“I’m a woodworker”
This magazine has long held that politicians make horrid businessmen. Horrid. This current extension of the pandemic panic is but the latest and greatest example. But that opens a question to the converse: do businessmen make good politicians? Enter David Bylsma, proprietor of The Door Stop in Campden, Ont., and mayor of West Lincoln.
Looking positively non-mayoral in shorts and an open shirt on this 34C July day, he grinned ruefully and remarked, “you must have heard of my non-manufacturing avocation.” I had. I even saw an internet photo of him in a coat and tie — daring for a wood-industry professional, even in winter.
As we settled on folding chairs on the former loading dock of what was once a seed-and-feed store, Bylsma tried to pre-empt a question that was not coming. “I suppose you heard about the ‘pride’ issue,” he asked? I hadn’t, I said, “… but now that you mention it…..”
Bylsma flashed what I soon learned to be his signature, impish grin. He said as mayor, he had not allowed the flying of the pride, rainbow flag. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “this is not about lgbtq. Not a bit. It is about this cancel culture demanding that people say this or do that or else they will be attacked, and I didn’t see a place for coercion in our community. Identity politics is tearing the nation apart.” Predictably, the controversy came. The first thing that happened, he said, is that people started demanding he resign or be fired. “I got elected with 2,000 votes in the town,” he said, “and they came in with petitions signed by 5,000 people. Obviously, this was not a political position decided by our voters, but by people from outside.”
So I’m not resigning, he said. And as for getting fired, that’s tough. I own the company. Bylsma thinks the whole idea of one political group seizing every position and policy has to stop, and the first people to stand up should be people that can’t be fired. “You have to stand up for what you believe,” he says. “If you don’t, nobody will do it for you.”
Bylsma is as plain-speaking about his business. He started in a home shop 20 years ago, during Y2K, then he expanded to a second shop, and three-and-a-half years ago he bought his current location, including the bins behind the main shop floor. He also has 100 acres of managed bush, to include pine, red oak, maple and another 24 more exotic hardwoods, and a kiln and mill so he can integrate his entire operation — admittedly on a small scale.
One of the benefits, though, is that he can bring a class of home-schoolers to his property, and in two-and-a-half hours show them how to fell a 28-inch tree, cut off a 10- foot butt cut, skid it to the mill, show the kiln, move to the shop, rip, shape and mould the parts and assemble and sand a kitchen-cabinet door. One site, two-and-a-half hours and this was a tree this morning.
Bylsma thinks this approach is the wave of the future for kids in Canada. “University degrees have become mostly useless,” he says. “They teach topics that are not usable, indoctrinate endlessly and provide only a huge education bill.” That said, he wears an engineering ring on his pinkie he earned at McMaster. It is not the “whether” of education, but the “why.”
Very much practicing what he preaches, Bylsma’s nine children are all on track to own businesses in the Niagara Peninsula. One, his 19-year-old son, is following in his father’s footsteps in the business, introducing live-edge designs as an offshoot to what Bylsma has kept very basic. “I make cabinet doors,” he says. “That’s all. The other stuff is his thing.”
According to Bylsma, he sells between $400,000 and $700,000 annually, wholesale, into the regional market. He says 85 percent of his customers are local mom-and-pop shops, and he sort-of begrudgingly sells another 15 percent into the DIY market. All his doors are solid-wood or veneer, and he admits he has no CNC machinery. He says everybody is getting a CNC and the market in melamine is just too competitive. He runs on shapers, sanders, and his pride-and-joy, a four-blade Raimann rip saw.
Bylsma admits the Raimann is overgunned for his purposes, but he loves the accuracy, ease-of-use and dependability. In addition, he says it gives his employees a nice piece of equipment to play with.
Bylsma is enthusiastic about his workforce. When times are busy, he employs up to six, but for now he has only two, both of whom earn $26 per hour, plus six percent annual raises, and both of which have been with him for eight years.
Bylsma likes to keep his employees, and to keep them happy. He also likes to keep them safe, which is why he also owns a SawStop saw. For those that don’t know, a SawStop is a table saw that monitors an electric current at the blade. If anything not-wood touches the blade, it triggers a block that fires into the blade, stopping it on a dime. According to Bylsma, the cartridges fire falsely from time to time, but the $100 cost per cartridge is worth it for the peace of mind. “So far,” he says, “the Saw- Stop has saved one finger and about a dozen tape measures. The finger was the important one. The worker’s finger went into the blade, the blade stopped and what would have been a lost finger ended up as a 1/8-inch nick, a band-aid and back to work. Lesson learned.”
Bylsma sees his diamond tooling as the heart of his quality. All his tooling is diamond, he says, with the obvious pun on keeping his shop “cutting-edge.”
Bylsma would ultimately describe himself as a traditionalist. “I’m a woodworker,” he says. “In high school, I made kids’ toys and little table sets. Solid MDF is the fashion but if you put a hot kettle on MDF, it mushrooms. With solid oak, if your customer buys a new fridge that’s too tall for the existing cabinets, I can remove the rails, cut four inches, put it back together and keep the patina and match the existing cabinets.”