A long counter lines the back wall with shelves underneath filled with box-making supplies in cherry, bird’s eye maple, Eastern white pine and lacewood. In front of the counter is a large, freestanding workbench, one of several in the room.
The main room is heated using an old and ornate, twice-owned potbelly stove fed with wood scraps. (Wilson initially bought it for his old farmhouse. When the farmhouse’s new owners decided to sell it, Wilson bought it again for his shop.) Next to the stove are a 1920s veneer press and a four-bag customized Grizzly dust-collection system.
The second section is a 32′ x 20′ inventory room. In addition to several workbenches, stacks of box parts, including tops, bottoms, shapers and molds, line a counter and shelves.
The Home Shop’s third 32′ x 36′ room is used for an impressive amount of wood storage. Wilson buys all his wood in the log form. By doing so, he says, you learn the connection between the log and the finished product – you also learn how to live with everything you buy. At least once a year he buys, for example, 3,000 board feet of cherry and 4,000 board feet of pine and basswood. Wilson oversees all the log buying and cutting, and personally controls the drying in hand-built kilns behind the shop (see Wilson’s article on building a backyard solar-powered kiln in issue #159, December 2006).
“All logs are cut to dimensional stock and from that point on we handle them,” he says. “To be able to dry our own material is an important ingredient.”
But the room’s main attraction is two machines from the 1880s used to make copper tacks. In 1991 the W.W. Cross Nail Co. – the one small copper tack manufacturer – decided to stop manufacturing tacks. Wilson smartly acquired two machines and today makes seven sizes of tacks and 1/2″ copper shoe pegs, which some people use to secure a box’s top and bottom boards instead of wood pegs.
Wilson fires up one of the pulleys on one of the old, oily, ingenious machines to show how it works. Depending on the size, it takes from 10 to 50 minutes to make one pound of tacks. Considering there are about 750 tacks in an ounce, that’s 12,000 copper tacks. They’re tiny, like garden seeds, and easily fit in a small box. Tacks sell from $40 to $130 a pound – enough for a lifetime of box making. And he sells 300 pounds a year.
However, box makers aren’t the only ones delighted that Wilson is making copper tacks. He also sees healthy business from the makers of Adirondack guide boats and organ restoration companies.
“Talk about specialty,” Wilson says, laughing. “This is the ultimate niche business.”
A Blend of Hand and Power
“What would a craftsman of 200 years ago do in my shop?” John asked. “He would delight in the thickness planer, table saw and drum sander to relieve much of the drudgery of woodworking. At the same time he would laugh at some elaborate setup for the router, which could be done simply and quietly with chisel and mallet or with a well-tuned hand plane.”
Wilson says the choice to use power tools or hand tools depends on the situation. “The power tool – hand tool debate isn’t an exclusionary ‘either/or,’ but an inclusive ‘both,’” he says. “Tools of any kind are problem-solving objects depending on the skill of the craftsman. Learning this is what gaining an educated pair of hands is about.” His favorite tools – a blend of power and hand – include a 3″ x 21″ belt sander, 2 1/2″ Red Devil scraper and a Stanley low-angle block plane.
Wilson sponsors events at The Home Shop taught by others besides himself. In 1997 John Brown taught a class on Welsh chairmaking. “He’s passionate about hand-tool work, leaving the world of power behind right after blocking out the chair parts on the band saw. It was by far the most effective style for teaching chairmaking I have witnessed. As sponsor as well as participant, I faced a dilemma in getting both jobs done, something not uncommon in life in general.” So, Wilson decided save time by using power tools – a decision that didn’t go over well with Brown.
“John Brown, who can be a curmudgeon at times, came in at the start of the day after I had been in the shop for three early morning hours getting my chair done. I received a proper dressing down such as a boot camp sergeant might give. I stood attentive like a good soldier, listening to a man deserving of respect because of his expertise and experience. I could appreciate his point of view, so passionately given, on the virtue of hand tools while blending that kernel of truth with the mix of tools I had just employed that morning.”
The Business of Selling to Woodworkers
Near the door in the shop’s main room are a desk, telephone and files, where Wilson does much of his business. Although he has a web site (ShakerOvalBox.com), he’s only seen it once; he leaves the computer world to his business partners. Customers can’t order online and Wilson doesn’t accept credit cards. Instead, everyone is a “preferred customer” with shipment first and payment after they receive the order.
Once an order is received, Wilson and his partners fill, package and ship it, along with an invoice. They simply trust customers will pay, and 99.7 percent do.
In addition to selling kits, Wilson sells bands, tops, bottoms, handles, forms, patterns, tools (including copper hot water trays, a drilling jig, anvil and sanding block), copper tacks, pegs and rivets, booklets, pattern packets and a DVD video.
Many of Wilson’s clients have particpated in his classes, and classes aren’t limited to box making. Fond of making his own tools, Wilson also teaches classes in plane, spokeshave and travisher making, as well as hand-cut dovetails, mortise-and-tenon joinery, sailboat building and paddle making.
Wilson has done well thanks to his good business sense and self-described frugality.
“The business has been successful for me,” he says. “It supports three families.” Currently he grosses about $250,000 a year.
Wilson says part of his success is because of his willingness to share information for free. “I’ve always made it a policy to be totally open,” he says. “It’s the only way I want to live.”
The Home Shop does have a second floor, used mainly for storage. Boxes, paper bags, $500 worth of toothpicks and pages of material fill the space. Recently Wilson created a kit for a Shaker music box. Its song? The well-known Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts:”
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.As the bonfire dwindles, Wilson reflects on his accomplishments as well as his goals for the future, which include writing three books. Although Wilson now expects life changes to happen about every 10 years, it’s clear he’s content with his mix of selling, teaching, building and writing – he’s where he ought to be … in his place just right. And, looking at his home, shop and family, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a valley of love and delight. PW