Wood has some odd behavior. Once a tree is cut down it is not alive, and neither does it need to breathe, yet it does have seasonal shrinkage in certain directions but not others. No shrinkage in the "0" direction (see the top right photo). Maybe a little, .01%, if you want to be exact, but not enough to matter in use. Across the grain in the "1" direction it shrinks almost 10%! And what really makes it difficult is wood shrinks only 4% in the radial "2" direction. These percentages apply to thoroughly dried wood to 6% moisture content. These are just the seasonal movement percentages for dry wood!
Thats why it warps, splits and changes shape as it dries requiring special techniques to build with (as shown in the middle right diagram). That is where plywood has changed the world. The wood plies alternate in direction, and as long as the plies are 1/8" or less in thickness they lock each other down into a stable non-moving sheet of plywood. The diagram at the lower right is courtesy ofwww.lozidesigns.com, specialists in making cool plywood designs.
Why use solid wood if its so tricky to use and costs more as a material? Some of that increased cost is not knowing what you are getting into until you cut it open!
See my next blog post for differences in building furniture with solid wood versus plywood.
I just received another brief message through Facebook. All it said was "Are you hiring?"
So as I sent off my standard reply, I thought why not post it here also. I'm beginning to think people believe they are doing the best thing by sending out these three word inquiries. That it is nice and efficient of everyone's time. That with enough three word inquiries something will come back.
Are we hiring? I'm always on the lookout for good people. If you are looking to work here take this tip (and these apply to any employer). 1.In person visits are crucial. If we're not worth the time of a visit or at least a phone call we must not mean much to you, and working here means learning a long set of skills. If we are going to devote ourselves to your development, then you mean a lot to us. And we should mean a lot to you. We hire people, and we want to see our relationship and your skills grow. We don't hire warm bodies to be a cog in the machine. Try out a person to person approach to working here!
Time to get this policy out in print. Once you have made a purchase I hold the pricing on any further of our items to that purchase date for ten years. Bought a Cherry Wood Seat Brendan Rocker in 2009 for $2100? You can buy another one now in 2018 for the same price. I do have to cap the savings at 16% from the original price to today's price to account for massive wood cost increases or increased design complexity (we continually improve everything we make).
Sure it seems crazy to my former marketing/ business consultant, however now that I'm approaching the sunset years of my career with no visible successor I have the freedom to treat people just as I want to be treated.
Recently I had an inquiry from a marketer with suggestions of what they could do for us. It made some assumptions that we were just another furniture manufacturer, so My reply gave a basic framework which also seems to reply to many of your questions.
" I am not looking for more dealers. We are buried with direct retail customers coming to me. Having gone down the wholesale route for 38 years I can say with absolute clarity I'm not interested in additional retailers when I can sell direct and have a relationship with the customers directly.
I do not stock my dealers with inventory- they pay for their floor models. Last year I lost money when two retailers closed. They were limited to prepaid terms (because of their history of not meeting N30 credit terms) and managed to pay for a few loads with bad checks. Retailers have been nothing but razor thin cash flow punctuated with non-payment so at this point in my life I'm not pursuing that avenue. I am only staying with the few that have proven themselves to be stellar both in paying their obligations and rewarding to work with. I prefer to stay with the Dealers who pay their bills and do not constantly try to dicker me down on every little detail. This business of making such high quality furniture is a touchy business to make work, and the reason we are still here through thick and thin is by not borrowing money, demanding that every action we take creates a useful and proper outcome, and making conservative business decisions.
We are very Lean and only build to order. We do not have finished inventory outside of a few showroom items. I discovered the sensible concept of Lean decades ago before it became a buzzword in North America; that inventory is a killer, both in payroll and materials cost as well as the floor space to store it. When exclusively a manufacturer (of my own designs and products) one of our crucial attributes was keeping to a strict a six week lead time. However now that our product mix is huge and we are recognized as the unique craftsman we have always been, a strict lead time is often viewed suspiciously. As if we really aren't craftsman but instead pulling from a container, which couldn't be farther from reality. We simply have such a well organized operation from those decades that we know how to do it. I speak daily with people who are dubious that we are as "real" as those defunct retailers and wonder if our quality is as good as what was in the stores. Amusing, because the furniture they sold was my design, made by my shop, and the retailers were sometimes asking me to dumb down the product so as to result in a lower price to them.
Many people think our customers have tons of money and don't care about price. I am always amazed and impressed at the houses we put furniture into. Sure, some are palaces, but most often they are quite ordinary looking where warmth and taste is more important than size or opulence. They are people with values of quality and craftsmanship, and almost always pay close attention to the prices whether they need to or not. They are a pretty great bunch, endlessly interesting.
What does the future hold? Difficult to say. I'm 63 with no inclination to stop running this operation I love. Nonetheless at some point someone will need to appear on the scene to continue the legacy. My peers all have the same problem with finding new blood. There need be someone with the desire to become a working component of all this, who will focus on the years required to learn the craft, focus on the work and sacrifice to keep things humming, and focus on our relationship with customers and their diverse desires to participate in this creative endeavor. What is needed is excitement at what can be created, the discipline to learn what is needed, and letting go of the perceived unfairness of expending more time and energy than other people get away with in their lives. In short participation, excited creativity and relationship which asks for more than mere attendance.
That's all for today. I need to go attend to the shop now, Greg"
Sorry, no juicy news here. After nearly forty years of this business and struggling to spell my name both verbally and with fat fingers the name NWchairs seemed perfect; our core product and easy to spell.
Additional hours November 4 and December 2 from 10-2 pm. I don't plan to stay open later because it seems Bellingham are off to their Saturday doings. But if people do show up at 2, its an opportunity to stay and talk.
Do I give shop tours? As long as I don't have to abandon people in the showroom, yes!
If we do a tour, tell me if I am too detailed about what we do. Its easy to get on a roll.
First Geek Chic. I knew they were skating on ice and bravado but didn't quite understand the depth of their story and antics.
Why is a tail even important? And how is it we keep going on and on while other open, reach for the stars then close when they are no longer able sustain the image? I am a woodworker first, furniture maker second, lover of my crew third and all that other stuff is somewhere trailing behind where it can guide from the back. Its not the tails job or place to wag the dog. The tail is pretty important (just stay with me through this please), but no dog, no tail. What we do and make is our core focus and we can never know enough about how to do our jobs better. Continuous improvement. I have always run my shop at a ratio of at least four woodworkers to each office person usually more. Debt and dicey business decisions are like making a piece of furniture: making an overly slender chair leg can bring the entire chair crashing down, with people getting hurt in the process.
So why is a tail important?
"For the most part, canines and felines use their tails to communicate — from the wide, sweeping wag of a happy dog to the quick tail swish of an annoyed cat. In canines, a tail may also serve as a type of rudder to help stabilize dogs in the water." Vetstreet
"Many land animals use their tails to brush away flies and other biting insects. Some species, including cats and kangaroos, use their tails for balance; and some, such as New World monkeys and opossums, have what are known as prehensile tails, which are adapted to allow them to grasp tree branches."
Like most ideas this one could be seen as an over simplification, but metaphors sure are fun to play with.
And yes, those are our Pacific Dining Chairs in the photo below. But we are not massively in debt, nor have we closed nor let go any of our talented people. We are alive and thriving though licking our wounds (yes we lost quite a bit of money in these closings and bankruptcys). And we are making some of those gaming table now with our own name on them! And by the way- nice photos, a luscious showroom and cute monikers have little to do with the quality of the furniture made or the strength of a business.
First our largest wholesale customer was locked up by the court for in June. Then our second largest wholesale customer (of twenty years) closed their last showroom in August. I fought down the panicked feelings as they surged to the surface, or more accurately did a lot of deep breathing and refocusing in an attempt to dissolve them and get clear on what the options are and how to pursue them. Only at this advanced age and wisdom could I have had any equanimity this summer.
The floodgates opened, probably a good thing because it forced me out of my rut. Completing our Ecommerce site NWchairs.com (its never really completed) and striking up new conversations mostly with old customers became the focal point of all my actions. The orders ramped up to a steady stream as if by magic, but isn't magic a catch all word for what we simply don't understand. Upon closer examination almost everything was making sense. Its still nip and tuck making payroll every two weeks, but we're doing it: operating off mainly direct Retail customers and stimulating increased business from existing and smaller dealers. The good news is those smaller dealers are a lot nicer to deal with. They pay their bills and surprise! on time! in Our team in the shop has suffered no layoffs- just a little bit of natural attrition and not refilling the positions. Our current crew of six is absolutely the best ever and it would be like Sophies Choice to decide who to let go.
So currently its looking like my lifetime goal of a fully rounded and mature furniture business is suddenly presenting itself, almost close enough to touch. I have advised other people to engineer their beliefs such that the world is your oyster, the only thing you have to do is remain observant enough and energetic enough to see it and act on it. Now its time to put my money and wood where my mouth is...
Bob applied for a job last week. He looked like the "guy" for our open position: energetic, articulate, focused, and competent. He also seemed to be an amazing fit with the crew in interests and outlooks. And he was stoked to actually work in a furniture shop and learn and learn and learn. Our final words were about pay, and he was shooting for the upper end of what we pay in the shop. After all, someone who would not require handholding and basic training for months or years sounded perfect to me. Assuming I would hear about Bobs solid woodworking skills, I called his references. Often references are reserved and circumspect, obviously treading that fine line of providing useful information and skewing an opinion against the applicant. Yet this time I found myself chatting with a very real business owner, and we understood each other very well. I gained information about learning styles and actual experience and tool skills. Bob was a greenhorn. A great guy with oodles of potential, but still requiring a serious a training session frequently. His second reference echoed the same ideas.. Lots of potential once he makes it up the ladder.
This isn't some dumb laborer job. There is a lot of skill involved, and a type of skill which can only partially be learned in a classroom or through reading. There are many reasons attaining the rank of "Furnituremaker" requires an apprenticeship and not a college degree program. Lots of tool use, both hand and power, and machinery too. And it all must fit together into a coherent understanding of how to build furniture: structural theory, finish chemistry, reading the grain, laying out pieces, organizing a job with myriad steps and so on.
I offered the job on a Wednesday. His first question was the pay. I reiterated that $15 an hour was the starting pay because he did not have any work experience with a duration over a year nor documented skills at performing these skills. I would love to raise him up once he could demonstrate his skills to our team. My antenna went up when he said, hmm I'll have to think about this.
This is a unique place to work, the crew is exceptional, the work is exceptional, the atmosphere is wonderful. We have an uncommon collection of bright, fulfilled and passionate people here. Working here can be like getting paid to go to school.
And, the owner is in his sixties now, and needs help with the growing business. In short opportunities exist.
No word by the following Monday so I shot off an email, asking if he was still in the process. Still no word. By now I have let go of any result and mentally moved on. Today I get an email telling me the pay was too low and his quality of life would suffer working for us.
My point is not about Bob being an ungrateful cad. No, it is the all too common dance small business owners end up performing around people who do not have the training, the experience, or demonstrated skills. Often it seems like most of the capable people are sent off to the holy grail of college. That the end all of a career is to make the most amount of money. That learning is below them. That confidence, hubris, is a more important job skill than knowing your trade and flowing with your team. That quality of life is a function of how much money you can earn NOW.
I'll make sure I stick to talking about wood in my next entry.
Til next week---- have fun and learn a lot.