Steve Hanson, owner of Hanson Woodturning in the village of Cape Porpoise in Kennebunkport, Maine, does anything but mundane lathe work. On a daily basis, he and his two full-timers find themselves engaged in making custom architectural products and ornamental wood components and using just about any type of hardwood.
“We are a diverse shop. We can work with anything, but we just don’t build kitchen cabinets or work with panels. No laminates, Formica or veneering. We like working with solid wood for sure,” Hanson says.
A business owner for more than 20 years, Hanson develops his customer base through relationships with architects, homebuilders, designers and other woodworkers. Through these partnerships, he gets commissioned to produce furniture, staircases, balusters, finials, bedposts, columns and more, many of which are part of historical restorations.
Whether he’s asked to create products using contemporary, Colonial, Federal, English or traditional design styles, his ultimate focus is quality and perfection.
Hanson’s first exposure to woodworking was at Kennebunk High School, where a great shop teacher boosted his enthusiasm to work with his hands.
“I built some furniture in high school and did a little bit of turning. That’s where I kind of found my direction,” Hanson says.
After graduating in 1987, he worked with several builders in the Kennebunk area building elaborate wood projects in high-end homes. Several years later, he found work with a boatbuilder in Kennebunkport, the next town over.
“I worked on 70’ to 80’ boats as the ships’ carpenter building bulkheads and companionways and other things. It was a lot of fun. I did that for three or four years.
“While I was building boats, I started collecting machines in the garage of the house I was renting with some friends. Then I just started doing projects on my own on the weekends and I sort of morphed into working full-time in my shop. I would do specialty work for local builders and for other woodworking shops and cabinetmakers, along with woodturners. And that still holds true today in that we work with a lot of shops on projects they’re either not able to do or they just rely on us to do what they otherwise would be doing.”
By 1996, Hanson Woodturning was officially established. Hanson joined forces with friend and fellow cabinetmaker Derek Preble and the two shared a small shop that was barely 300 sq. ft. As his clientele and machinery list grew, so did his need for space.
“I realized I needed to have more room and bigger machines and that eventually led to me renting space at an old mill in Biddeford, Maine. That got purchased and the new owner sort of forced me out. I built this shop in the fall of 2007 and I had three guys working for me.”
The 3,500-sq.-ft. shop is a beauty. Spacious and meticulously designed for machinery placement and project assembly, complete with a loft-style office on the second floor, the barn-style structure is located on the same large property as his home, just a few blocks from Cape Porpoise Harbor.
Hanson, a machinery guru, has invested in dozens of specialized machines that he’s accumulated since his early years, some custom-made overseas, to get jobs done right. In 2000, he added hydraulic copy lathes. He shares his machinery knowledge with employees, particularly how geometry and math are involved with production of his niche products.
That darn recession
With the new shop up and running just as he’d envisioned, things seemed fine at first. But just like that, it was like the rug was pulled out from under him. The calls stopped coming in. By Thanksgiving in 2008, he had to lay everyone off because there was no more work.
“We went from having our best year ever in 2006-2007 to having our worst year ever in 2008-2009. We were cranking and we had three guys. So then I worked by myself in this shop for about two years and then slowly brought another person in part-time. Just about three to four years ago, around 2013, things got busy again. I hired my main guy that I still have with me now, Nick Philbrick, and I just added a third person to the shop (Maxwell Frank).”
Though he now reflects back on those years with a sigh of relief, he can’t deny they were some of the most tumultuous of his career.
“In spring 2009 I was still working every day with no employees, but it was more like treading water. So, at that point, I developed the Cape Porpoise Stool Company,” he says, proudly turning to grab a unique-looking barstool in his office featuring a walnut seat with accents made from wenge.
He developed the product in its entirety, made from all turned parts. That spring he built 30 of them, notified all of his contacts and ended up filling 100 orders by the end of the year. The company is a separate entity from Hanson Woodturning.
“I made the stools between jobs. I’d do 100 legs, then an order would come in. Then things would be slow and I’d do the stretchers, then assemble and finish. I never tried to sell them. They were a pyramid thing. You’d go to a cocktail party and you see these at someone’s kitchen. I don’t push as much now because we’re really busy as a job shop again, but I still sell about 50 a year.”
From coast to coast
Now that the company’s back to prerecession sales, business is thriving with requests from the usual clients and then some.
“Our work is not regional. It’s all over the place. Ninety percent of it is out of state and the rest is from anywhere in Maine. The service areas we are busiest with now are Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and California, mostly for table bases and specialty wooden products. A lot of what we make we advertise on the website, but other stuff rolls in that is just out of the ordinary.”
Hanson is on the shop floor almost every day and does all of the hand-turned work. He designs projects when asked, but many clients send him plans or want something copied.
Table bases are becoming increasingly popular, whether turned, square-profiled or machined. He believes clients are finding it easy to source the specialty tops with all of the live-edge and other options available these days and usually find him online.
“We do a fair amount of stair packages where we make the newel posts, handrails, balusters and other components. We do four to five big stair packages a year,” Hanson adds.
General one-off projects are popular, too, such as a 17’ x 17’ wall made of walnut pieces that look as if they’re woven together. Recently, a client in California ordered several dozen 8’ columns.
“Some of the things we turn in here get huge like 20’ tall and 3’ in diameter, weighing 1,000 to 2,000 pounds.”
Having developed a positive rapport with clients through the years, most work is generated by referral.
“We’ve experienced great success with the pyramid effect — you do a great job for one guy and he tells two guys. Then you do another great job. I still have a Rolodex full of all of the same people I’ve been dealing with for the past 20 years and they always come back. At this point in my career it’s really still amazing to me that the list of contacts and the list of clients I have still impresses me because I’m really proud of that.”
Of course, some customers are only shopping for price. “I wouldn’t sell you something that would fall apart in five years. And I wouldn’t want you to call me back in five years. I want it to be handed down to your kids. We’re not a discount furniture annex, but sometimes we get treated that way by price shoppers. It’s makes things difficult sometimes, but I can kind of see it coming now,” Hanson says.
There are several large woodturning companies in Hanson’s local market. Hanson says he’s learned to pivot his business in whatever direction is necessary to keep the doors open.
“We’ve always been able to switch gears when a certain part of the business drops off. We’re not reinventing ourselves, but thinking outside the box to get another product going.”
Hanson plans to keep the business where it’s at for the time being. He and his wife are still raising two children, ages 10 and 12, and enjoy camping, skiing and visiting the ocean as a family. Feeling rewarded by the process of teaching others, Hanson and longtime friend Derek Preble have discussed opening a woodworking school in the near future.
Contact: Hanson Woodturning, 27 Slack Tide Road, Cape Porpoise, ME 04014. Tel: 207-967-6085. www.hansonwoodturning.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.