Skip to main content
Isaiah McCray Jones, Adam Falk and Josh Baston
May 29, 2024

Forged in Madison: Casting competition busts down doors for materials science students

Written By: Jason Daley

During his time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Adam Falk has had many doors opened to him.

In early May 2024, however, the materials science and engineering senior literally tore down a door. As part of an international competition called Cast in Steel, sponsored by the Steel Founders’ Society of America, four MS&E undergraduates designed and cast a multi-purpose firefighting tool, then demonstrated it in front of competition judges in Milwaukee.

The students, including Falk, fellow graduating seniors Isaiah McCray Jones, Josh Baston and rising senior Ivan Cermak, began working on the project in the fall semester of 2023, brought together by an interest in metallurgy.

The assignment was to create a Halligan bar, a ubiquitous firefighting tool designed in 1948 by First Deputy Chief Hugh Halligan of the New York City Fire Department. The heavy steel bars include a claw or fork on one end and an adze and a tapered pick on the other, allowing firefighters to pry open doors, bash holes in walls and gain access to closed-off areas.

Falk led the design phase of the project, making some changes to the bar’s traditional handle design. “Normally these bars would be either a hexagon or cylinder with some sort of knurling on it similar to barbells you’d see at the gym,” he says. “But we didn’t have the capability of doing such fine knurling. So I took inspiration from lacrosse, which was a sport I played in high school and into college. We took a hexagon shaft and added scallops to improve grip. So when you hold it, your fingers fit into the C-cuts. Especially with gloves on, it gives you control of the rotation of the bar.”

The team 3D printed its design in the UW-Madison College of Engineering Makerspace and superglued the pieces together. The students then traveled to MetalTek International, an industry partner based in Watertown, Wisconsin, to create a mold and pour the bars, using a technique called investment casting.

The lacrosse-style handle wasn’t the team’s only innovation. Baston says the type of steel they chose, an alloy called 4340 containing chromium, nickel and molybdenum, made their steel hardenable while adding toughness and strength. Even more impressive, they quenched the bars in molten salt at Thermtech, another industry partner based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “You hold it there for a couple of hours at usually around 620 degrees Fahrenheit for this specific alloy,” says Baston. “And that just gives you a different structure that is a lot more tough. So, a lot better impact resistance while also still increasing the hardness.”

The students submitted one of the four bars they produced along with a technical report on the design and a project video to a panel of judges, including Ben Abbot and Dave Baker, judges from the popular History Channel metallurgy competition Forged in Fire. Then they traveled to Milwaukee for the competition finals, where Falk and Baston used their tool to bash down a door and smash up a two-by-four. After that, a group of professional firefighters put the bar through its paces.

The students placed third in the investment casting category, which was disappointing after a spear they made for the 2023 competition earned two second-place commendations. Nevertheless, they are all extremely proud of their effort and their steel, which was one of the most technically sophisticated in the competition.

For 2025, Cermak—who will be in his senior year—plans to rebuild the team and tackle whatever challenge the competition presents. And though he’s recently graduated, Falk may still be involved as a mentor. During the 2023 competition, he made connections at MetalTek, leading first to a summer internship and now a full-time job—a door that opened without too much prying.

The UW-Madison team’s Halligan bars. (Submitted photos)

Top photo caption: From left to right, Isaiah McCray Jones, Adam Falk and Josh Baston got an up close look at molten salt quenching at Waukesha-based ThermTech.