The wood industry: It’s a life
The rule of thumb says 90 percent of Canadians live within 90 miles of the U.S. border. However, the U.S. does not define Canada. You have to go north.
Virtually everybody living in or visiting the Toronto area knows the exit off the 401 for Winston Churchill Blvd., but most take it south, toward Lake Ontario. If you head north, you will pass a poultry processor, a few curves in the road, the Credit River and the little town of Norval. Soon, up out of the valley, you will come to Blue Heron Woodworks on the left. If the road turns to gravel, you have gone too far.
Blue Heron looks like a house, because it is. The proprietor, Rae Harnden, started in a garage in 1970, grew to a 100-man shop in the ‘80s, and downsized in the ‘90s to follow his dream of a quality life. “I will never be a millionaire again,” he says, “but I am doing what I like.”
The fast life came to a head on October 30, 1970. Harnden was director of operations for a chain of men’s clothing stores in Canada. “I was a young buck,” says Harnden, “and I was making huge.”
According to Harnden, he had been out west closing the deal on buying a chain of stores, had been out for six weeks and caught an early flight home. He thought he would sneak in early and surprise his wife and daughter, so he came up the drive and snuck through the breezeway. It had snowed, and there, looking up at a contrail, his daughter asked her mom whether that jet had daddy.
“I don’t know, honey,” mom said. “It might.”
The daughter had one more question: “Will I know daddy when he comes?”
“That,” says Harnden, “broke my heart. I turned in my resignation the next day.”
Faced with a decision made without planning the follow-up, Harnden fell back to making things for people out of wood — a sideline he had enjoyed since his youth. A few cabinets and a few tables, word of mouth marketing, classified ads and a flea market, and the orders started pouring in.
As his business expanded, Harnden says, nothing seemed to slow him down, and he was soon in control of the 100-man shop earlier described in Milton, Ont. “The recession of the ‘70s was fine,” he says, “and the recession of the ‘80s was fine. However, in the recession of the ‘90s, the banks were not lending any money, and we had to close up shop.”
The high-rolling pace of the retail world helped Harnden increase his size and sales through the ‘80s, but the new economic reality forced another reassessment. This time, he went for small. Opening the current storefront in his rural residence in 1992, Harnden has become a fixture on the road to Toronto for the locals, and word-of-mouth still works. In fact, Harnden is still selling cabinets and furniture to people that first bought from him 40 years ago.
Harnden is realistic about his business and the passage of time. “We live in a disposable society,” says Harnden. Young people don’t want quality, and they don’t realize they will buy four or five sets of furniture from Chinese manufacturers in the same time it would take for one set of well-made, Canadian products to fall apart.
One constant problem Harnden has is locals that know he has a shop bringing in poor furniture for repair. In one example, a dining set from China came in, and the chair legs, which were set on a wide angle from the seat, were not trimmed on the feet to sit flat. In addition to marring the floor, the chair’s glue failed. Since Harnden had sold to these people before, he agreed to trim the legs and re-glue the chairs.
According to Harnden, he charged the people $80, which made them mad. To Harnden, you just can’t win trying to repair poor products. There is no money, no satisfaction for either him or the customer, and everybody gets cheated.
Harnden says his doctor had been giving him lectures for years about his lungs, warning him about finishing. Finally, two years ago, the doc diagnosed Harnden with COPD and ordered him to quit finishing. Always resilient, Harnden drew up some spec sheets for customers interested in self-finishing. For those that want it finished for them, Harnden has a list of locals that can do it.
Harnden had the same pragmatic approach to help in the shop. His son was his co-worker for years, but the ups and downs of the solid-wood furniture market led to his son taking another job. At the same time, he moved his raw-supply storage to a local farm, where he can go get what he needs.
According to Harnden, people need to look again at the value of buying Canadian. “I’m Canadian, my products are Canadian and I only use Canadian supplies. Most of my material is eastern white pine, harvested in northern Ontario or Quebec, although I will use any wood a customer specifies.”
Harnden is tough on specs, himself, requiring a moisture content of between 5 and 6 percent from the mills he uses.
Harnden is not a fan of big machines. He used those when it was necessary in the factory. Today, he has a table saw, a band saw, a shaper, a couple of hand-held routers and an assortment of clamps. “I don’t have a computer,” he says. “And I don’t have a fax. My phone is a rotary, because that’s the only kind I can hear when I’m in the shop.
“I am not going to grow,” says Harnden. “I was big; now I’m little. Guys like me are becoming a rarity. However, when a customer comes in, we can spend some time together, making drawings and finding out exactly what she wants. The best customer is an educated customer that looks at the product in the natural state. The rest are just looking for disposable things.”