Custom Woodworking showcases interior timber.
ALASKA'S TREES ARE CRAFTED into functional works of art under the care and guidance of John Manthei and Kent Pyne, co-owners of Custom Woodworking in Fairbanks. Memories of a childhood woodworking hobby drew Manthei into creating the year-round, valued-added wood products business that has been promoting the use of Alaskan birch since 1972.
Utilizing Alaskan hardwoods to produce more than 40 percent of their work, Manthei and Pyne design and build customized cabinets, furniture, architectural fixtures, and objects d'art ranging from a halibut-shaped jewelry box for a marine scientist to an elegant birch box purchased by the Alaska Contemporary Art Bank.
Growing up in Milwaukee, Wis., Manthei learned woodworking in grade school and did some custom woodworking for pay in high school. But the young carpenter felt he needed to go to college and become a botanist to earn a "real living." A botany degree from the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh earned Manthei a job as a biology technician at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He drove north to the woods of Interior Alaska in 1969.
It took Manthei less than a year of tramping around marshes in ardent pursuit of science to realize that while four years of botany might occupy his mind, woodworking was ingrained in his heart. But could he make a living at it? Manthei's conservative financial sense fenced once more with his woodworking dream. Not to be foiled again, Manthei decided he could take the risk by keeping his university job on a part-time basis.
A little more than a year after coming to Alaska, Manthei opened a part-time woodworking business in a small workshop located off Chena Ridge Road outside Fairbanks. Within less than a year, he had quit his university job to devote himself full-time to building cabinets, doors, windows and furniture. Today, Custom Woodworking grosses an average of $80,000 a year and keeps the equivalent of nearly three people employed full time.
A couple years after Manthei opened his doors, the steady increase in demand for his products led him to hire Kent Pyne. Pyne, then a teenager who had grown up in Fairbanks, was already successfully capitalizing on his own childhood woodworking hobby when he impressed Manthei with both his woodworking skills and his business savvy. "At his young age, he had already done more woodworking jobs than I had," exclaims Manthei. Pyne became a co-owner of Custom Woodworking in 1985.
The firm had used Alaskan wood from the start. Ironically, the budding success of Custom Woodworking risked being stunted by a local lack of the hardwoods it needed and by the high cost of importing them.
"When I started the business, there were no hardwood dealers in Fairbanks," explains Manthei, "and I soon found the expense of stockpiling imported hardwoods myself to be horrendous. Then I tried using some Alaskan birch put out by a sawmill in Wasilla. I liked the results, so I started cutting my own birch. I quickly became addicted to both the economy and beauty of Alaskan birch. Fortunately, about then Jack Utton opened Superior Hardwoods here and began stocking all species of hardwoods."
Today, Custom Woodworking uses not only locally grown birch, but also aspen and cottonwood, as well as softwoods such as spruce when the need arises. "Alaskan wood has gone from being 20 percent of our business to more than 40 percent on average," says Manthei. "Unfortunately, most people still want oak. They see it advertised in national catalogs and magazines." So Custom Woodworking still uses a high percentage of imported woods.
Buyers are mostly Fairbanks area residents, with an occasional project completed under government contract. Advertising happens largely by word-of-mouth via satisfied customers. "I've only snagged one customer so far because of my ad in the Yellow Pages," laughs Manthei. The co-owners also promote their wares by exhibiting them at local and international trade shows and in museums and art galleries.
As a result, Custom Woodworking has grown steadily. Manthei and Pyne now contract the services of another custom cabinet maker to complete large projects such as kitchens and extensive household cabinets. Yet Manthei still can't say the business is a profitable venture. He credits its survival to his family's and Pyne's frugal personal lifestyles and conservative business sense.
"When we first opened up for business, we were in a boom economy due to the pipeline and were booked up a year in advance. Then the mid '80s recession hit and we lived from job to job. Fortunately, we never bought anything until we had the jobs to pay for it and didn't take on a lot of debt. Our banker once said my wife and I were the most conservative business people he'd ever met. Actually, we were able to survive those years comfortably while other went bankrupt." In 1990, for the first time in six year, Custom Woodworking is again booked up six months in advance.
In 1985, the co-owners moved to a more spacious building set amid the trees in Goldstream Valley. Here, sunshine streams through the shop's many windows. Classical music echoes throughout its wood-scented rooms. Rose or mint paint covers any wall not lined with birch tool cabinets and work tables. The orderly workshop looks more like an artist's studio than a carpenter's workroom.
Indeed, Custom Woodworking's custom-designed pieces often bear more resemblance to polished works of art than to mass-produced wood products. Says Manthei proudly, "About 40 percent of our jobs are requests for us to produce artistic pieces."
Manthei and Pyne have designed such items as a birch rocking chair with moose-hide seat, a birch coffee table with ebonized birch legs, and a variety of one-of-a-kind birch dining tables and chairs. They have even crafted a few lamp shades using veneer slices of Alaskan aspen. They used the wood's dark forked pattern (created wherever the tree branches) to produce the colorful flow in the shade.
Asked how he comes up with such creative ideas, Manthei says he's not really sure. "Most of our designs are co-created with the customer," Manthei explains. "Perhaps the most exciting piece we've ever had to design was a large spiral staircase of Honduras mahogany. It was something we'd never done, and creating the free-standing, double-helix spiral took about a month. Not too many of these staircases even exist here."
Such works are often extremely difficult and costly to produce. For example, during the interview the shop was putting the finishing touches on a coffee table for an art gallery exhibit. Manthei estimates that if they charged by the hour, the table would cost between $2,000 and $3,000. "The price will probably end up being negotiated," says Manthei. "We maintain the art end of the shop only because it is what makes it all worthwhile. The opportunity to create these beautiful pieces is what really makes the business of being a craftsman pay off."
Artistic techniques, such as the matching of forked wood patterns, often prove hard to mass-produce because of the difficulty in finding just the right piece of wood, particularly birch. While birches grow in abundance in the Interior, only a small percentage can be used for commercial purposes, much less for works of art.
"The waste in birch is tremendous," says Manthei. "To start with, less than half of a mature stand of birch trees is suitable for logging. After logging, milling and drying, only a very small amount of what stands in the forest is usable in the shop. And this is just one of the frustrations run into by commercial outfits hoping to capitalize on all the birch trees here."
Rough Edges. Marketing Alaska's hardwoods also challenges both large commercial sawmills and cottage-sized wood products industries like Custom Woodworking. "Architects aren't tuned into using local woods," Manthei says. "They have these spec books that tell them what looks good with what. Alaskan hardwoods aren't in them."
It has also been hard to persuade architects to try something different. "They like to make a statement with what they do," explains Manthei. "What's big in New York counts for more than what grows in Alaska."
Interior hardwood businesses also suffer from the lack of a local professional softwood grader, whose presence would stimulate greater use of all local wood. Ungraded wood often can't be used on bank-loaned projects because it doesn't meet architectural specifications, which require graded wood to meet building codes. Professional graders are expensive, and the Interior's few sawmills haven't been able to profitably hire one, even on a collective basis. "This is one area I would think the state government could help out in," says Manthei.
To find solutions to such problems, Manthei and Pyne donate time to the Fairbanks North Star Borough's Interior Wood Products Task Force. Formed a few years ago to assist local development, the task force includes federal, state and borough forestry officials and local business people. A few state politicians have participated from time to time. Says Manthei, "The legislators seem interested, but responsible timber resource development isn't a priority for some, and more pressing budgetary matters often consume life in Juneau."
What role the state has played in promoting Interior wood products doesn't please Manthei: "The state likes to go for the big bang. They're interested in megaprojects involving millions of board feet producing millions of dollars. When they do act on something, like the Susitna timber lease, they go about it in a way that angers the very people we need on our side. It's much easier to create positive public opinion from the start than to turn around a negative opinion once it's been formed."
Manthei proposes a different approach. He says, "I operate just the opposite of the state. By operating over the long term, I've created a proven, viable market for Alaskan wood. I start by showing people some furniture designed with it and getting them to like the stuff. That's what turns the tide from oak to birch and in favor of developing the beautiful resource we have. That's why cottage industries like ours need to be encouraged instead of ignored."
Knots & Niches. With or without state help, the number of Fairbanks-area businesses creating value-added wood products with Interior wood has been slowly growing. Howell House Industries makes birch bowls and kitchen utensils for gourmet stores, but needs to find funding for equipment to fill thousands of orders.
Superior Hardwoods mills about 10,000 board feet of birch a year into finished products, but has to enlarge its mill to produce more. Northland Wood occasionally cuts some aspen, cotton-wood and birch, but concentrates on producing about 3 million board feet annually of white spruce lumber. Other woodworking shops also exist, as do businesses such as the Knotty Shop--a Salcha tourist store selling Alaskan wood souvenirs.
Like the turtle that eventually wins the race, Custom Woodworking keeps working to improve its business. Last year, it sent a display to a trade show in Korea. Manthei and Pyne even created some birch business cards for it that proved quite popular. The show produced a few visits by Koreans to Custom Woodworking's shop, but no orders. Says Manthei philosophically, "We've been told that developing Korean business can take years."
Custom Woodworking also recently exhibited some of its best work at the Fairbanks Bear Gallery and at the Anchorage Museum of history and Art. Manthei is currently pursuing a contract to create accurate reconstructions of historic riverboat furniture for a state historic site.
In the meantime, the business stays busy filling a swell in orders for kitchen cabinet work. "People seem to be spending money on upgrading their current home rather than buying another right now," explains Manthei.
The co-owners hope Custom Woodworking will grow enough to turn a profit regularly and employ four fulltime people. "But no bigger," says Manthei emphatically. "Any bigger, and it's a different business--more government forms and worker regulations. I spend two hours a day on business matters other than carpentry as it is."
The Fairbanks business owner hopes someday to see a steadily increasing use of birch and aspen throughout Alaska and the nation. "I'd like to see the support businesses here: more sawmills handling birch, the state infrastructure to utilize low-end timber, a kiln to dry the lumber.
"But what I'd really like to see is people aligning themselves more with the theme of using local products from local businesses. I'd like to see this theme catch on like recycling has. If people would just look at birch furniture or cabinets when they're shopping, the beautiful look of Alaskan birch will surely catch fire and grow as something everyone would want to see in their homes. That would help all of us here in the Interior."
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|Title Annotation:||Alaskan Wood Products|
|Author:||Noyes, Leslie Barber|
|Publication:||Alaska Business Monthly|
|Article Type:||company profile|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1990|
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