Cabinet Maker, April 1999
Building a Business That Builds Heirlooms
Creating an Heirloom
For owner Gary Weeks, the rocking chair isn’t just a product. It represents his respect for woodworking, and also for the materials he uses and the customers he sells to. “We build these chairs to last for generations,” he says. He chose to make furniture in part because he enjoyed designing and building it, and also because he wanted to get out of the construction business and instead produce high-quality furniture.
“In construction, you’re trying to build a superior product, but people can’t see it first. They can only compare your price to someone else's. I just wanted to simplify what I was selling,” says Weeks. So he chose to make only one rocking chair style. Though he now offers a choice of two dining tables and matching chairs, it is the Weeks Rocker that comprises the bulk of his business. Currently, he says he builds an average of about five chairs per week. Typical rockers go for about $1,450, but a special mesquite model commands a $3,500 price tag.
In choosing to produce rocking chairs, Weeks not only thought about his goals as a woodworker and a businessman, but also about what people wanted out of a high-quality piece of furniture. He explained that for him the rocking chair is an important family-oriented piece of furniture that has a hearth-and-home type of feeling. In fact, he sells many of his chairs to new or expecting parents. “People tend to keep their rocking chairs a long time. If you’ve got your grandmother’s old rocking chair, you’re going to keep that. I want to produce a superior product, something that will become an heirloom.”
In addition, Weeks is very concerned about the impact that producing his chairs has on the environment. In 1998, he entered and won first place in a design contest sponsored by CollinsWood, a wood supplier that specializes in selling wood produced from certified, environmentally sound forestry. He says his customers aren’t specifically asking for certified wood, but he’s doing his part to support and build awareness about responsible forestry. He expects to produce all of his cherry rocking chairs in 1999 from certified wood.
Living and working in the woods and sawmills of east Texas has piqued Week’s interest in sustainable forestry. He says the methods of forestry that he’s seen in the past are destructive of animal habitats, stream banks, soil fertility, local communities, and even the future source of quality timber. “I would prefer not to support that,” says Weeks.
“My plan is to establish a relationship with companies producing certified wood and produce my products from certified wood.” Still, switching over to certified wood has been a challenge. The type of certified wood he uses isn’t always readily available, and certified wood suppliers often don’t offer the attractive credit terms he’s used to from his local wholesalers. Nonetheless, he’s still committed to using certified wood.
-By Christine Wiltberger
Simple Product Complex Design
Although the rocking chair sounds like a simple enough product to create, the actual design proved to be more complex than one might expect. To start, Weeks had more than 50 people sit in a contraption he built to measure such things as back curve, height from the floor, and pitch. He wanted to make sure the rocker would be comfortable for almost any body type. After compiling his research, he took it to the drawing board and drafted full-scale drawings of the side, front, and plan views of the rocker. From there, he traced the drawings onto wood and cut the chair parts out of pine.
When the prototype chair was assembled, he invited some of the same people he initially measured to sit in the finished chair and give their comments. “It was close the first time,” says Weeks. Although he did have to make small adjustments to the arms, and take off the rockers a few times and glue them back on differently, he says nearly everyone--big, medium, and small-- who sits in the Weeks Rocker says it fits their back perfectly. He then put many more hours into creating jigs for every chair part, and custom building many of his machines to fit his needs. “We’ve been building chairs ever since,” says Weeks.
The chairs are typically made of solid maple, cherry, walnut, or mesquite that Weeks personally selects. He says the sculpted lines and following grain in the chair didn’t get there by accident. He starts by spreading out 300 to 400 board feet of lumber and marking each piece to indicate which part of the chair it will become. “The curve and symmetry has to flow throughout the chair,” he says. “I am trying to achieve a pleasing composition of figure and color within the form of the chair. Each part has very specific requirements.”
After the lumber is selected, it’s edged with a shop-built straight-line machine, and roughcut using a DeWalt radial-arm saw or a Powermatic model 66 table saw. Chair seats are made up of seven boards that are carefully matched for color, figure, and grain. They’re cut to size and rough-shaped using an ancient and massive Crescent Machine Co. bandsaw that Weeks picked up at a yard sale. Seats are then doweled and glued together. Finish carving is done by hand with a mallet and gouge, then the seats are rough-sanded with a Milwaukee sander/grinder, and finished sanded with a Porter-Cable random-orbit sander.
Other sanding on the chair parts is done using a variety of machines that Weeks built himself. “At the time,” he says, “I had more time on my hands than money. I did buy a kit, but building the sanders myself enabled me to tailor everything to my needs.” He built a stroke sander mainly for sanding the seat boards, and edge sander mainly for smoothing the outside curves, and a chair back sander for sanding inside curves. He also built two downdraft sanding tables for finish sanding of chair parts.
Chair rocker runners are laminated from bookmatched ¼-inch strips. Weeks uses a Forrest 10-inch thin-kerf saw blade on the Powermatic to cut the strips. “The thin-kerf blade gives the smooth surface that I need for gluing, and it also reduces waste,” he says.
Using a Delta lathe, Weeks hand-turns front chair arms and rocker runners, and are secured with wedges. The arms are also deeply mortise-and-tenoned into the back legs.
Assembled chairs are sculpted, random orbit sanded, and hand sanded with 320 sandpaper, then Deft Danish oil is applied liberally by hand over a period of five days to ensure that as much oil as possible absorbs into the wood. The result is an ultra-smooth satin finish that accentuates the true color of the wood and enhances the grain.
Weeks’ operation is a labor intensive one, with four all-time employees, including himself, and three part-timers. Weeks has considered automating parts of the business, particularly the production of chair seats. He has talked about it a lot with his employees, but is currently undecided as to what to do. For now, he’s embarked on a plan of slowly building production with his current methods.
The Next Generation
Among Weeks’ full-time employees is his 21-year-old son, Austin, who grew up in his dad’s woodshop and has learned the business from an early age. “He’s made a big difference in the shop,” says Weeks. “He’s much faster and more decisive than I am. He knows how to work, and it will apply to anything he does.”
Though Weeks may be one man short when his son goes off to college, he says he usually can find people who want to work in a small shop like his. In fact, one of his employees quit a high-paying job at Motorola to build chairs full-time.
Producing a First-class Show
Weeks says producing a well-designed, well-built, well-finished product means that everything that goes along with it--customer service, advertising, accounting--has to be just as polished as the product. “The whole effort has to be a first-class show.”
To get the word out about his chairs, Weeks leased a small space in an upscale antique mall in Austin, TX. He says it was the perfect arrangement because his chairs were displayed among many museum-quality pieces. “That really formed a good base for customers, because locals as well as tourists saw the rocking chair.”
And he’s found that participating in a handful of local art fairs is a good source of business and exposure. He also advertises in home furnishings magazines, and actively tracks inquiries to show where his sales are coming from. In addition, Weeks looks for non-traditional channels to promote his chairs, such as the design contest. “I’m doing everything I can to get the word out about the chairs,” he says.
He notes that perseverance also helped him build the business. “I did have numerous periods of anxiety along the way,” says Weeks. “But I never lost a deep underlying faith that I was making a phenomenal product.” While Weeks has been building and selling rocking chairs for six years, he says he’s just now at the point where he feels comfortable. Last year marked the first year that Weeks was able to dedicate his time solely to making rocking chairs, tables, and dining chairs. Up until 1997, he was still doing construction on the side.
Company sales in 1998 were around $230,000, up dramatically from $130,000 the year before. Weeks says a key factor in the growth of his business was his equal dedication to both his product and to making his business work. “If I didn’t enjoy accounting and tracking numbers, I’d have to pay somebody to do it and nobody would take the level of interest that I do. I’m building a business, as well as building furniture.”