Designers, builders make the most of wood
NEW HAVEN — It’s not every day you need stingray hide to finish a cabinet.
But if you’re building high-end interior cabinets, it’s actually not that uncommon either, says Skimmer Hellier, who keeps a stack of the hides in a drawer at work.
Hellier owns and runs Stark Mountain Woodworking with partner Louis DuPont, whom he met while the two were on a construction crew together in the 1990s. They’ve since expanded their company to 18 workers and operate out of a three-story, 70-year-old former chicken barn in New Haven. The building and many additions include about 12,000 square feet on the ground level.
Stark Mountain is a custom woodworking shop with some very high-end clients. They recently outfitted the interior of a new home in Carmel, Calif., with reclaimed New England lumber, and installed $4 million worth of cabinets and other woodwork into one home in New York. They also do a lot of work for local schools like Williams, Dartmouth and Bennington colleges and the University of Vermont.
The stingray hides — and other very high-end finishes — usually come out for clients in New York, Hellier said. Using the hide, known as shagreen, doesn’t endanger any species, Hellier hastens to point out.
“Stingray are farmed in Thailand primarily for their meat,” he said.
Stark Mountain is part of a large and diverse woodworking industry in Vermont that includes veterans like Ethan Allen furniture — which has corporate offices in Connecticut but still builds furniture at a plant in Orleans — and home-based workshops large and small.
According to a report from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, forest products generate an annual economic output of $1.5 billion and support 10,000 jobs. That category includes forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction, and wood heating.
Like many other businesses rooted in natural resources, Vermont woodworking companies tend to provide value-added products for consumers who want an alternative to mass-produced goods.
“It’s about finding the right markets — consumers who don’t want to buy things that are traveling all the way from, say, Asia,” said Christine McGowan, forest products program director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. “They want quality craftsmanship. There’s a strong market for that out there, and if you talk to Vermont woodworkers they’ll tell you that’s what they are tapping into.”
Mike Rainville, who owns Maple Landmark in Middlebury, has been on the board of the Vermont Wood Works Council since the group started in 1996, and was its president for 12 years. He’s seen the market change, with Chinese imports gaining a larger share and buyers moving online. His company, with 40 employees, makes toys and other small items. The success of small wood product manufacturers depends on how well the company manages its online presence, he said.
“A lot more furniture is being purchased online,” said Rainville, whose company sells to wholesalers and also directly to consumers online and at its Exchange Street factory store. “The access to those markets varies by the company and how they have handled their business model to date.”
Even with new tariffs, it’s still less expensive for U.S. stores to buy some products in China, said Jon Blatchford, who is president of the Wood Works Council.
“If there were tariffs on Chinese products, you’d think Williams Sonoma and Crate and Barrel would try to get more products in the U.S.,” said Blatchford, who is CEO of J.K. Adams in Dorset, which makes wooden kitchen products for large national chains. “The delta between Chinese prices and our prices is sometimes so great that even with the tariff I’m not sure their first reaction is to resource with us.”
Much of Stark Mountain’s business comes from designers with whom Hellier and DuPont have formed relationships over the years. Hellier said it’s critical to show clients there’s an advantage in using local customized woodwork over something that’s mass-produced.
“It’s not overly difficult if you have the time and energy to educate and if people are willing to hear it,” Hellier said.
Woodworking is one of the more viable areas of the forest industry. Companies that gather and work with the raw materials — like loggers, truckers, and sawmills — are struggling to compete in a global market that is increasingly becoming more specialized. High log prices and a wave of owner retirements are adding to the difficulties in that sector.
According to the Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation, the number of small family-owned sawmills in Vermont has dropped steeply in the last few decades, and now only 50 remain. This pains Hellier, who uses Vermont lumber when he can but also buys from suppliers in New York and Pennsylvania.
“It’s kind of like farming in Vermont,” said Hellier, whose wife is a farmer. “It’s incredibly difficult to make a living, I think, because they’re selling a raw material that is at the whim of many things: Mother Nature, fickle markets, and a lot of regulation.”
Problems with moving items across the border, and with transportation in general, also play a role, he said. Those elements affect the raw materials, but not the companies that make things from them in Vermont.
“We use a lot of Vermont lumber, but, I mean, that’s about it; our fate isn’t even remotely tied to theirs,” he said.
Rainville sees hope in the newest crop of woodworkers, who are starting out with a fresh understanding of marketing.
“We’re seeing younger people coming up who are more savvy to how markets are working now, with online and social media and all those sorts of things,” he said. “It’s good that Vermont industry is getting that transition.”