When one reflects on the evolution of steel framing and the growth of drywall, it is impossible not to consider the contribution of D. Kingston “King” Cable. Mr. Cable, as he is respectfully addressed by his associates, is the former owner of Angeles Metal Systems, which for nearly 40 years made ground-breaking strides in technical services, market penetration and distribution.
His first foray into construction was in his family’s retail lumber business, which he joined after earning advanced degrees from UCLA and USC. Prior to that, he worked in the aerospace industry, and in WWII was an Army Air Corps navigator. When the lumber mill he was running in Eureka, Calif., shut down in 1952, he returned to his father’s operations in Southern California to learn the elder Cable had teamed with two partners to form a business called Angeles Metal Trim Co., which held patent applications on metal drywall trims. Three patents were subsequently issued in 1955.
Attempts to patent and disputes over marketing led King Cable to buy out the partners and to file the DBA Angeles Metal Systems in 1956, which originally sub-contracted the manufacture of corner bead and trim. The company’s first task was removing excess lubricant from the steel product, drying it, packaging it, selling and delivering it. A couple of years later, Angeles Metal Systems began adding roll formers to its operation and broadening its product line. The business grew to become one of the most formidable steel-stud manufacturers in the West, pioneering the use of steel in the residential segment and helping to make drywall the mainstay it is today.
Since selling Angeles Metal Systems in 1997, Cable has remained peripherally involved in the industry.
W&C: Please describe in more detail how you made the uncommon transition from lumber to steel.
Cable: Lumber and steel perform the same basic functions in construction. With my lumber background, I had no problem recognizing the relationship between the two products. In fact, the first projects that we had for steel studs were in conjunction with lumber trusses and wood surrounds with a 2-by-4 top plate. It worked out very well. Lumber is more flexible than steel in its uses, but steel has far more advantages in its design capabilities and, in most circumstances where it can be used, is the superior product.
The Alert Lumber and Mill Co. was my father’s company. He started it in 1933, and I started to work for him about that time. After WWII, we were involved in gypsum wallboard pretty heavily. At that time, the distribution pattern was split between the plaster-based building material dealers and the drywall-based lumber companies.
Angeles Metal Trim Co. promoted patents, and we had a product we thought would be accepted by the market. We started manufacturing corner bead and trims. In those years, paper corners were very popular, so we had to promote the metal. Metal casing with drywall was not used much, so this also had to be promoted. During this time, Angeles licensed several other manufacturers under its patents so it could manufacture and market the trim products.
When the steel screwable studs were introduced into the market, pioneered by USG, I think in the late 1950s, Angeles was the “first in the West” to tool up one roll former for the product. I traveled all over the Western states and Western Canada to promote steel studs, but had a difficult time keeping one machine busy. I spent most of my time in the ’60s selling and promoting. During the ’70s, Angeles began adding product lines and expanding.
W&C: What was steel stud’s role in thrusting gypsum wallboard into the market?
Cable: The two main answers to the question are: ease of application and competitiveness in commercial-type work. The original steel stud used in gypsum wallboard framing was the nailing bar type which required a ring-shank nail to be driven into a slot in the stud—a very labor-intensive activity. When this system was replaced by a screwable steel stud, it had a very direct effect on the economic aspects of the job and the increased use of wallboard.
The development of the drywall screw and the screw gun, together with the screwable steel stud, are at the base of a large change in construction techniques involving gypsum wallboard.
W&C: How did steel studs change the distribution practices of the past?
Cable: The big plastering contractors were all wetwall people buying from their wetwall building material houses. The people who were getting into drywall were a group of brand new contractors—mostly commercial guys—who were getting their products from lumberyards because that’s where drywall was sold.
Later on, when the big plastering contractors decided they would get into drywall, the wetwall building material distributors realized this was a viable product. So they began handling drywall products and the marketing of drywall products moved from the lumberyard to the building material dealers. At this time, the shift moved from wetwall products on the interiors to drywall. Drywall became a big thing. The distribution shifted over from the lumberyards to the building material dealers.
Alert Lumber Co. was selling a lot of gypsum, and then the bottom fell out of the market in the early ’60s and it became very difficult. We did not go under but still suffered quite a bit. At Angeles Metal Systems, we were manufacturing corner bead and trims and steel-stud framing and selling them, hopeful we could go to the dealers and sell the product and compete with the other manufacturers of this product at the dealer level. The dealer supply houses said, “No way! We’re not gonna buy from you.” That forced Angeles to start selling direct.
So we went direct to the contractors, and that’s what we did for the next 40 years—at least in the areas where we had our plants.
W&C: As you continued to distribute direct, what about the distributors who wouldn’t talk to you before—were they talking to you now?
Cable: The distributors by this time were buying from competitors. Because we were selling direct, they were not pleased or receptive to any proposals we might make them. Angeles still in its own home market sold direct.
W&C: What are the advantages of that selling arrangement?
Cable: The advantage of selling direct is you are dealing directly with those using your product. The dealer doesn’t want you to go around him talking to his customers. Selling direct is more complicated because you have to make more calls, but you establish good relationships. You can control the marketing situation directly. Also, you have lien rights, your credit exposure is less selling to a contractor than to a dealer who might be under-capitalized. Many contractors are under-capitalized, but the supplier of material has lien rights to resort to if he needs to get his money.
Additionally, having a direct relationship with the contractor allowed us to develop a responsive technical services department. Angeles was one of the first steel-stud companies in the West to have a technical department designed to help customers with technical issues and help them design projects.
W&C: When did Angeles get into residential steel framing?
Cable: We did our first steel frame house in the early ’60s. It was all designed in 16-gauge steel, too heavy for practical use. Job communication was so poor, no one told the cabinet guys they were working with steel. So I went on the project one day and saw all these bent nails. They were cursing the nails they were trying to use, not realizing they were nailing into steel!
There were cost overruns on that job, so we went to doing a house here and a house there and spent a lot of time promoting the use of light-gauge steel because of its advantages. Obviously, we learned a lot from that experience, so we started making modifications to the design and lightened up the steel in future houses that we designed and built. I always felt it was a very practical way to build a house.
W&C: Why hasn’t residential steel framing taken off?
Cable: It has to do with the tremendous amount of position that the wood industry has established over the past 100 years and because it requires new technology to use steel. The people putting the houses together have to be trained in steel. It’s very difficult to take a wood carpenter and give him steel and a screwgun and say, “Go ahead.” It requires training and education.
W&C: How are things different today from when you started in the industry?
Cable: When I started, I was the only one in the West, and that was kind of a problem. Now it’s very, very competitive. When I started, the steel-stud industry was mostly a group of relatively small individual companies. Now, the big-time corporations are moving in. Also, the industry is getting support for promoting the use of light-gauge steel framing from the steel companies, which it never used to get. It was do-it-yourself in the old days; now it moves with its own momentum.
W&C: What recent innovations in the steel industry do you find particularly noteworthy?
Cable: The coating of steel inhibits rust and technical development in these areas is very important. Originally one of the arguments the wood industry used against steel framing was that steel would rust. The zinc industry has done a lot in that respect, and it promotes the steel industry also.
Steel manufacturers are making changes in coatings, chemistry and physical properties that relate to the needs of their customers, the steel-stud industry. Recent use of thinner but harder steel is an example. We’re also seeing innovations in drywall fasteners, wall panelization and steel trusses. We will see much more innovation in the production and use of light-gauge steel products in the future.
Another area where the steel industry has been very helpful is in working with building departments. Building departments didn’t understand what framing with steel was, so it took a lot of selling on this end early on to get the projects approved. There are no provisions in original code for that sort of thing.
W&C: Lately, some roll form operations have been acquired by steel mills. Do you see that as a trend?
Cable: It’s a trend developing slower than I thought it would. Plus, I thought some of the lumber-based industries, seeing what is happening, would be getting into steel. Maybe they will later. Right now, steel is not taking a big enough chunk out of their markets to worry about. But sooner or later, it will.