Thomas Bennett, a furniture maker in Athens, Ohio, understands the efficiencies good equipment can bring to a shop. His business is, in fact, built on the concept. But he can still be slow to take the bait when an equipment salesman dangles a shiny bauble before his eyes.
Several years ago at Woodwerks, a machinery dealer in Columbus, Ohio, Bennett was browsing new equipment while he considered the purchase of a stock feeder. At one point, the salesman tried to sell him an edgebander, and Bennett explained that, as a maker of solid wood furniture, his business was successful “because we don’t do edgebanding.” Later, the same salesman tried to interest Bennett in a 23-spindle Ritter R19F line drill, guiding him to the machine in question, then demonstrating the machine’s capabilities. Bennett was impressed and said so, but he also added, “It’s not for me.”
Then later, in his truck on the two-hour drive from Columbus to Athens, Bennett began to think about the job he’d just taken to build 50 double-sided adjustable bookcases for the Coolville Public Library. “I was calculating each side had 200 holes. I kept multiplying in my head 200 holes times 100 pieces, and I kept coming up with the number 20,000.
“I started getting worried. We were going to use a stick with some marks on it, and have Russ Haning (Bennett’s employee of 19 years) spend a week marking out and drilling every one of them by hand. So as soon as I got back to Athens, I called Woodwerks and said I’d take the machine, and I ended up drilling all 20,000 holes in five hours on a Saturday morning by myself.”
From metal to wood
In the early 1970s, Bennett came to Ohio University in Athens from Alliance, a small town in Ohio’s northeast corner. He was a member of the nation’s first post-1960s generation, the generation determined to give form and substance to the ’60s dream of reshaping the world. At first, Bennett wanted to study architecture, a career for which he now feels he was not well-suited. But while taking classes at Ohio University’s School of Art, he came under the influence of several instructors who were passionate about the artistic manipulation of metal and wood. Wood sculptor David Hostetler was the most influential of these instructors, and today Bennett cites Hostetler as the chief reason he now works in wood, despite the fact that as an undergrad in the School of Art, Bennett’s forte was metal sculpture, in particular bronze casting.
After graduating with a degree in metal sculpture, Bennett kicked around for a couple years, eventually taking a CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) as an assistant electrician for the state’s highway department. The CETA electrician for whom Bennett worked taught him about machinery and electricity, knowledge Bennett drew upon years later when he and his assistant wired his current shop and equipped it with machinery.
Although Bennett’s first pieces of furniture were created in Ohio University’s sculpture classes, it wasn’t until his tenure with CETA that he began — in his spare time — to produce work for sale. He had purchased a lathe and some turning tools and started making rolling pins and bowls, scraping out and sanding the forms until his skills enabled him to move on to more efficient methods at the lathe. This led him to a job turning knobs for a new Athens business, Statham Smiles, devoted to the manufacture of a line of Shaker-inspired furniture.
As Statham Smiles grew, Bennett was hired as a full-time cabinetmaker, one of a half-dozen working in that shop. Steve Latta, a period furniture maker and educator, was also part of the team. The shop owners were determined to succeed, borrowing enough money to produce a handsome catalog, and exhibiting their furniture in New York at shows put on by the American Society of Interior Designers.
On one trip, they took along the shop’s cabinetmakers as well. But, Bennett explained, the owners “were like a lot of us woodworkers; very poor businessmen. They spent all their money, never got the sales they wanted, and eventually went out of business.”
But for Bennett, the experience of working in that shop was very important. Not only had the principal owner, Gary Statham, given him a chance to acquire essential manual skills, he’d also learned something about how a shop should — and should not —operate. Plus, during his time at CETA and at the Statham Smiles shop, he’d been assembling a collection of tools that enabled him to move on to the next chapter of his woodworking life.
Local ties help
Bennett’s home and work lives are neatly melded. He lives in a house he built with his own hands from locally harvested wood, a house that once was home to his business. That house is adjacent to his current shop, which he also built. And neither construction would have been possible without the assistance of friends.
By 1983, as a result of years of 16-hour workdays, Bennett had saved enough money to buy a piece of property in the forested hills northeast of Athens, with enough left over to pay for the foundation of a home on that property. Then, once the foundation had been laid, he “bartered and hustled the rest of the house in one way or another.”
A friend and customer, Lynn Downey, owner of Sherwood Forest Products in Waverly, Ohio, offered to cut a house kit for Bennett out of poplar lumber and then allowed Bennett to work off the bill. Other friends helped with the labor. That got the shell up. The rest of the house was added in $100 increments as time and money allowed.
Even before the house was finished, Bennett moved his shop into the basement, where he worked for several years. He then added a building to be used as his new shop, situating that building close to his home so he could be present for the childhood years of his now 18-year-old daughter.
Bennett’s association with nearby Ohio University has been critical to his business almost from the start. Much of the private work he has done has been for university employees, in many cases young professors just starting out. They are, according to Bennett, people who come into town “hired into a tenure-track position. They’re pregnant, or they need a kitchen, or they need their house finished up. They’ve been living like students for many moons. They want something nice, and they can appreciate the kind of wacky, funky woodwork that we make out of local hardwoods.”
He contrasts the success he has had serving the Athens community with the struggles experienced by his woodworking peers in his hometown of Alliance, a town sitting on the fringe of the state’s rust belt. There, in local markets lacking a thriving institutional customer base like Ohio University, Bennett knows cabinetmakers who have struggled for years to make ends meet.
But even a woodworker in Bennett’s fortuitous circumstances is subject to the vagaries of a struggling economy. His business has experienced several slow periods and is experiencing one now. Bennett explains it this way: “A couple of years ago, this hypothetical professor would have said, ‘I’m going to call Tom Bennett and have him build a wall unit for me.’ What he’s saying now is, ‘Someday, I’m going to call Tom Bennett and have him build a wall unit, but right now I’m just going to wait and see.’ ”
To generate new business, Bennett recently advertised in the local paper for the first time. He has also shown at The Dairy Barn Cultural Arts Center in Athens. In addition, he has had several one- and two-man shows in area galleries. However, his past experiences in consignment galleries have not been good. This is because most of Bennett’s spec pieces are large tables that gallery owners often use as store furniture to display ceramics made by other artisans. This not only makes Bennett’s tables difficult for customers to notice, it also results in scratches and dents on the surfaces.
Bennett believes flexibility is the key to riding out slow periods. On a recent Tuesday, for example, Bennett and his assistant started the day by running flooring on a Logosol PH260 planer molder for an area contractor. When the flooring had been run, the two men moved to a large curly maple spec table on which they rubbed out the finish with 2000 grit paper. They then finished out the day by preparing for a poplar kitchen they were about to build for a local customer.
The weirder the better
The second floor of Bennett’s shop is packed seven and eight feet deep with poplar, maple, cherry and walnut — all locally grown and dried in Bennett’s small (8' x 8' x 12') Nyle dehumidification kiln. Plus, he has another 30' x 60' building on his property that is also filled with kiln-dried material. Some of this lumber came from trees he felled himself, and some came from blow-downs offered to him by friends and neighbors.
This enormous supply of locally grown hardwood allows Bennett to bid lower materials costs than he could manage if he were buying material from a commercial supplier, a method he once relied upon. Even more important, this reserve makes it possible for Bennett to assure every customer that all the material in the cabinets, tables and cupboards they buy from Bennett is grown locally.
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.
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.