Friday, December 31, 2010

It's New Year's Eve

It's New Year's Eve which means that today is the day of making resolutions a.k.a. lists of promises to ourselves for 2011.

For most people New Year's resolutions revolve around things like quitting smoking, exercising more, losing weight etc. Since I am not a smoker (aside from the occasional cigar) you can forget about that being on my list. More exercise? Yes, that will be there because I realize I need to be in better shape if I plan to be around a long time - which I do. Losing weight? Well, by default that's on my list as well, and now that Christmas is over I know that Teresa will be facilitating this (whether I like it or not) by not having snacks such as cookies around the house.

Beyond that I have a few other resolutions in mind. In my earlier post I talked about the book "Six Pixels of Separation" and how I intend to implement suggestions from that book into the marketing of my custom furniture work in the coming year. This will involve things like blogging more proficiently, and expanding my digital network further in areas such as Facebook, Linkedin, Zecozi, CustomMade, etc.

Part of the purpose for broading my network is, naturally, to help market what I do for a living - namely designing and making high quality custom furniture. But this is not my sole motivator.

Back in February 2007 a serendipitous chain of events brought me to the tiny village of Kykotsmovi on the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona. While there I was invited into the home of the eldest elder of the Hopi - a man by the name of Grandfather Martin Gashweseoma.

During this visit I was told many things, including how now is the time for all of us to be speaking our Truth. While I do feel I've been speaking my truth, I've also come to realize that I haven't been doing enough of it. And, so, as part of my resolutions for the upcoming year I vow to broaden my discussions to include more of this as well.

Best wishes to everyone for 2011 !

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Six Pixels of Separation

Every year I receive at least a half dozen books as Christmas gifts from members of my family.

Of this year's titles one that really caught my eye was "Six Pixels of Separation" by Mitch Joel.

The premise of Joel's book is that in today's digital world everyone is connected to everyone else through websites, blogs, social networks etc. This means that there are now a variety of digital channels and free publishing tools available online to promote yourself, your personal brand and your small business.

The jacket summary of this book really caught my attention because in many ways I have already been living out this reality with my own business.

I first began using the Internet back in the mid 1990s when access involved AOL accounts and dial-up connections that got terminated with every incoming telephone call. In digital terms those days were the proverbial Stone Age.

By 1998 we were working with Kristina Nagy and Denis Dube of K10 Studios to create our first website at

At that stage I had very low expectations of what a website could offer as a sales and marketing tool. At best I figured it would be a helpful to demonstrate credibility, besides showing product images along with specifications and background information on the company. "Real" sales, I believed, could only happen through "mortar and brick" showrooms that were dedicated to selling my work to discriminating consumers via interior designers and architects.

By late 2000 (exactly 10 years ago today) we were busier than we'd ever been. Most of our sales were high quality custom furniture pieces sold through to-the-trade showrooms located in major urban centers across the United States. For all intents and purposes the Internet had zero bearing on any sales we made that year. But even then the paradigm was rapidly changing.

For one thing the recent collapse of the dot com bubble was already starting to manifest as a decline in new orders. This situation would be exacerbated later in the following year with the fallout from the 9/11 attacks. Cheap imports from offshore were also starting to flood the market, and although we didn't compete directly with this product it was having a domino effect by pushing the lower end guys into the middle of the market which, in turn, compelled the middle end guys to target the higher end.

By 2006 the overall sales to my traditional customer base had diminished radically. In a discussion with Monroe Sherman of Carriage House, one of my oldest clients, I was told that I needed to shift my thinking if I wanted to stay in business. At the time we were making private label OEM pieces for Monroe's Sherman-Designs collection, and he pointed out that because of globalization I was now competing with cheaper vendors from South America and South-East Asia. In effect, I was told that if I wanted to compete I'd have to effectively slash prices even if it meant lowering my quality standards by moving work offshore. This was not something I was prepared to do.

It was at this point Monroe suggested I read the book "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman.

The premise of Friedman's book is that because of globalization and computerization supply chains have gotten shorter, with the result being that the world is now smaller and more competitive than ever before.

My reply was "Yes, I've read the book. Have you?"

Perplexed, Monroe said "Of course I've read it. Why do you ask?"

I pointed out that he was only interpreting Friedman's book from his own vantage point, namely that in this new era of globalization and digital communication that he alone would be the beneficiary of using digital tools such as the Internet to find newer and better opportunities.

To illustrate my point I told him "As flat as you see the world from your side of the planet, it's just as flat going the other way. Yes, you'll be able to find cheaper sources of supply thanks to this new paradigm, but the rest of the world won't be sitting still as you do so. Your customers will be looking for better opportunities and better quality too, as will your current and previous vendors. The world is changing and getting smaller for everyone, not just you."

In hindsight this contention appears to be playing itself out. Where in 2000 I could attribute 0% of my sales directly to activity on the Internet, in 2010 more than 50% of my business has been generated as a result of this digital realm. Thanks to Google, websites and blogs I am finding ever more people using the Internet to find exactly what they want in the way of high quality custom furniture.

As far as I'm concerned Mitch Joel is spot on with what he contends in "Six Pixels of Separation", and one of my New Year's resolutions will be to implement suggestions from his book to make 2011 even better.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Martell Unveils the new Cohiba Cognac

Martell has recently announced that a new cognac to complement Cohiba cigars will be introduced in January 2011. At HK$5,000 per bottle one would expect the quality of this finest of brandies to be exceptional.

Cohiba Cognac comes in a special wood presentation box with open front and rotating carousel so that the bottle can be viewed from all sides.

What I find especially illuminating is that Cohiba Cognac is being unveiled in Hong Kong. If money and wealth does indeed flow like water along the path of least resistance, then perhaps cognac flows that way too.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fine Woodworking Magazine - My Collection Nears Completion

A favorite Christmas gift I received this year was some back issues of Fine Woodworking Magazine to help fill some holes in my collection.

Fine Woodworking has been published by Taunton Press continuously since 1975, but admittedly I've been less than diligent in keeping my copies organized and up-to-date over the years.

Thanks to Santa I am now just a few issues away from getting things completed. Of course the inaugural issue (always the toughest to find) is one of the ones I need.

Between Ebay, Google and Kijiji I'm sure the remaining copies will surface in due time.

Boxing Day = My "Go Nowhere, Do Nothing" Day

Today is the day after Christmas; also known as Boxing Day.

Over the years Boxing Day has become synonymous with retail feeding frenzy, highlighted by heavily advertised blowout sales and deep discounts everywhere. It's the Canadian equivalent to Black Friday in the United States and, naturally, it's a madhouse.

Frankly, I don't get it. After the big buildup to Christmas and time spent celebrating with family and friends the last thing I want is to wade with the teeming masses in search of retail therapy.

That's why December 26th has become my annual "Go Nowhere; Do Nothing" Day. Today is the day when I wake up when I wake up, put on some coffee, and then spend the rest of the day in my pyjamas doing pretty much nothing.

My biggest accomplishment may be reading a book in front of the fireplace while nibbling leftover chocolate from yesterday.

On that note shouldn't leftover chocolate be, at best, an oxymoron?

Nevertheless, I have two ironclad rules for today: First, pyjamas are my uniform of choice and, second, I refuse to leave the house for any reason. People are free to visit as long as they're cool with the fact that I won't be dressing up for company either.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wine Stoppers - The Good

In my previous post entitled "Wine Stoppers - The Good, the Bad and the Fugly" I provided examples of Bad and fundamentally Ugly wine stoppers. In this post I will describe the process I follow to make Good quality wine stoppers.

In my mind the most important part of making a good wine stopper is the component that goes into the bottle itself - namely the stopper. I was surprised to discover that sourcing components of this calibre is all but impossible, primarily because the bulk of the North American market is obsessively price driven and focussed solely on finding the cheapest stuff available.

Well, seek and Ye shall find because this cheap stuff is everywhere. In fact it is now so prevalent that it's flooding the market faster than consumers can wear it out and ship it off to landfill.

From a low price perspective Cork stoppers are a popular option, but cork is soft and quickly wears out from repeated use. Cork is also absorbent. Who wants to repeatedly use stoppers that have been saturated again and again with stale beverage from bygone servings?

As an alternative to Cork there is also an abundance of metal stoppers out there, but most of these are made of low grade steel that has been plated to look presentable. And as you can see in the photo below this plating will also eventually bubble and dissolve over time. Do you really want this coming in contact with your wine?

This leaves stainless steel, but thorough research will point out that not all stainless is created equal. The differences are explained in this link, but to summarize: the best material available for making wine stoppers is FDA food grade 304 stainless steel. The stoppers I use are milled from solid billets of this material, with the triple seals made of FDA grade nitrile that are fitted into precision machined grooves.

The wine stopper shown here measures 3-1/2" long x 1-1/8" dia., and the turned handle has been crafted from figured Marblewood.

This wine stopper measures 3-3/4" long x 1-1/4" dia., with the turned wood portion being Blackwood. The end is inlaid with Mother-of-Pearl.

This Ziricote stopper is also inlaid with Mother-of-Pearl, and it measures 3-5/8" long x 1-5/16" dia.

The handle on this stopper has been turned from a block of solid Macassar Ebony. Together with the stainless steel end it has an overall dimension of 3-5/8" long x 1-1/8" dia.

Each wine bottle stopper I make is securely assembled by means of an internal machine screw that acts as a mechanical fastener.

After turning on a lathe the solid wood is sanded smooth using progressively finer grits of sandpaper. After careful inspection to ensure all imperfections are removed the wood is then sealed with a special micro-crystalline wax imported from England. This is a specially formulated wax that is used extensively by art galleries, museums and antiques restorers on their finest quality pieces.

Each stopper comes with its own tin box measuring 4-1/4" x 3-1/8" x 2-1/2" high.

Prices range from $45.00 to $50.00 each.

Without question these are high quality stoppers made to last.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wine Stoppers - The Good, the Bad, and the Fugly

Let's start with the Fugly.

While standing in the checkout line of a wine store recently I found myself fascinated by a display of wine stoppers. My curiousity was piqued by the sheer ugliness of these things, as they looked like gaudy door knobs hot glued to the ends of corks.

What amazed me more was the price - only $5.95 each. Doing some quick math I tried to figure out what their cost would be. The standard markup in the retail business is something called Keystone, which represents the doubling of the wholesale cost to establish the retail price. But given that these stoppers are made offshore, and the markups on such imports are minimum triple key to as much as 5 times wholesale, I quickly determined that the wholesale on these stoppers had to be something in the range of $1.20 to $1.50 each. At that price - even without factoring in the cost of labour - one has to seriously question what kind of quality (or lack thereof) has gone into the materials.

With that in mind I decided to take a closer look at some wine stoppers we have at home. This is where we come to the Bad.

In the photo above you can see one of these stoppers, and clearly the end that goes into the bottle has badly deteriorated over the years. Upon further research I discovered that red wine in particular (due to its acidity) causes metal plating to break down over time, thereby creating the blistering you see in the photo. One can only imagine where the dissolved material ends up - Yuck!

The revelation has inspired me to design and build a better stopper.

Next post = the Good.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Shop Dog

After reading various woodworking blogs I've noticed that it's de rigeur for woodworkers to have shop dogs on the premises. That inspired this post about our own shop dog, named Linus.

Linus is a high energy English Springer Spaniel, which is another way of saying he's the black and white equivalent to Tigger.

Despite his relentless nature Linus is also extremely patient and well mannered, which makes him an excellent therapy dog. When not doing therapy work Linus loves to hang out at our shop, working part time as a greeter and exterior property manager.

For Linus the favorite part of his day is running laps around the front of the property, chasing anything that catches his fancy.

If you ever want to see a Springer Missile in action, just throw a tennis ball as far as you can.

You can count on Linus to park himself in the center of the action. Thankfully he works cheap. A little attention and the occasional slice of cheese is all it takes to keep Linus a happy puppy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Andiroba Humidor

The design of the Andiroba Humidor came about in the late 1990s as I formulated humidor ideas uniquely different from the conventional box designs that were becoming prevalent in the marketplace at the time.

The humidor as shown was sculpted from a wood called Block Mottled Tangare, with the exterior made as two interlocking half shells that pivot/swing open to reveal the cabinet interior.

The cabinet interior features adjustable wood shelves for box storage, a louvered double wall backpanel for air circulation, a concealed central humidification system, and 7 individually sculpted drawers for storage of individual cigars.

Note the undulating shapes on each of the individual drawer faces. Although the drawer boxes were crafted from Spanish Cedar the drawer faces were made of Block Mottled Tangare to match the cabinet exterior.

The Andiroba Humidor is currently entered into a design competition called "Show Us Your Drawers" at Fine Woodworking Magazine.

Please check out the attached link and click "Thumbs Up" if you think it's cool.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ten Years Ago Today....

....I was on the remote islands of Haida Gwaii in the Pacific North-West, standing alone in the rainforest near the site of where K'iid K'iyaas (the mystical Golden Spruce) was felled almost 4 years earlier.

I had followed my intuition to journey there, and the day turned out to be a magical one in many ways.

Unbeknownst to me at the time a fellow named John Valliant was also experiencing his own epiphany as a result of this tree, and those experiences subsequently inspired an article in The New Yorker called "The Golden Bough". John later followed this up with an award winning book entitled "The Golden Spruce".

The story of K'iid K'iyaas was also later integrated into Mark Leiren-Young's award winning film "The Green Chain".

Best of all: John and Mark are now friends.

(Special thanks to Russ Heinl of for permission to use this photo of the Golden Spruce.)

Road Trip Delivery of Eco-Furniture to Orlando, Florida

In an earlier post I described a road trip to Hollywood, Florida during which we delivered custom furniture to a luxury condominium at the Trump Hollywood. This trip reminded me of another project we delivered to Orlando, Florida in May of this year.

My son Kevin accompanied me on this delivery and along the way we took a few hours break to catch an MLB baseball game at Turner Field, between the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds.

Kevin is clearly looking forward to seeing the game.

After an 8 run 2nd inning by the Reds, including a grand slam by Joey Votto, it looked like the rout was on.

This guy is probably the most avid Braves fan around. He claims to have been to EVERY single Atlanta Braves home game (in the same seat at Turner Field) stretching back over 1000+ games. He's also a walking encyclopedia on baseball facts and trivia.

Expect the unexpected. In the bottom of the 9th the Braves rallied back from a 9-3 deficit with 7 runs, including a walk-off grand slam by Brooks Conrad to win the game 10-9. The place went nuts. It turns out this was only the 24th time in MLB history that this has happened, so we truly witnessed some history in the making.

Kevin with the Braves superfan, moments after the incredible come-from-behind victory. (Incidentally, at the end of the 8th I told Kevin that we couldn't leave yet because the Braves were going to come back and win via walk-off grand slam. Good call, Dad!)

The reason for the road trip: overseeing delivery of custom made eco-furniture to a home near Orlando, Florida. This bedroom furniture includes an Irenic Bed and Inamorata casegoods made of FSC certified wood (that is also NAUF and CARB2 compliant), non-UF glue and low-VOC water based finish that is doctor recommended even for those with chemical sensitivities. The mattress is made of natural latex. The finish on the furniture is glazed maple.

This natural cherry finished furniture is for the guest bedroom. Consisting of an Irenic Bed and Inamorata casegoods it is also made of FSC certified wood (that is also NAUF and CARB2 compliant), non-UF glue and low-VOC water based finish that is doctor recommended even for those with chemical sensitivities.

The custom Inamorata Boxer Chest is made of natural cherry with the drawer fronts being made of Curly Birds Eye Maple from my Core Stash. All drawer boxers are dovetailed solid maple (FSC certified) running on Blumotion self-closing linear ball bearing slides. The drawer pulls are satin nickel.

This set of 3 custom made Island Tables is made of Louro Preto. The inset of river stones on the Cayman Table has been covered with a custom tempered glass top, to keep the cat from using it as a litter box.

This Ellipse II Table has been custom made in bamboo. The top features a radiating sunburst pattern and the finish is a low-VOC water based urethane.

All in all I was highly impressed by the level of research the client put into this project to verify that every aspect of our work was as environmentally responsible as possible.

Celebrating a delivery gone well....fresh ingredients + stainless steel bowl + liquid nitrogen = best ice cream ever. This shameless plug is for a hidden gem called the Pure Magic Ice Cream company. It's located in Kissimmee, Florida.

When your kid is too old for Disney World, the next best thing is a 'ghetto ride' in downtown Orlando.

'The Boy' is stoked.

With some time to ourselves we checked out a street festival in downtown Orlando. While walking around we stumbled into this custom chopper with its own built-in humidor and port bar. The chopper lured me inside the Corona Cigar Company, which turns out to be North America's largest walk-in humidor...boasting an inventory of 2,000,000 +/- cigars. It turns out that we inadvertently discovered the cigar afficionado's motherlode of Arturo Fuente's, Hemingways, Ashtons, and Diamond Crowns.

The obligatory photo of me with the chopper.

The Diamond Crown Cigar Lounge. Stocked with pre-embargo Cuban cigars and Prohibition-era rum, not to mention ice cold beer. With the outside temperature hovering around 92 degrees it made sense to chill out with a beer and a stogie in air conditioned comfort. We returned later to catch game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Final although, unfortunately, the Magic failed to show to play the Celtics that night. It was an enjoyable experience nonetheless - downtown Orlando is definitely a happening place on a Saturday night.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Sentimentalists - Please Buy the REAL Book

(Today's blog post has been paraphrased, in part, from Karen Johnson's blog over at and from Andrew Chung's article at the Toronto Star)

On October 5th a shortlist of five books was announced for this year's Scotia Bank Giller Prize. The Giller Prize is the largest annual literary prize in Canada.

On October 9th Johanna Skibsrud's book "The Sentimentalists" won, and this is where the story gets interesting.

The publisher of this book is Gaspereau Press in Kentville, Nova Scotia.

Their books are printed and bound on the premises. They use a 1960s offset press, bind them using mechanical sewers and wrap them in covers that are printed on a letterpress cranked by hand. This process, as you can imagine, takes time. They can produce about 1000 books a week. Since winning The Giller Johanna Skibsrud’s "The Sentimentalists" is now in high demand.

At first publisher Andrew Steeves declined an offer from a big publisher to print more copies for him. Critics said that this book should have be on bookshelves as soon as the winner of the Giller was announced. (Geez, would they like fries with that too?)

“It's like lemmings off the cliff that the market subscribes to,” Steeves says. “That is everything that's wrong with our world.”

The publishers have some defenders. “Andrew and Steve are gems,” says retired history professor and author Julian Gwyn, who has had books published by Gaspereau. “They're standing up for art and craftsmanship. I say, ‘To hell with you, Toronto. To hell with you, Montreal. You'll get the books when you get them, and you'll be happy.' ”

But an author has clout. Skibsrud made her angst clear to the media after the win. She finally made it clear to Steeves and Dunfield, too. And so they made an announcement to meet the demand, but in “our way,” Steeves said, hinting they'd try to control the output.

My wife Teresa followed this tug-of-war between mass production verses art and craftsmanship with intense interest. As it turns out "The Sentimentalists" was already on her "To Read" list before the Giller Prize winner was announced. And after reading Andrew Chung's article at the Toronto Star and noticing the parallels between the book publishing business and our custom furniture making business she decided that the only copy she could accept would be one printed by Gaspereau.

And, so, she placed an order with Gaspereau for their version of "The Sentimentalists" and told them she'd wait for delivery until next summer if she had to.

As it turns out her copy arrived in the mail last week, and let me say it is MAGNIFICENT. The quality of the paper and the mechanical binding are the two details that really stand out for me. Seeing this level of quality coming out of enterprises such as Gaspereau is also a reminder to me of how vital it is to keep small entities such as this viable as going concerns.

For years I have watched with despair as the North American market transitioned from a place where we made things to a place where we hand off this responsibility to someone else. Working with your hands, or "blue collar" work, has become shunned as the subcontracting of work became ever more greed driven by the parameter of who could make things the cheapest. Quality became little more than a marketing buzzword as the drive to source the cheapest price has ultimately resulted in sending most of our manufacturing offshore.

What most people fail to realize is that it's the making of things that creates the wealth. This creation of wealth also creates jobs, and it's the wealth and these jobs that ultimately provide the tax base that supports benefits such as our health care and education systems.

Now that Western society has largely succeeded in driving most manufacturing offshore the jobs are disappearing, the tax base is imploding, and our governments are keeping things afloat primarily by means of deficit spending supported by a printing press to crank out more currency. Going deeper into debt has never been the path to prosperity, and today we are painfully learning that lesson the hard way.

If we are to have any hope for a viable economic future in the Western world it is imperative that we get back to our roots and once again honour the making of fine quality goods.

Gaspereau Press has put a smile on my face for their adherence to fine quality craftsmanship, and they've been added to my Christmas card list this year.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Shop Needs a Drive Thru Window

There are days when I'm convinced my shop needs a deep fryer and a drive thru window. On that note maybe I should also consider rebranding my company with a new logo; one that looks something like this:

I say this because this week has seen requests for custom furniture lead times that were off-the-charts ridiculous.

In an earlier post I described a custom furniture delivery to Florida that was turned around in roughly 8 weeks time. There was considerable pressure to get this job done quickly because the client was intent on moving into the Trump Hollywood by Thanksgiving. With tremendous effort we pulled it off and even the design firm involved was highly impressed, stating that the 8 weeks we completed the job in was "record time".

Yes, 8 weeks is definitely record time for delivering high calibre custom furniture work.

But then I get a call from an old client out of New York who is in desperate need for custom furniture for the public area of a 5-star hotel. The lead time for this is 4 weeks.

4 weeks???

"Would you like fries with that?" I asked. He laughed because he too knew how ludicrous his request was.

If this was simply a one time event I could have chocked it up as an anomoly. But as it turns out, this was one of three rush order requests all coming in the same week. The second request came out of Florida, for a residential project in an upscale resort. The third was for a commercial project here in Canada, also with a firm deadline. All three projects had lead times of under 4 weeks.

I am well aware that in this tougher economic climate that clients are becoming more demanding and, in some cases, unreasonable. But c'mon folks...making and delivering high quality custom furniture is much more involved than serving up a burger and fries.

On an upnote we did receive some positive news this week. A reasonably large custom project quoted 4 months ago is apparently coming through. A request for a W-8 form from another client means that a project that's been hovering in the aether for 18 months is now, finally, moving forward.

And best of all there's one other potential project for an executive office that I'm REALLY excited about, but I'll save that discussion for another time.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Custom Writing Desk

I am always amazed at the things that turn up while digging through the archives.

Recently I was looking for photos of a Pyramid Keepsake Box and Humidor we made in the mid 1990s and in the process I also came upon these images of a custom writing desk we made almost 20 years ago.

In the early 1990s we were commissioned by Katherine Burke of Katherine Burke Design Consultants of Toronto to build a custom writing desk. The modified oval shape of the top was anchored by a curving modesty panel in the centre, with tapered solid maple legs at each end.

The extra thick granite top was visually lightened by means of an undercut bevel going around all edges.

What I like most about this desk is its understated classic design - 20 years later and it doesn't look dated.