The Zippo Lighter and How It Grew...


"Zippo Man" George G. Blaisdell


Almost 200,000 of the company's products come back to the bustling, black Carrara glass-fronted factory on Barbour Street in Bradford, Pennsylvania each year for repair. Some bear the ravages of having been soaked in sea water, buried in snow or imbedded in mud. Others have been mangled beyond recognition by everything from washing machines and hydraulic presses to golf-fairway gang mowers. At least one was recovered from the belly of a fish, and more than a few of them have stopped bullets while being carried by G.I.'s.

To most any other company, the prospect of repairing some 1,000 products every working day would be enough to suggest that it might be happier in another line of work. Not so to the Zippo Manufacturing Co., which is only too happy to restore any old Zippo Windproof lighter to flaming youth within 3 working days at absolutely no cost (not even return postage) to the sender. It even goes so far as to thank customers for "the opportunity" of fixing their Zippos and sends along a couple of extra Zippo flints to boot.

A hero in World War II and unique in U.S. industry, the "forever" guarantee is one reason why privately held Zippo, which sells "millions" of lighters a year ranging from brushed chrome to solid gold, is the world's largest manufacturer of lighters and one of the most fascinating firms anywhere.

Another reason was George Grant Blaisdell, who started the company in an un-plastered loft over a Bradford filling station during the dregs of the depression in 1932 and whose initials emblazon the enormous Zippo atop company headquarters. Although Mr. Blaisdell died in October 1978, he is still the spark behind the free-wheeling company and its remarkable marketing concept, which holds that planned obsolescence is a repulsive doctrine. Reflecting the Blaisdell philosophy is the sign atop the Zippo building, which can be seen the length of Bradford's Main Street: "Home of Zippo Windproof Lighters. They Work."

Among the millions of Zippo owners, no one is a bigger booster of the product's workability than the American G.I., who first discovered in World War II the matchless lighter that fired with every flick of the thumb and kept burning in foxholes and on fore-decks from Kiska to Crete.

With Zippo's wartime production earmarked entirely for the military, just about every man in the service, from dogface to Dwight D. Eisenhower, had one. Zippo not only lit the smoking lamp, but lit campfires in swamp and jungle, cooked soup in helmets and saved many a life as a signal fire. One Army pilot brought his disabled plane in safely by using a Zippo to illuminate his darkened instrument panel, and word of the impending carrier attack on the Japanese mainland in 1945 was flashed throughout the USS Cabot by means of a Zippo on which war correspondent Ernie Pyle had scratched the word "TOKYO."

Although Zippo lighter production is sufficient to satisfy both civilian and military needs, the matchless one went back to war in Korea and Vietnam. There were in fact, more Zippos in Vietnam than G.I.'s, whose strength numbered some 300,000 men. Moreover, Zippo scored its first save in Vietnam when an Army supply sergeant's vest-pocket Zippo stopped a Viet Cong bullet. Just to stay in step with the times, Zippo also sees to it that specially inscribed Zippos are presented to every orbiting astronaut on his recovery  from  space.

To make certain that its product works "forever," Zippo does not scrimp on materials. In a thoroughly integrated manufacturing operation, the company stamps it's cases from brass and stainless steel, makes all its own components and does its own ceramic baking and hand decorating. Any Zippo owner can have his name faithfully inscribed on his Zippo by means of a signature copying machine. All this is hard on profit margins, but does wonders for the corporate image.

Several years ago Zippo noticed that the most frequent repairs were due to worn flint wheels. They launched a crash research program to find the toughest material possible for an improved wheel. It cost them $300,000 to lick the problem. So zealously does Zippo regard its discovery, the operations governing the knurling of the flint wheel (which can fire a lighter as many as 73,000 times) are conducted behind guarded doors.

It costs Zippo some $200,000 a year to honour its lifetime guarantee. It is a substantial sum to pay for goodwill, but as one Zippo ad executive puts it, "itís advertising!" The company goes to great lengths to assure its unbroken record that "no one has ever paid a cent to fix a Zippo." One Zippo owner of twenty years' standing who had had his Zippo repaired free three times insisted on enclosing $1 on the fourth occasion. President Blaisdell sent back a gold Zippo and the dollar, but confiscated the old Zippo for his museum. Customers who send return postage with their lighters invariably get the postage back along with their fixed Zippos.

Actually, some 20% of Zippo's volume comes from advertising some other company's products through Zippo lighters bearing corporate insignia's or sales messages. More than 27,000 commercial accounts, comprising some of the biggest corporate names in industry, regularly order Zippo in huge lots to serve as premiums, promotional handouts, employee awards and sales incentives. An advertising medium that works two ways, every Zippo that pushes another company's products also adds zip to Zippo's sales.

In 1962, after 28 years of making nothing but lighters, Zippo cautiously diversified its output by bringing out a six-foot flexible steel pocket rule. Since then they have added pocket knives, money-clip knives, golf balls, key holders, wood desk items, and writing instruments that can be indelibly imprinted with any trademark, symbol or message "through a remarkable new process perfected by Zippo." Like the lighters, all Zippo products pledge: "If for any reason, your Zippo will not work, regardless of age or condition -we'll fix it free." Even the golf ball is guaranteed playable for 180 holes.

Mr. Blaisdell came by his mechanical bent naturally. As a youth he went to work for his father's Blaisdell Machinery Co. ("He even made me punch the clock"), putting in a 59-hour week at 10 cents an hour. Opting for sales, he moved to New York as a machinery salesman, then struck out on his own by forming the Blaisdell Oil Co. with his brother Walter.

It was on a muggy summer evening in depressed 1932 that George Blaisdell stepped out on the terrace of Bradford's Pennhill Country Club for a smoke and encountered a friend lighting a cigarette with a 25-cent Austrian-made lighter. It was a cumbersome affair with a brass top that first had to be removed. "You're all dressed up;" Blaisdell chided his tux-clad crony, "Why don't you get a lighter that looks decent?" "Well," the friend replied, "it works!"

That perfect squelch set Blaisdell off on an entirely new career. He obtained U.S. distribution rights from the Austrian concern, had them substitute a chrome case for the brass one and upped the price to $1. Nevertheless, it bombed. But with his friend's phrase, "It works," a constant echo, Blaisdell determinedly set out to make an attractive, durable lighter that would work.

With three employees sandwiched into tiny quarters (rent: $10 a month) over a garage, Blaisdell reduced the case to a rectangle that could be comfortably held by the hand, attached the top to the case with a hinge and surrounded the wick with a windhood. Because he had long been fascinated by the zipper and liked the onomatopoetic ring of the name, he called his new lighter Zippo. Except for the flint wheel and various advances in case finishes, Blaisdell's original Zippo (Pat. No. 2,032,695) is basically the same lighter today.

Manufacturing Zippo Lighters

Zippo Manufacturing Company developed into a successful business enterprise by designing a lighter that lives up to a simple slogan..."It works." It has grown by producing a simple, foolproof mechanism that will perform satisfactorily for many years.

The principal metal parts of Zippo lighters to be finished are the inside unit and the case. Inside units are formed from coils of .018 inch stainless steel strip stock which feed automatically through punching and forming presses and welded. A stainless steel plate with brass flint tube is then pressed into the formed inside unit and soldered into place with the aid of induction heating in an automatic conveyorized machine.

Stainless steel inside unit chimneys are buffed to a brilliant finish on an automatic buffing machine. The units, mounted on fixtures, pass between pairs of 20 inch cloth bias buffing wheels. Wheels in each pair are rotating in opposite directions which holds the units on the fixtures. Each fixture indexes automatically and liquid buffing compound is sprayed on. Inside units are polished on one side at a time and index six times as they pass through the process.

Finished inside units are de-greased in a vapour de-greaser before being sent to final assembly. Final assembly on the inside unit consists of riveting in the spark wheel, cam spring and cam, inserting the wick, cotton and flint spring assembly.

Cases for Zippo lighters are formed from .027 inch brass strip stock fed automatically into blanking and forming presses. The Zippo trademark is then embossed in each lighter base and case parts are then trimmed and notched. Lighter case tops are then attached to bottoms with nickel-silver hinges which are spot welded into position. After the cases are assembled they are buffed to a high polish by passing through conveyorized buffing machines. To achieve a brush finish the sides pass through a series of Carborundum abrasive belts. After buffing, a spray-vapour de-greaser removes oil and dirt before parts travel to the plating room.

Cases are nickel and chromium plated on an automatic plating machine which has 36 stations. Solution tanks vary in length according to the time cycle specified for each solution. The cases and inside units are united in the fit-up department and thence to packaging where they get a final cleaning and inspection and put into boxes for shipment. Zippo metal products are made from only high quality materials combined with rigid quality control standards. It is because of these characteristics that Zippo can confidently stand behind its unsurpassed lifetime guarantee... "they work always or Zippo fixes them free."












Text and images on this page were taken from an early 1990's corporate brochure issued by the Zippo Manufacturing Company. Some products mentioned above may no longer be available.