Northern exposure - Finding a niche

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Rodel says his skills flourished during the seven years building Moser’s Shaker-style furniture. “That was basically my wood school. That was where I learned to build furniture because, at that time, everything in the shop was made by one person, beginning to end, aside from finishing.

“I learned how to work efficiently and safely, and learned how to cut joinery and use machinery. We used table saws as much as we used hand planes. It was a great experience.”

Rodel liked the shop and his co-workers, and didn’t particularly aspire to go off on his own. But the nature of the business changed over time, especially in the mid ’80s when Moser decided to expand and fill orders faster.

“I had already spent three years in an auto factory assembly line, and the last thing I wanted to do was go back to that production-oriented lifestyle. That’s when I realized it was either do that or find my own way.”

Finding a niche
Now that Rodel teaches woodworking classes to emerging craftsmen, he laughs at the question: “How did you get started?” The answer lies in the chicken-and-egg scenario. “How do you promote yourself if you don’t have any products?” he replies.

His first clients were relatives and friends. Once he built and photographed some decent pieces, he started a marketing effort aimed at local and state publications. It was a lesson learned from Moser.

“A lot of furniture makers think they’re doing fine, they’ve got work and, all of a sudden, that dries up. So you do have to spend a lot on advertising and that’s always been my biggest business expense every year,” says Rodel.

In the beginning, Rodel would take any job he could get. He had no obligation to a particular style. His pieces were relatively simple, and he was happy to make a nightstand, window sash or stairway. He was thrilled to make a set of kitchen cabinets.

Rodel was adept at making Shaker-style furniture, courtesy of his tenure with Moser, but developed a yearning to make more elaborate designs. Around 1989, he stumbled across the Arts and Crafts style and was hooked.

“As it turns out, I’d seen pieces of that era all of my life, but I was never able to identify that particular style. At that time, it was a forgotten movement. Everyone knew about Shaker, Queen Anne, Federal and Colonial. But until the revival of the Arts and Crafts movement, only the historians knew about it. For some reason, it had been totally eclipsed.

“Aesthetically, in the American Arts and Crafts, the Stickley stuff was the first thing I was exposed to. It has a similarity to Shaker in that it is pretty basic and straightforward and much heavier, and it has some ornamentation through the use of exposed joinery.”

By 1991, he was getting enough work in the Arts and Crafts style alone to have the privilege of turning down other types of work.