not. We sell more of the Infinity than any other models, and even more amazingly, the CR+ 2-in-1, the most expensive variant, sells the most! So it truly does seem to be the case, that if the tool is right, it IS worth the extra price to the user. It's something that we're very proud of here. Once people have the tool in their hands, it confirms this thinking with its performance.

Otaku: The Infinity's design is excellent, but may I ask why H&S chose to put a PTFE seal on the nozzle? No other airbrush I know of seems to have this feature.

H&S: It is not regular PTFE - it's better ;) , but let me explain. There are a couple of reasons, but the simplest one is, it is serviceable. This seal point is one of the most critical in an airbrush - if it does not function, you get bubbles in the cup, etc. It's a good idea to make this seal somewhat softer than metal to metal, as it offers higher tolerance to less than perfect cleaning. If the seal is malfunctioning, replacing just the seal ( not the entire nozzle ) almost always fixes the problem.

The second reason is a little more complex, and has to do with the shape of the seal. It rests entirely flat against the airbrush body, with no ability to influence the position of the nozzle with regard to the air cap. The position of the mouth of the nozzle relative to the hole in the air cap is one of the single most important factors in airbrush performance. When you screw a nozzle into the airbrush body, or if you have a metal to metal conical seal - the position of the nozzle relative to the air cap is reliant on a third part ( hold down ring / nozzle threads ), which could have lack of centering or other issues. Our system entirely avoids this, and gives the least potential build-up of unfavorable tolerances possible. So to summarize, 1. Serviceability, 2. Better engineering to ensure consistent manufacturing and performance.

Otaku: I am curious as to why H&S did not release a version of the Infinity, or any other model with a built-in MAC valve.

H&S: The reality is simply that not all users like the MAC valve concept, but to have the MAC valve as an add-on brings it's own set of problems too. As an add-on it makes the air valve stem unreasonably long and unwieldy. Our version is a typically elegant Harder solution: rather than adding onto the length of the air valve, we instead merged the capabilities of the air valve and MAC valve into a single part, which replaces the stock air valve. This gives the functionality of a MAC valve without adding length to the air stem, maintaining the ergonomics of the brush. This is a really good example of "Harder" thinking - and yes, we like all the puns!

Otaku: Brilliant! I have another question about the design - I noticed that unlike other airbrushes, the H&S air cap has channels machined inside it, like three tunnels that direct the air towards the tip where it meets the needle. I've always wondered, does this have any advantages over the traditional design where the inside of the air cap is completely hollow?

H&S: It does! But there are a couple of details that I can't give you because the advantages are pretty real, and there's a few things H&S has figured out that we need to keep to ourselves - but of course to our user's benefit!

Otaku: I understand. I am bound by confidentiality agreements at work myself ;)

H&S: I suppose one can say that one design is not inherently "better" than the other. It is certainly true that a totally hollow airspace can give spectacular results - who can argue with the wonderful low pressure performance of an Iwata Custom Micron? It is sublime - but there are different approaches for different purposes, and for the H&S models this approach is definitely the right one.

Otaku:  Speaking of Iwata, I read an interesting article some time ago saying that H&S has been acquired by Iwata. What does this mean for the future of H&S, it's products, and the customers?

H&S: It's a very interesting situation for sure, and I'm glad to tell the story. It is actually really exciting for airbrush users worldwide. Iwata has dominated every competitor globally for the past 10 years, apart from Harder & Steenbeck. All other brands have shrunk in terms of market share during this period, as Iwata innovated excellent products, focused principally on improving user results.
Only H&S continued to grow in the face of Iwata's growth.

Finally the owners at H&S arrived to a point where they wished to make a change in their lives, and put the company up for sale, to the right buyer.  They were looking for someone who would take H&S further, along the same path, without assimilating it. And so Iwata bought H&S, and what is interesting, is that they bought the company out of respect for the fact that they have remained the only true competitors of Iwata in outright excellence of quality and performance.

So although ownership has transferred to Iwata, Harder & Steenbeck will remain proudly German, made entirely under our one roof here in Germany, with our own design team focusing on making Harder & Steenbeck products. When you have a competitor as resilient as H&S has been to Iwata, it makes no sense to change the way they do things. The idea is to compete in a positive manner focused on making the user experience ever more positive through driving each other's standards higher.

Otaku: So how does one become a retailer of H&S products?

H&S: One of the things that I really like here at H&S is that we do not have long lines of distribution. We sell directly to retailers, without a distributor in between us and them. I think it helps to keep us "pure" and focused on the needs of the user - we are closer to them than all our competitors because of our distribution model.

Simply get in touch with us and fill out a trader application form. We do not accept all applications as others do. To be an H&S stockist, we like to see a certain commitment to ensuring that the market grows, and we believe strongly that to grow the market, the people who sell the product must have enthusiasm and knowledge, and a desire to help their users achieve great results with our product.  We don't place a great deal of hurdles in front of potential stockists, for example, there is no minimum order - but we are looking for enthusiasts. We are more than happy to help focused small businesses grow if we believe that they are right for us as a partner.

Otaku: No minimum order is great news for potential sellers! I'll be sure to pass this information along to the hobby shops I have contact with.

H&S: And did you know that 90% of our orders leave within the same day of payment? We do our best to ensure our stockists have really good support from us. In return we would like them to offer the same commitment to our users.

We were running short on time after that, but judging by Rick's extensive career in the airbrushing industry, to the way he spoke during the interview, it was clear that I was not talking to someone who simply worked for H&S - I was speaking with a real airbrush enthusiast - someone who knew the products inside and out - and despite our very different backgrounds, we connected on a higher level thanks to our mutual passion for airbrushes. I asked if I could be given the chance to review some of H&S's other airbrush models, to which Rick generously obliged - and about a week later, I received this awesome package!

I'd like to thank Rick for taking time out of his hectic schedule to chat with me, and everyone over at Harder & Steenbeck - not just for the opportunity to experience these fine airbrushes myself, but also for their hard work,  for the chance to get to know the brand better, and for allowing me to share this valuable information with my readers. With such dedication to quality, customer and retailer support, superb engineering and manufacturing processes, I understand now how Harder & Steenbeck is just a few years away from celebrating it's centennial anniversary, with no signs of slowing down.

I reached out to every major airbrush manufacturer in the US and Europe, but only H&S heeded my call. To show my gratitude, not only will I be posting detailed reviews of these airbrushes, but I am also kicking off a plamo airbrushing tutorial series, using H&S airbrushes exclusively!

To learn more about Harder & Steenbeck and their extensive product line, click on the banner below:

Check back again soon for the reviews, and to see these top-notch tools in action!

Until next time, keep building plamo!

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