A felt loom inside the Edward H. Best mill in Thomaston. The mill was recently sold to entrepreneurs who wand to add technical materials to its product mix. The safety barriers were removed from the loom to take the photo. Credit: Courtesy of Edward H. Best

Two Maine entrepreneurs who recently bought a 160-year-old Thomaston felt company plan to expand it to produce materials for aerospace, composites and other uses.

Edward H. Best & Co. was bought by Windward Ventures of Freeport for an undisclosed amount about a month ago. The new owners plan to keep the 12 current employees, then double employment in the next two years and expand its traditional product line of tubular felt belts used as roller covers in manufacturing and polishing applications.

John Karp, one of the two new owners from Windward, said the company is ready to add modern equipment to the existing line of machines dating to the 1800s that it purchased from Knox Woolen Mills in Camden.

It will continue with the current felt business, which is healthy and has little competition in the United States, and add state-of-the-art loom equipment that can make Kevlar, Nomex and other high-tech felt to insulate parts of jet engines and other applications.

“The equipment will exist side-by-side,” said Karp, who will serve as CEO. “The existing customer list is already a gold mine.”

Karp currently is a part-time business coach at the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Maine Technology Institute, positions he will keep. Among his previous experience, Karp served as CEO at Bourgeois Guitars in Lewiston, where he helped the company expand with a line of products using torrefaction, a heating technique that more quickly seasons wood and is now used widely by guitar manufacturers.

His partner at Windward, David Erb, will serve as president of Edward H. Best. He is a former research director at Tex Tech Industries in Winthrop, which makes high-performance materials such as textiles for body armor and the felt for tennis balls.

An employee at work inside the Edward H. Best mill in Thomaston, which makes felt rollers for manufacturing and buffing. Credit: Courtesy of Edward H. Best

Erb is a senior research and development program manager at the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono, where he will continue working. Karp hopes the mill will be able to tap interns from the university’s engineering school.

Even the existing felts can be complex. For example, a five-foot belt using 5,000 threads recently came off one of the mill’s looms. It could be used for buffing and polishing in many applications, including metals and guitars, Karp said.

“You’ve got to really be paying attention because the wool might break going through the machine,” he said. “There aren’t many places left that do this. It’s very labor intensive.”

He expects the high tech loom that Erb owns to be up and running within the next two months. He already has an agreement to hire his first new technician.

Helping to bring new employees on is Shirley Hocking, who has managed day-to-day operations for more than 38 years. She will be vice president and plant manager until she retires in about one year.

Financing came from Camden National Bank with loan guarantees from the Finance Authority of Maine.

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...