Slow and Steady wins The Race - The 'big' job

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Bennett is optimistic about the current state of hardwood reserves in his corner of the Appalachian forests, in large part because in his 30 years as an Athens-area cabinetmaker, he has personally witnessed the growth of an enormous amount of harvestable timber on land that until 30 years ago had been clear-cut and then farmed. This rapid growth is the result of a high relative humidity and generous rainfall.

He has even observed rapid growth in species noted for slow maturation, such as walnut. He recently purchased a walnut tree in the Plains, an area northwest of Athens, in conjunction with a wood turner who wanted the crotches. The tree measured 28" at the top of the first saw-log, but when Bennett counted the annual rings, he determined that the tree was only 45 years old. “When you see that kind of growth,” Bennett says, “it convinces me that wood grows fast around here.”

In fact, this surplus of quality wood has allowed Bennett to focus his collection on what he calls “weird wood”: material that is curly or figured in some other way, material that is wormy or spalted, or material that is both wormy and spalted. He described the wood acquisition process this way: “The guy that we were buying our curly wood from — he’s down in McArthur — and there are seven or eight sawmills in a very tight area. And this guy’s a friend of various graders and loggers and when they find something unusual, they save them for this guy who, in turn, calls me. He knows I’m a sucker for weird wood. I can’t resist it.”

The ‘big’ job
Although he didn’t set out to specialize in institutional work, for years much of the output of Bennett’s shop went to local libraries, public schools and Ohio University. Sometimes Bennett worked as a subcontractor for larger companies, but this is not an approach he favors.

“Usually, somebody else has already designed the project, and they’re giving you a set of specs that any woodworker could make.” Bennett prefers to do his own designing in collaboration with his customers.

One of his most important institutional customers came to him indirectly as a result of a kitchen job. Several years ago, a local vocational school named Tri-County Career Center wanted a cabinet for storing copy-room paper. One of the clerks in that office had purchased a kitchen from Bennett, so she recommended him. After the cabinet had been delivered, the school superintendent spoke to Bennett about the problems they were having trying to create computer lab furnishings using pre-fab big-box kitchen cabinets. The superintendent asked Bennett to make custom cabinets. That job led to a reception desk for the school, which led to furniture for three more computer labs and then to a teacher’s desk and some classroom storage cabinets.

And then one summer the superintendent asked if Bennett could build the furnishings for 15 classrooms. Bennett gulped, bluffed and said “Sure.”

Bennett then borrowed some money, hired four more men “and bought the next size up in machinery. We bought the Dodds Model SE-1 dovetail machine, Holz-Her 1205 vertical panel saw, Ritter R200 double-spindle pocker driller, Ritter R19F line drill, Omga 12" chop saw, Paolini P260 panel saw, and Larick profile sander. I had five or six guys — too many guys — but we cranked it out for a couple years straight. That’s all we did is work for this school.”

The relationship between Bennett and the Tri-County Career Center eventually came to an end when the money ran out. Then, as Bennett shifted to operating once again on a smaller scale, his extra employees drifted away, one leaving for Maine to work with Thomas Moser and others leaving to set up their own shops in other parts of Ohio.

But when the dust had settled, Bennett had purchased and paid for equipment of a quality not often seen in two-man shops, and it is the use of this machinery — and his enormous collection of locally grown hardwood — that allows him to continue to thrive in an uncertain American economy.