Industrial history of the region

Guild of fitters.

Guild of cannoneers.

Guild of wood workers.

Guild of trigger makers.


The Lower Deba region has traditionally been one of the main drives of industrial development in Gipuzkoa. With the disappearance of the armourers’ guilds that used artisan processes in the manufacture of weapons from the 15th to the 19th century, the first private factories emerged in the Lower Deba region, such as the San Pedro factor in Elgoibar (1876), Orbea y Cia in Eibar (1840) and La Euscalduna in Soraluze (1861), all of whom started using industrial processes to manufacture their products.


First industries in the region


“San Pedro” factory in Elgoibar


The Navarrese merchant Romualdo García Narvalaz participated in 1858 in the start-up of a flour factory in Galdácano (Bizkaia). Years later, he became interested in the iron and steel business, and acquired the Karkizano ironworks (on a plain next to the river Deba, in a place traditionally known as Lamiko potzua) in Elgoibar to transform it into an ironworks capable of producing ingots in charcoal-fired blast furnaces. Located on the banks of the river Deba, an iron bridge and a stone bridge were built to access the
factory. The following factors were taken into account when locating the factory: proximity to the Bilbao-San Sebastian road and the railway line; hydro-power from the flow of the Deba river; access to a navigable river from Alzola (3 kilometres from the factory) to the port of Deba (access for the ore coming from Bizkaia) and finally, an abundant forest mass in the nearby mountains.

Prior to the formation of the company San Pedro de Elgoibar, two intermediary companies were set up as owners of the capital. On 28 August 1876, Romualdo García y Cía. and the firm Ybarra, Basterra y Cía. were incorporated.

Romualdo was assisted by J.M. Semprún, a member of the limited partnership Sesé, Urigoitia y Compañía, which owned a factory with charcoal-fired blast furnaces in San Pedro de Araia (Álava). The latter, together with Santa Ana de Bolueta, would be the first modern steel companies in the Basque Country to produce ingots with charcoal. The firing of these blast furnaces was a milestone in the modernisation of the Basque iron and steel industry. With the adoption of this technology, direct processes were abandoned and a rapid technological development eventually culminated in the introduction of steel converters in 1885.

Romualdo married Rufina Ogara Isla, daughter of Antonio Ogara, founding shareholder of the Santa Ana company in Bolueta (Bizkaia). The presence of his father-in-law in th iron and steel business and the coal trade introduced Romualdo into the iron and steel industry.

Two blast furnaces were built in Karkizano for the production of ingot with charcoal, which was subsequently subjected to refining and puddling. The factory consisted of five halls occupying a surface area of approximately 10,000 m2.

After setting up the company, two blast furnaces were built for the production of ingot with charcoal, which was subsequently subjected to refining and puddling. Iron ore from Bilbao and coal from Asturias was supplied using the Durango-Zumárraga railway and the sea ports of Deba and Zumaia. The San Pedro factory in Elgoibar had at least three ships, one sailing ship (Constanza) and two steam ships (Albertito and Rufina).

Romualdo García Narvalaz was an important shareholder in the Railway from Bilbao to Durango and from Durango to Zumárraga via Eibar (to link up with the Northern Railway), which was entirely opened to the public in August 1889. Safeguarding his interests, he used all his influence to ensure that the railway was extended from Malzaga to Elgoibar.

The railway eventually came to Elgoibar in August 1887 and was inaugurated on September 19th. A branch line led to the San Pedro factory where there was a railway stop known as Karkizano, which required a second ashlar bridge, known as San Pedro. The railway stop was manned by a uniformed employee who oversaw the traffic and occupied a family home on site.

The arrival of the railway in Elgoibar was a very important change for San Pedro in the supply of raw materials and the dispatch of manufactured products.

Luis Mari Ecenarro Osoro recounts in “Elgoibar, from Iron Works to Machine Tools” that a barge owned by the Elgoibar company linked the Atxuri station in Bilbao with the ore loading bays in the river. At the factory, the railway wagons loaded with ore were pulled inside by a pair of Lerun-txiki oxen and unloaded by shovel. When goods had to be shipped, the operation was carried out in reverse order.

The Railway Company exploiting the Elgoibar to San Sebastian track with a stop at the San Pedro de Elgoibar iron and steel factory was created in Bilbao in 1890. It was presided by Francisco Macía Igartua accompanied by the the board members Roque García and Pedro Basterra.

Blast Furnaces.

The two blast furnaces were 12 m. in height and had an inner diameter of 2.5 m. The melting pot of the furnace with a diameter of one metre was able to process 24 tonnes per day. The dimensions of this furnace were very similar to the one built by Santa Ana de Bolueta 30 years earlier (1848). The blast furnace was loaded with ore from above while the fuel was fed in from the bottom, which is where the iron was melted. The inside of the furnace was built with refractory bricks, while the outside was built with
ordinary bricks and reinforced with iron hoops and supported by pillars. Between the inner and outer lining, a space was left filled with sand or slag with a very low heat conductivity, that allowed expansion of the furnace internally. The whole was completed with a blowing machine and hydraulically powered iron cylinders. These furnaces were equipped with a hoist for loading the furnace from the top.

Once they were put into operation in 1877, the annual consumption would be around 200 tonnes of ore (red haematite from Ollargan, Bizkaia), 2,000 tonnes of ingot, 3,300 tonnes of scrap and 4,500 tonnes of charcoal. Hydro-power was used to power the rest of the factory’s installations. Using the power supplied by the Deba river, two watercourses were built leading to the factory, each 500 m long, amounting to a total flow rate of 3,000 litres per second. Once the water reached the wear built with a height of 9.3 m, four hydraulic turbines with a potential of 600 hp were set in motion. The rolling mills consumed most. In addition, a steam boiler was installed to operate the various steam engines installed in the factory in the event of breakdowns or low water levels.

When Romualdo García died in the last decade of the 19th century, the factory was passed on to his three sons: Roque, Pablo and Romualdo García Ogara.

The company was renamed Hijos de Romualdo García. At the beginning of the 20th century, the production of the factory was reduced as a result of competition in the sector. This crisis showed that mild iron was not as competitive as steels produced in Bessemer converters and Martin-Siemens furnaces, which produced better quality steels at a cheaper price that swiftly replaced puddled iron in many applications.

The Elgoibar factory did not wish to lag behind the times and adopted the new steelmaking technology. For this purpose, two Martin-Siemens steel furnaces were installed, with a total capacity of 6 tonnes for each casting. In addition to this
investment, gas generators, ventilators, a crane and a test hammer were purchased. A 30-metre-long casting pit was built for the two Martin-Siemens furnaces. The ladles mounted on carts moved along the pit, and the moulding was carried out in open ingot moulds in the form of a die. A 15 hp semi-fixed steam boiler was installed in an outbuilding of the steelworks, which drove a 12 hp steam engine and a Roox fan. With a weight of 120 kg of each obtained ingot, total annual capacity stood at around 6,000 tonnes of steel.

Three rolling mills with a daily capacity of 25 tonnes were installed in adjoining workshops for rolling the steel. A first double mill for roughing steel ingots into billets and flat bar, driven by a 100 hp steam engine. A second double mill for profile rolling, driven by a 150 hp hydraulic turbine. And a third triple mill for rolling flat bar up to 60 mm wide and small profiles, driven by a 150 hp hydraulic turbine (a 200 hp steam engine was available as a back-up).

“San Pedro” iron works factory in Elgoibar, 1961.

In January 1918, the company Hijos de Romualdo García became the Sociedad
Anónima San Pedro de Elgoibar. The company reached its highest production levels during WWI. Poor modernisation of production facilities and the use of a charcoal-fired ingot in the first smelting process were the main reasons for the drop in sales. Dedicated to the production of flat bar, the capacity and technology used for the production of this intermediate steel product did not meet the modernisation criteria of the times of the steel industry.

As production declined, the workforce was gradually reduced. From 140 workers employed in 1917, the number of workers fell to 100 in 1932.

The energy supply was provided by 4 vertical hydraulic turbines, Girard system, driven by hydro-power from the Deba river: two 100 hp, one 50 hp and another 20 hp turbine. In addition to the above, a tubular coal-fired steam boiler, Macorkmin system, was installed for low-water periods. This boiler was responsible for powering a 100 hp Compound type steam engine.

For the transport of materials throughout the facilities, a 30 hp Alexandre type locomotive with a 20 hp steam engine was acquired.

The Elgoibar factory was unable, or unwilling, to redirect its traditional activity towards new business areas. Despite the high-quality product (flat bar), the factory died a slow death. San Pedro de Elgoibar ceased industrial activity on 22 March 1990 and was closed down.


The Euscalduna of Soraluce

The “La Euscalduna”, factory in Soraluze 1930.

In 1861 a manufacturer from Soraluze, Jose Ignacio de Ibarra e Iribecampos, bought a
farm on which he built the Euscalduna factory. On 20 July 1862, the company Zuazubizcar, Ysla y Cía. bought a building, where it manufactured portable firearms, above all Remington rifles, for the Spanish Army, with the most modern and perfect machinery known in Europe at the time. It acquired the old Igarate factory, and took on many master gunsmiths who were eager to earn a steady wage. This was the end of the organisation of gunsmith guilds that had existed until then.

According to an inventory of the arms company Euscalduna de Placencia las Armas, it was equipped with important means of production, which included more than 120 machine tools, including parallel lathes for cannons and larger parts, boring and rifling machines, horizontal and vertical planing machines, presses for fitting bars to projectiles, drills and a fine collection of milling machines, including four universal milling machines made by the American company Brown & Sharpe, and special machines for fuses. To produce the necessary energy, there was a horizontal steam engine with two 25 hp boilers, a 9 hp water wheel and another 7 hp one. The machines were driven by a general transmission of about 300 m. in length, with 307 pulleys of different diameters and 123 hanging wall brackets to support bronze bearings.

In 1869 Zuazubizcar, Ysla y Cía. was dissolved, and the company La Euscalduna took over. It was constituted on June 3 of that year taking the name from the factory, and acquired all movable and immovable assets of the dissolved company dedicated to the manufacture of firearms and cold weapons in Soraluze-Placencia de las Armas, with its registered office in this town.

From 1873 to 1876, during the last Carlist War, the factory fell into the hands of the Carlists and was put at their service.

In 1878, as a result of the damage caused to the company’s assets and the accumulation of debts, as well as the termination of a series of contracts with the state, the company La Euscalduna was disbanded and small workshops were re-established. La Euscalduna was repossessed and its assets were acquired at public auction by the company Hijos de Agustín de Heredia.

In 1887, after a few years of stagnation, on 13 October, the acquisition of the factory by the Anglo-Swedish Nordenfelt Guns & Ammunition Company Limited, founded in1886 and dedicated to the manufacture of naval artillery, was announced. However, the acquisition actually took place through its subsidiary, the company Compañía Anónima de Placencia de las Armas, incorporated in London on 27 November, where it established its registered office, with the aim of manufacturing artillery in Spain with the official publication of the Rodríguez Arias Naval Programme.

On 27 February 1888, the Compañía Anónima de Placencia de las Armas acquired the business from the company Hijos de Agustín de Heredia. In 1894, the factory was prepared to switch from rifle production to the manufacture of artillery. The company employed some 190 workers.

In 1897, the financial powers of Maxim and Nordenfelt were perhaps no match for their artillery skills, and the latter company was replaced by the British corporation Vickers Sons & Co. Ltd., a shipbuilding, turbine and armament company, and Vickers, Sons & Maxim Ltd. was founded. This would be the British firm’s first direct overseas investment. The factory thus became a key part of the strategy of Vickers, Sons & Maxim Ltd. in Spain: having a factory at its entire disposal in the country gave theBritish firm greater operational flexibility than its competitors. In 1902, a study to close the factory was carried out.

On 19 July 1935, the Sociedad Anónima de Placencia de las Armas (SAPA) was set upwith Spanish capital, with the acquisition of all the movable and immovable assets of Compañía Anónima de Placencia de las Armas. During the Civil War between 1936-1939, the factory was militarised. In March 1937, given the proximity of the stable front in Maltzaga, part of the production was moved to Beasain and Andoain, to rented warehouses. In September 1944, the new factory in Andoain was started up.

In April 1976, the Euscalduna factory was demolished. The main offices and services had long since been installed in the new factory, leaving the old factory “fabrika zaharra” as an auxiliary facility, where the artillery cannon boring machines, the forge, etc. were located.

In the 21st century: activity at the SAPA factory in Soraluce was reduced to auxiliary work for the workshops in Andoain, until the Soraluce factory closed in September 2005. The staff is moved to the Andoain factory.


Orbea from Eibar

Workers of the Orbea company, 1913 (Municipal Archives of Eibar)

Orbea Hermanos was founded in 1840 in the town of Eibar by the siblings Juan Manuel, Mateo, Casimiro and Petra Orbea Murua, with the aim of manufacturing piston and cartridge revolvers and pistols. Around 1880, Mateo built various types of lathes and broaching machines for use at his own production facilities. Until the mid-19th century, firearms were muzzle-loaded, i.e. they were loaded from the front. From that time onwards, and after repeated failed attempts, they began to be replaced by the so-called breech-loaders. In the former, the gunpowder, the wad and the projectile – bullet or lead ball, in that order – were introduced with the help of a ramrod into the chamber of the barrel through the muzzle of the firearm. In the case of flintlock and matchlock guns, the powder had to be fed into the flash pan; in the case of percussion guns, the percussion cap had to be placed in the barrel tube. With the emergence of the cartridge or cartridge case, the barrel at the rear is charged, called breech loading.

In 1864, the Orbea Brothers supplied the first large order (4,000 Kerr model revolvers) to the Ministry of the Navy. Most of the models manufactured by Orbea were reproductions of foreign models. At the turn of the century, the short gun was used exclusively by the army and navy. As the finish of all these types of weapons is generally very rough, polishing and inlay work was one of the main contributions from the Gipuzkoa firearms-manufacturing area. In the case of Orbea, polishing of its weapons became a differentiating element with respect to other manufacturers.

In 1890, the company electrified its workshops, building a small hydroelectric power station, and even sold off the surplus energy. By 1895, the facilities in the Urquizu district of Eibar employed 50 workers and produced 80,000 revolvers a year. This date marks the end of an era, as the founding partners passed away. The company became Orbea y Cía. and soon became one of the main manufacturers of short-barrelled firearms in Spain. Production was not limited to arms, in which category their hunting rifles and parlour guns were famous, but they also produced small parts and, from 1906 onwards, small mother-of-pearl objects.

In 1906, it employed some 406 workers and exported 90% of its production. It had three hydroelectric power stations, two in Elgoibar and one in Placencia de las Armas. The Orbea family also entered the cartridge business, manufacturing 25,000 cartridges a day at their facilities in Eibar. To meet the growing demand, in 1907 they opened a workshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a staff of 60 workers and a production of 36.6 million cartridges per year. However, the monopoly granted to Unión Española de Explosivos in 1912, led to the closure of the Eibar cartridge workshop. In 1915, in the Macharia area, a foundry to produce grey, malleable cast iron and non-ferrous alloys was set up. They had the capacity to manufacture grey cast iron parts weighing up to four tonnes by means of pit moulding and cupola melting.

WWI was a boom time for Orbea, exporting 725,183 weapons in 1916. However, once the war was over, a logical crisis of overproduction affected the sector and with it the company entered into difficult times. Around 1923, the mechanical workshop was extended and a magnificent building known as El Moderno was built. A large part of the production machinery of Construcciones Illarramendi in Rentería was acquired, and a workshop installed with the following machines: 100 mm bar boring machine, four- metre bridge planing machine, number 3 universal milling machine, parallel lathes with up to 6 m swing, radial drills, gear hobbing machine and other auxiliary machines.

The Orbea family of Eibar continued with the arms business and entered the machine tool business in this decade. In 1924 they had a workforce of 300 workers and an annual production of 40,000 revolvers under the original name of Orbea Hermanos. Then in 1926, due to family problems, the company broke up and two different companies were created: one with the name of Orbea y Cía, which remained in Eibar dedicated to the manufacture of bicycles, and the other, called Hijos de Orbea Sociedad en Comandita, located in Vitoria (Álava) dedicated to the manufacture of cartridges. Just before the civil war, Orbea manufactured presses, parallel lathes, milling machines, drills, threading machines among others.

In the Machine Tool Museum of Elgoibar a parallel lathe is kept in full working order, bearing the inscription: Orbea y Cía, S. en C. Eibar. At the end of the 1930s, under the management of Esteban Orbea, the company was renamed Orbea y Cía. S.A., and gradually abandoned the firearm production. After the war, Orbea had a workforce of 1,000 workers and produced 50,000 bicycles a year. It began a period of expansion and pioneered the introduction of Velosolex in Spain. However, from the 1960s onwards, the demand for bicycles slumped little by little.

Orbea hit rock bottom in 1969. The last member of the factory’s founding family, Esteban Orbea, found himself with a company on the verge of bankruptcy, and in receivership with 1,500 jobs at risk. Determined to preserve their jobs, the workers tried in vain to convince Esteban Orbea not to close the company. The only viable option was to set up as a cooperative and have the employer transfer the brand to them. This was the beginning of the Orbea co-operative, which would become part of Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa (MCC) on 27 December 1971. In 1975, Orbea left the grounds of Éibar to move to its current headquarters in Mallavia.

All these factories, San Pedro in Elgoibar, La Euscalduna in Soraluze and Orbea in Eibar, created during the 19th century, had a mechanical workshop equipped with the machine tools required for making spare parts, such as lathes, milling machines, filing machines and drills. The journeymen trained in these companies became independent, setting up small mechanical workshops, dedicated to the manufacture of tooling, machining spare parts and repairing machines in general. Our history as machine tool manufacturers begins at the end of the 19th century.