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By Tina Fisher Cunningham
Fisher Forde Media 

Chemtool: It's all about grease

The Forde Files No 156

 

Tina Fisher Cunningham

The big, stand-alone industrial building just north of Tehachapi Boulevard east of Dennison is the Chemtool manufacturing plant. While the absence of signage at the site and strangely shaped tankers rolling in and out render the plant anonymous and rather mysterious, the company is the west coast anchor of the fifth largest grease maker in the world.

The Tehachapi Chemtool plant produces custom grease products, blending oil with specialty chemicals that can make the grease last longer, perform in high temperatures and under super high torque rates (as in giant cranes), maintain its integrity under extreme pressure and resist the impact of water.

Grease is graded on a scale of 000 (triple zero) to six, indicating a range from liquid oil to non-malleable.

"The most common is grade number two," Chemtool Planner Noah Vasquez, a lifelong Tehachapi resident. Grease destined for use during the winter in cold climates – North Dakota and Wyoming, as examples – is thinner than the summer blend.

The main additive is lithium in crystalline powder form, Vasquez said.

"Lithium is allocated on a wide-wide basis," he said. "There are only a handful of suppliers. Batteries take the majority of the supply. It's used in cell phones, power tools and electric cars. The majority comes from overseas – India, Africa, Asia, Russia – although Russia is not giving it up. Lithium mines in the United States have a smaller capacity.

"We have to forecast well ahead on what our needs will be the following year."

Tina Fisher Cunningham

Chemtool packages and labels custom retail grease products for companies like Walmart.

James Athans founded the company in the 1960s at Crystal Lake, Ill., based on his cleaning product formula. "He built it from the ground up," Vasquez said. "Then he got into grease making -- petroleum grease, hundreds of kinds of grease."

Vasquez said that Athans never incurred debt, surviving recessions with no layoffs. The company was privately held until 2013, when it was purchased by Lubrizol, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. Chemtool opened the Tehachapi plant in 1998 as an oil blending plant to service the west coast and overseas markets, expanding to grease manufacturing in 2003.

 
 

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