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Waupun’s National Rivet celebrates 90 years in manufacturing

January 28, 2019

WAUPUN — Like the products they produce, National Rivet & Manufacturing Company is not highly visible, but it has a big impact on manufacturing processes across the United States and internationally.

Despite its low profile, however, the Waupun-based family business is a leading provider of cold-headed rivets, rivet machines, tooling and accessories. The business celebrated its 90th year in December, and currently serves a broad cross-section of industry, including aerospace, computers, precision electronics, appliances, automotive, furniture, consumer products, recreational vehicles and more.

It began modestly enough in late 1928, when the great-grandfather of Bur and Drew Zeratsky — the firm’s current president and vice president of operations — joined the Shaler Company in its factory at 21 E. Jefferson St. Alfred Gibbons had moved his fledgling operation from Milwaukee to Waupun, seeking distribution to the automotive market and a superior workforce.

The companies functioned together but were separate entities until 1975. Shaler Company assets were liquidated in 2006. The facility currently has 250,000 square feet of space, spread over four blocks of the city.

Over its long history the operation has become more than a part of the local landscape. It has become a major local employer and an integral part of the community.

“When I tell people this is a family business, I mean it. They treat you like family,” said Bill Kuslits, a header man and also the president of Machinist Local 1516. “I have been in the Heading Department for 28 years making rivets, and my dad worked here for almost 43 years.”

A header man operates a machine that produces cold-headed rivets.

Replacing skilled workers is a challenge, and the search is ongoing to find replacements capable of learning the skills to become members of the National Rivet family. Luckily seasoned staff are ready and willing to train newcomers in the highly specialized skills required.

Wages are highly competitive in the union shop.

A rivet joins two pieces of material, creating a union that is not likely to loosen or break, which makes it perfect for applications in high-stress and high-motion environments.

“A rivet is proven as a permanent and time-proven way of bonding materials,” Bur Zeratsky said. “The two main benefits of rivets are speed (they’re set in seconds) and lack of waste (no shavings from turning a large pin into a smaller one).

“Here, we make rivets in a wide variety of different materials and finishes. It begins with wire, which is formed in a cold-heading (extrusion) process into finished parts. We also have heat treating and plating capabilities so we can change the hardness of a part. We can change the surface appearance or corrosion resistance.”

Parts range from the size of a grain of rice to about 3½ inches long. Applications include airplane and car brakes, Weber gills, heating and cooling ducts, industrial shelving, Ahrens snowblowing chutes, clipboards, ring binders, ladder rungs, heat shields, furniture, motorcycle and bicycle seats, sanding heads and countless others.

“Today, most of our work is custom-engineered,” Bur Zeratsky said. “It is specifically designed to fill an application.”

Unlike manufacturers that outsource certain activities, National Rivet performs all operations in-house, including engineering, material selection, machining and post-cold heading operations such as heat-treating, coating, plating, anodizing and quality control.

Records show that more than 50,000 rivets have been designed and produced in the past, with about 3,000 of them under current production.

They also design and build machinery for setting rivets into a company’s products. Such machines last indefinitely and may be repaired in-house at the Waupun plant.

“We’re our own worst enemies,” Bur Zeratsky said. “We make good machines that last, and then we support them. Apparently we didn’t get the manual for planned obsolescence.”

The Zeratskys are proud to operate an American company, using almost exclusively American materials and machinery (much of it made in Wisconsin).

“National Rivet has been in my family for five generations because it represents a good place to work and because of good people,” Bur Zeratsky said. “We credit that to our location in the heartland of Wisconsin. Its historically agricultural roots create a culture where people value hard work, dependability and friendly neighbors.”

“We’re one of the top rivet and rivet equipment manufacturing companies in the world,” Drew Zeratsky said. “Our terrific employees certainly make that happen.”

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