Kohler offers free, three-hour factory tours

When I met Lowell Kappers in 2005, he was 69, had worked at Kohler Co. for 44 years and had yet to truly retire. That was by choice, and not much has changed.

The Oostburg man used to wear an air-fed helmet to protect his breathing, and plug his ears with cotton to dull the near-constant noise. He worked as a cast iron grinder until 1999 and now he occasionally leads visitors on tours of the factory.

These free tours are not quick glimpses of people at work from behind an observation glass. The Kohler tour is unusual because it lasts 3.5 hours and gets relatively close to the steam, dust and red-hot materials that are a part of the daily production of plumbing fixtures and bathroom furnishings.

This introduction takes visitors through the factory’s pottery, brass and cast iron divisions. The sightseeing is scheduled during mornings, which is especially necessary in summer. Pottery kilns, for example, average 2,450 degrees.

“Castings are a creamy white when they go into a kiln,” Lowell explains. “If color is embedded in them, it will show up at the end of the process.” The addition of decorative elements can be a delicate, painstakingly intricate procedure.

Although sinks to toilets are available in dozens of colors, Lowell says the easy majority of sales are for white, almond or biscuit tones.

We later watch “Herman,” the nickname for monstrous robotic equipment that manufactures and moves one bathtub mold per minute, under the guidance and monitoring of humans. “The molds come together like a ham sandwich,” Lowell says. “Filled with molten iron from beginning to end.”

Then we’ll stand near glowing red tubs and watch enamel coating sprayed by hand. “I call that a hot tub,” Lowell deadpans.

Also at work in the factory are up to four artists at a time; they use industrial materials and equipment to create unusual murals and sculptures through the Arts in Industry program. As artists and employees interact, they tend to gain insight and respect for each other’s choice of work.

The factory tours have been offered since the 1920s, says Cindy Howley, Kohler Design Center manager, and 9,000 people took the tour in 2008. All tours are led by retired employees; they average 40 years at Kohler Co.

“We feel that if people see what goes into the making of our products, they’ll be totally sold on the fine craftsmanship,” says Cindy, who coordinates the tours.

No more than eight people are in a tour group, to ensure safety. Close-toed shoes are required; headsets and safety glasses are provided. Children under age 14 are not allowed.

Kohler Co. factory tours are given at 8:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday. Reservations are required; call 920-457-3699.

For more: www.us.kohler.com (search for “factory tour”).

Five other stops make Kohler a good match for budget-conscious travelers. Consult www.destinationkohler.com, unless otherwise indicated.

Exhibits at the John Michael Kohler Art Center sometimes embrace the creations of average people who express artistic passion but have little or no formal training. No entity in the nation protects and showcases this type of endeavor more than the Kohler Foundation.

Open until May: “Journeys,” unusual snow globes, photographs, atlases and art that take visitors to far-from-home and fantasy locations. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a place with more unusual, colorful bathrooms than the six inside this building.

Admission is free; donations are encouraged. For more about John Michael Kohler Art Center, 608 New York Ave., Sheboygan: www.jmkac.org, 920-458-6144.

I’ve jokingly referred to the Kohler Design Center as “my favorite toilet museum,” but it is much more than that. The range of bathroom fixtures and furnishings is astounding, and relatively new are five high-fashion bathrooms that showcase cutting edge design. One is environmentally astute, including poured concrete countertops, recycled materials and low-flow fixtures.

In the design center’s basement are exhibits and video clips about Kohler Company history and expansiveness, from plumbing to golf courses.

Admission is free. For more about Kohler Design Center, 101 Upper Road, Kohler: 920-457-3699.

When the weather cooperates, take a self-guided audio walking tour of the two dozen pieces of artwork made and donated by Arts in Industry participants, who in 2008 came from as far away as Korea and as close as Whitewater to use factory materials and equipment in their work.

Ask for a tour map or headphones at the Kohler Design Center. For more about the program: www.jmkac.org/ArtsInIndustry. April 1 is the deadline for prospective artists to apply.

The Kohler family is from western Austria, and the distinctive Waelderhaus pays tribute to that heritage. Alpine-style architecture and furnishings will whisk you abroad without the need for an airline ticket.

Free tours of Waelderhaus, 1100 W. Riverside Dr., Kohler, occur at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. daily. For more: 920-452-4079.

If you’re a fan of Bloody Marys, reward yourself for saving money all day with an $8.50 ($6.50 on Sundays) swig at the Horse & Plow, the classy but casual pub-grub component of The American Club.

A mini meal accompanies the alcohol. Inside the cocktail glass is a celery stalk, pickle spear, cuke slice and kabob with a cheese-stuffed olive, pickled mushroom, Brussels sprout, pearl onion, bell pepper slice and asparagus spear. Tabasco and fresh horseradish add a kick to the liquid, which is served with a beer chaser.

For more about Horse & Plow, 419 Highland Dr., Kohler: 920-457-8888.

Not a Kohler product, but worth patronizing, especially now: Al & Al’s Stein Haus, 1502 S. 12th St., Sheboygan, a delicious, friendly and family-run restaurant that celebrates 48 years of business with a polka band and German food specials Feb. 7-8. Order the Sampler Platter, which will fill you for less than $20: sauerbraten, rouladen, swine schnitzel, braised red cabbage in a puff pastry shell, soup and salad bar.

For more: www.foodspot.com/alandals, 920-452-5530.