Saturday, September 12, 2009

Un-Mixing Maine's Woodworking Messages

While the economy has undeniably hurt many small woodworking shops here in Maine, and the overall Maine woodworking industry as whole, there are still many who are just as busy as they have ever been. The Maine Wood Products Association's "Splinters" article posted in February, 2009, titled "Mixed Messages", addresses this. "During the recent MWPA Annual Meeting in Farmington, the new “roll call” session brought out a lot of good information about the condition of our industry. Unfortunately, the news was “all over the map”, from dire to encouraging to downright busy."

The "dire", I believe, is just the tip of that iceberg. It has been seven months since that article was posted. The economy has been in a steady drop, and prices for everything from groceries to insurance have kept rising. Adjustable Rate Mortgage percentages have risen, and the the banks have tightened restrictions for new loans. There has been migration out of the state for for higher wages. President Obama in his address to Congress stated that insurance premiums have risen 3X faster than wages. At least 30% of a small woodshop owner's budget goes to insurance costs. Then they are hit with the IRS' self-employment tax each year too. Maine is one of the highest taxed states in the country. School enrollments have been falling in this state for years resulting in cuts in industrial arts classes. With the job market so tight, wages are down. I can't imagine being in a paid apprenticeship position for $8.00/hr. I would be willing to bet the number of apprentice woodworkers has decreased substantially over the last fifteen years.

I learned woodworking in my high school. After college I went to work for a house builder and worked in the wood shop building windows, doors, and stair parts, and I made $8.00/hr. I was single, and my rent was cheap with roomates. I apprenticed for a furniture maker for several years after at $10 - 20.00/hr. He had learned his skills from his father. This was my experience, and I haven't been aware of any similar experiences in recent years. That's not to say they are not out there, but I really believe the times are different now. The house builder I worked for employed fifty carpenters, and supplied them all with health insurance, including dental. How many furniture/woodworking/homebuilding companies are out there today that employ those numbers? Moosehead Furniture has about 20 employees (from my understanding), and they are all in danger of losing their jobs. I have heard of other companies in the Millinocket area that are close to closing too. I received a phone call from an insurance agent who told me he knows his friend, a cabinetmaker in the Portland area, who currently has no liability insurance.

I think most everyone here in Maine knows someone who knows a woodworker. I think 100 years ago most people just knew a woodworker. I think today we are heading towards a 3rd degree of separation. Try asking around.

I think we, as a community, need to support those who are doing well in these troubled times, as well as those who are not doing well. I think we will all benefit by getting the word out nationally, that the quality of maine craftsmanship is world-class. The bottom line is money. We need to prove to consumers that the furniture made here in Maine is an investment, and is generational. We need to educate consumers about what constitutes good vs. bad furniture. We need to let people know that buying local is in itself "green". I think we should see more free venues for promotion for local woodworkers, such as town-sponsored events where other artisans can take place too. I think it is important to document as much of this state's woodworking history as possible, because I just don't see it out there. There are so many talented people in this industry who go unnoticed. They have to pay to be documented in ads in magazines, or pay to get listed on directories. They have to hope someone other than their clients (the media) will notice their talents and do a story on them. Has FOX news ever done a story on a local woodworker? Our media covers the tragedies in our lives way more than it ever champions the average person, skilled in their trade, and active in their community.

Mixed Messages is right. With all the social media available today, I believe it IS possible to un-mix the messages. By spending our money wisely and locally, and using our FaceBook, Twitter, and MySpace avenues, we can extend the "word-of-mouth" far beyond what it has traditionally been capable of. Free promotion, with very little effort.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Support Maine's Woodworking Community; It Only Takes 10 Minutes

I think it is so unfortunate that the media wasn't alerted to the fact that there was a small, one-man shop operating out of the Gardiner Mill. I would like to thank the Kennebec Journal, and the Hallowell Record for printing the story of my loss. To me, and all the other small shops dotting the Maine map, it's another example of our industry gone unnoticed. This economy is crushing small cabinet shops all over the state. I have received calls and emails from cabinetmakers, and people who know cabinetmakers, all saying the same thing: It is extremely hard to make ends meet these days, and it's not getting any better.

People are looking to save money by purchasing "big box" kitchen cabinets and furniture. What is happening is that the local woodworkers cannot compete with the huge companies using sub-par materials, and out-sourcing their production to other countries. When one cabinet shop closes, it absolutely has a ripple effect in the community. Hardware and lumber stores lose the business. The coffee shops, the grocery stores, the gas stations, the paint stores. All at the "expense" of cheap furniture that starts deteriorating at the first hint of moisture, and more often than not, contains harmful gasses that release when wet.

The Story is about a suffering, if not dying, industry here in Maine. Woodworkers are an overlooked asset to our economy and community. The fire at my shop and the media's omission of Cork Cove Furniture's presence there is a small example of the fact that so many shops are just one disaster away from closing. That disaster could be a lost bid, or a bid too low taken, a finger cut off, a day or week down-time during a critical phase of a project, or even a customer refusing or unable to pay a bill. It's that close for us. Buy locally. Save and spend wisely on things that last. It matters, believe me.

Here are some links to the editors of the papers who ran the story. Please contact them and let them know about a woodworker you know who may be in danger of losing their livelihood. President Obama referred to higher health care costs for the self-employed, but insurance costs across the board for a self-employed cabinetmaker account for 30% (minimum) of their operating costs. I will address this in my next posting. I welcome any and all comments! Thank you.

Kennebec Journal:

Bangor Daily News;

WLBZ2 Bangor:


WCSH Channel 6 Portland:

Please take 10 minutes to follow these links to add a comment about a woodworker you know who is hurting in these difficult times. Maine's woodworking community has been such an understated valuable resource to our way of life, and it is deteriorating before our eyes. By supporting your local cabinet shops, you are supporting "green" practices, as well as your local community.

Thank you!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The only asset the fire left me was my domain I had years of work invested in Cork Cove Furniture, and as the economy went from bad to worse, so went the custom woodworking industry here in Maine.

Maintaining a steady work flow became increasingly more difficult and time-consuming. Bidding became so competitive people were dropping their prices as much as 30 -40 % just to make sure they got the work. I was the number two bid, out of three, on a job where the client took the lowest bid, far below mine. I recall wondering how the winning bidder could possibly make more than three dollars an hour on that job. Something had to give. Quality? Operating costs? Safety? This situation hurts everybody.

Maine's woodworking image on the national scale is top-notch. Heavy influence from the Shaker work ethic, and joinery techniques is apparent in Maine craftsmanship.

The woodworking industry here in Maine is so ingrained in all of our lives, that it's easy to overlook the real difficult problems it is facing. It goes unnoticed to the point that no one knew, or even bothered to look, that there was a business in the mill fire that lost everything.

Three days after the fire, after reading every news report about it, every single article referred to the mill as abandoned. I Googled the address, 483 Water St., Gardiner, ME, and Cork Cove Cabinetmakers appeared three times on the first page. Not one reporter, from the ten or so articles I read, had any idea who occupied the building.

I feel terrible enough, and embarrassed that I did not have insurance, but I hope that by bringing attention to the fact that there was in fact a business, mine, that operated out of that "abandoned" mill. Perhaps that by calling attention to this, someone will see the value in coming forward with information about the person, or people, involved in setting the fires.

In the meantime, I will continue to be thankful that no one was hurt in the fire, and no one was hurt battling the fire. The fire took everything except my domain name, Now, I want to take this opportunity to explore and document Maine's rich woodworking history. I want Maine Furniture to be a place where people can learn about woodworking, and furniture, and history, and share their stories, and associations, and interact with others whose passions lay in this industry and state.

So many small shops go unnoticed. High schools have cut their woodworking classes. The economy has forced sacrifices in quality and safety. Cheaper, low quality furniture is too readily available, and does not last.

Instead of buying a cheap dining room table and chairs, have a local person make a table for you. Buy the chairs when you can afford them next. The money saved long-term is remarkable. Buy local, buy "green". By supporting your local cabinetmaker, you are dealing with someone who wants your business, and cares enough to stand by their work. You won't need your receipt, and you won't get put on hold. If somthing ever goes wrong with their work, they will be there to fix it because it is their name, and their reputation, locally, that matters to them. You matter to them, and what an incredible beginning to a business relationship that has so much potential for growth.

I believe in this premise, because I have experienced it. It is my goal to promote the independent woodworkers in Maine, as well as their personal woodworking histories.

Please follow me on Twitter, and please leave comments. I want to hear about pieces of furniture that are important to you. I want to record as many different methods of joinery as possible. I want people to know the differences in finishes used in furniture making throughout the ages. If it involves woodworking and/or woodworkers, on any and all levels, let's talk about it!

Thank you all who have been supporting me through this economy, and now the aftermath of the fire. I am truly thankful.

Mark McKelvey