Swaine Street Woodworking

swaine street woodworkingFresh face in a traditional trade

Rats motivated Jana Bookholt to take up cabinet making. As she describes it, “It’s not a pleasant story to tell, but these pests got into my kitchen. After calling the exterminator, I was determined to not have it happen again. My solution was to replace the old, decaying cabinets with new ones I would build myself.”

So, about two years ago, the 30-year-old former waitress decided to go back to school to learn how to do just that: build cabinets. She enrolled in a cabinet-making course at Nova Scotia Community College in Sydney, N.S. It was upon completion of that course that she stumbled upon a life-changing development, as well as her current career.

According to Bookholt, “Along the way, I started making these wooden cutting boards. I found myself at a tiny local craft show and, amazingly, I sold five of them. I thought to myself, ‘I think I might be on to something here,’ so I just kept making them, and people kept buying them.”

This continuing demand for her high-end, custom-made and engraved wooden cutting-boards, which are roughly the size of your average 8 1/2-by-11 paper pad — and retail for a minimum of $85 — has led to the establishment of Swaine Street Woodworking in Halifax, N.S. This one-woman operation makes finely handcrafted cutting boards, butcher blocks and charcuterie boards, as well as such sundries as beeswax polish and lemon cutting-board oils.

A number of factors have coalesced to contribute to Bookholt’s initial success. First, she has an uncanny ability to get noticed. Moosehead Breweries saw just that when they came across her Twitter account and decided to profile her as part of their 2012 cross-country tour that showcased hand-crafted works and their creators.

Just recently, Design Lines magazine showcased her and her cutting boards as part of their events listings. Bookholt is a featured exhibitor for the One of a Kind Christmas Show and Sale in Toronto, Ont. Bookholt says, “I use social media. This is how people have found out about me locally, and nationally. I also try to do public relations – press releases, media kits — whatever it takes to be seen and heard.”

In other words, Bookholt has utilized as much free publicity as is available to an upstart entrepreneur. Yet she knows that continuing to build her business will not be free, or easy. Indeed, she often struggles with the challenges involved in establishing herself as independently successful.

Currently, Bookholt gets government assistance. Nova Scotia provides subsidies for young entrepreneurs like Bookholt that export their products to other provinces. Swaine Street currently sells to a handful of retail outlets in Toronto, in addition to stores in her local area. Bookholt also has access to wood shop machinery provided by the government. The government also provides consultations on various aspects of running a business.

Bookholt has also received support, both emotionally and financially, from her parents. She says, “My dad always wanted me to join the navy. He was in the armed forces and thinks it’s a solid job with steady pay. Instead, I went to art school, and then became a waitress. So when I decided to go into business for myself, both he and my mom eventually supported me. I could not have done this without them.”

In fact, it’s not uncommon to see the whole family hit the road, with cutting boards on board, and travel to various craft shows, including the One of a Kind show in Toronto. As Bookholt describes it, “My mom is definitely the salesperson in the family. She’ll stop people in the aisle, ask them about what they’re wearing, and they’ll eventually come to our booth and look at our product. They often don’t know what hit them.”

Although her mom might have some natural sales acumen, Bookholt says she doesn’t have much of it herself — which probably puts her in the same category as most wood industry workers across the country. It’s why she has hired a sales agent, on commission, to get into more stores and reach more customers. She just wants to work in the shop and do her thing, yet she is also keenly aware of all the other responsibilities of being a business owner.

Indeed, Bookholt is still torn between being a creative wood professional, and self-described artist, on the one hand, and a viable business on the other. As she explains, “My first tax season is coming up, and I’m dreading it. My dream is to become famous and have my work displayed at the best shows and in the finest magazines. I know it takes hard work. I know it takes a plan. I know it takes investments of time and money.”

In her former life as a free-spirited bar waitress, these kinds of investments might have been hard for Bookholt. Yet she cites her current career change as being responsible for changing her life, and her lifestyle. She says, “Instead of always wanting to have a good time, I now work. I create stocks of product. I plan my next move. I’m always thinking about the future and growing my business.”

Part of that approach for Bookholt involves an insatiable desire to learn. She says she often goes to the library to research older magazines for newer design ideas. She also desperately wants to learn from professionals in the wood industry. For her work term as part of the cabinet making course, Bookholt worked with Ken Parsons, a professional cabinet maker in Halifax. It was an invaluable experience for her.

Bookholt says, “I just loved working with Ken. He puts so much pride into his work and provides such great value to his customers. For me, it’s too bad that he basically does all this great work as a one-man show. I would love to work beside him or anyone else in this business: cabinet making, furniture making — the sky’s the limit in terms of the kinds of wood projects I want to work on.”

Which raises an interesting question for our industry: Why does someone like Bookholt have trouble finding an experienced wood professional to work beside? We always talk about a skills gap. We always talk about finding more people to bring into the industry. Yet here’s an eager, entrepreneurial wood professional who in some ways is still looking from the outside in.

Perhaps old habits are hard to break in our business. Nevertheless, if the last year says anything, it’s that a young woman can break into the wood industry and make people notice. From starting as a recreational wood hobbyist, to achieving professional success in her own right, Jana Bookholt must be doing something right. And it’s likely she’ll keep getting noticed for creating her own unique niche within the wood trades.

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