Hanson: Finding Our Way
The first Eldred Wheeler catalog included four pieces: a Connecticut River Valley scalloped-top nightstand, a Connecticut Queen Anne lowboy, a Dunlap-style candlestand, and a Rhode Island dish-top tea table with candle slides. These pieces were offered in cherry, maple, and, upon special order, tiger maple. Pictured in the catalog were the prototypes I had constructed from old wood; all of them cherry except for the lowboy, which was maple. Since we did not have a label or a branding iron for six months after moving into Hanson, I identified each prototype and the first production pieces by incising EW1 with a 1/2-inch chisel. Of our company’s first four prototypes, we kept the candlestand, tea table, and nightstand, but sold the lowboy. Its fate is unknown, and given that it was constructed from antique wood, one wonders if it has lost its identifying EW1 and become an “original antique.”
The Hanson site had previously been a drug store, and in typical 1950s fashion had large display widows across its front and extensive floor-to-ceiling shelving across the entire back. It took us the better part of two weeks to convert the main store space into an open workshop and partition off a small display area immediately behind the large picture windows.
Shortly after moving into Hanson we hired our first employee, Gary Mills. He was officially our shop manager, even though he was our only employee. Gary was experienced with power equipment, and immediately took charge of our two woodworking machines, a used $100 table saw and a 12-inch band saw. (Our shortage of power equipment was probably a blessing, since neither Bill nor I had much experience with these potentially dangerous devices.) In his earlier search for a site, Bill had run across an exceptionally talented woodworker, Jesse Meyer, of Halifax, Massachusetts. Jesse was more than willing to share his expertise with us, and we decided to use him for our turnings and more difficult woodworking tasks. (Scenes from Jesse’s shop were used in numerous company catalogs. The interior of his shop is pictured on page 204.) With Gary and Jesse on board, things seemed to be going pretty well except for one major problem: there were no orders from our new catalog. All in all, this was probably fortunate, because I hadn’t yet developed a suitable finish. To support the business, Gary and I built a variety of custom pieces from old wood and restored some antiques for a few dealers.
A big break came a couple of months later with the hiring of our second full-time employee, a fellow named Ron Jackson. Prior to joining Eldred Wheeler, Ron had worked with an elderly cabinetmaker who taught him several old-time finishing recipes. Hearing some of our finishing horror stories, Ron volunteered to finish a maple Dunlap candlestand from our first production run of five. We were skeptical as he retreated to the sink to make his special stain. His magical brew was comprised of water, apple chewing tobacco, ammonia, and alcohol. After letting the mixture stand overnight, he decanted the muddy brown liquid and applied it to the stand. Once dry, he applied several coats of orange shellac, buffing the piece with fine steel wool between each coat. The stand came out great, much to our amazement, and we immediately adopted the process. This proved to be a turning point for Eldred Wheeler: not the discovery of the old-time finish process (which we abandoned a short time later), but rather the realization that experimentation was the key to achieving the look we sought. Ron left after only a few months, but his impact had been great.
At this point, our cabinetmaking capabilities were pretty limited. Gary sized flat panels on our table saw and cut contours with our band saw, while Jesse made our turnings and moldings. Joinery was basically all handwork. We produced the mortise-and-tenon joints for attaching legs or making breadboard tops by using a table saw to rough-cut the tenons and a hand drill to hollow-out the mortises. Hand chisels were then used to finish the operation. Dovetails, used in constructing drawers or framing cases, were cut completely by hand using only a backsaw, coping saw, and flat chisel. Joinery was cumbersome and painstakingly slow, but the carving was an even greater problem. I was the only one in the shop with any carving experience, and at that point I had only carved two objects, the most recent being the fan for the Connecticut lowboy prototype.
Fate smiled on us late one Friday afternoon in April of 1978, when a local sign carver, Walter Holmes, wandered into the shop. I was the only one there, since Bill was off on deliveries and the rest of the crew had left for the weekend. I was in the back of the shop, totally engrossed in brushing shellac on a candlestand, so I was a little startled when an unfamiliar voice rang out. I normally locked the front door when working alone, because the shop was on a main highway and people often stopped out of curiosity or to ask for directions. While nothing really bad had ever happened, some previous unexpected visits had been a bit scary. Nevertheless, Walter looked friendly enough, so I stopped working, introduced myself, and he and I began to chat.
It turned out that Walter was a jack-of-all-trades: household repair, general carpentry, woodworking, and, best of all, carving. His primary source of income over the last year had been sign carving, and the reason for his visit was to try to sell us a new sign. Of course, a new sign was the least of my needs. On my workbench there were five drawer fronts, each in need of a fan carving. They were for our first production run of Connecticut lowboys, and I had procrastinated starting work on them, afraid of finding out that my carving skills were even worse than I imagined. When I showed the drawer fronts and the pattern for the fan carving to Walter, he took one look, exclaimed “piece-of-cake,” and offered to carve them for $20 each. “Thank you Lord!” I thought as I handed him the blanks and walked him to the front door. He did a great job on the fans, and over the next few weeks we happily gave him all of our carving. Within a month we convinced him to join us full-time.
During the remainder of the year we made other key additions to our team. In the fall of 1978, we hired Ben Whipple as our plant manager. Ben had run a local woodworking shop that made large quantities of pine knickknacks. Since the business had notoriously low gross margins, Ben had developed exceptional skills at balancing production with cash flow. What was more remarkable was that Ben was allowed to oversee the operation during his summers while still an undergraduate at Swarthmore. Only after graduating the previous spring had he accepted the full-time manager position at the shop.
Ben approached Eldred Wheeler more out of curiosity than any expectation of finding a job. Bill and I, on the other hand, had been toying for some time with the idea of hiring someone with woodworking plant experience. Orders had steadily increased during 1978, and by autumn were approaching $5000 per month. Gary had been ideal during our setup period, but had little experience in scaling-up production to the levels we hoped to achieve during the coming year. Ben, on the other hand, was perfect for the job. Our challenge was to get him to jump ship and join our fledgling enterprise. Fortunately, he had already decided that there wasn’t much future in pine knickknacks, and joined us less than two weeks after we made him an offer. Ben proved to be an instant asset. He expanded our rudimentary shop equipment and set up jigs for our repeat milling operations. He also recruited several additional skilled woodworkers and coordinated their activities to streamline the workflow. Our productivity immediately skyrocketed.
About the same time, another individual, Mike Bushway, responded to our advertisement for a finisher. Mike had been working at a small kitchen-cabinet company, where he was one of several sprayers. While there, he gained a lot of experience with commercial stains and lacquers. Due to a hiccup in the economy, the company’s sales slowed and Mike was laid off. Mike was a godsend. Up to this point I had pretty much been Eldred Wheeler’s one-man finish department, and it was great to have a partner. Mike and I experimented as a team. He suggested spraying the shellac. We tried it, and it worked. He suggested a tire chain for light distressing. We tried it, and it was a disaster. My follow-on idea of using old keys on a ring worked like a charm. Mike found new sources for our finishing powders; I mixed them to produce colors of old cherry and maple. We complemented each other perfectly. Over the years, Eldred Wheeler’s finish improved through trial and error, and ultimately it evolved to the point where we could routinely produce pieces with the look and feel we had originally envisioned. While numerous individuals contributed to this evolution, it was our initial experimentation that got the ball rolling.
We produced a variety of pieces during our few years in Hanson, and our second catalog included illustrations of more than 35 items. These included some newly designed pieces, such as a Rhode Island slipper-foot lowboy and a pencil-post bed, along with several small items such as pipe boxes and mirrors. We also included pictures of items we were willing to make. (These pictures were clipped from various reference books, and we never actually made most of them.)
About the time of our second catalog, we began labeling and branding each of our pieces. We patterned our label after an 18th century Boston cabinetmaker’s example, and with the exception of the address, the Eldred Wheeler label has remained unchanged over the years. We also purchased a branding iron to more permanently identify our pieces. The brand simply read eldred wheeler. The location of where the brand and label were applied to various pieces is described later in this guide.
Adding Windsor Chairs to Our Line
Towards the end of 1978 we began offering Windsor chairs crafted by Bob Barrow of Bristol, Rhode Island. Bob was introduced to me by an antique-dealer friend of mine, Bob Zexter, who also lived in Bristol and happened to visit the fledgling chair shop during one of his outings. Bob Barrow had decided to forgo his earlier focus of making coffee tables out of used telephone wire spools and try his hand at something a bit more difficult: building Windsor chairs. His first attempt was a Rhode Island continuous-arm Windsor chair. My friend Bob happened to visit Barrow’s shop as he was completing the chair. Although he had made some beginner’s errors in the chair’s historical design, his potential as a woodworker was immediately apparent. Since my friend Bob thought Eldred Wheeler might be interested in offering Windsor chairs at some point, he suggested I visit the Barrow shop.
My first visit with Bob Barrow was a bit of a trip back in time. I arrived at his shop around 4:30 one Friday. It was located a block from Bristol Harbor, in a row of old and worn buildings. I could imagine countless little workshops like Bob’s, cluttered and cozy, scattered along the waterfronts of 18th century harbors. A giant band saw was planted in the center of the shop, like a sort of monolith to the cult of woodworking. Wood chips and shavings were scattered around its base, as if offerings to some woodworking deity. Bob was in a corner, busily shaping the bow for a Windsor side chair. As I approached he looked up, smiled, and greeted me with “it’s Miller time.” With that, he flung open the door to a small fridge and flipped me a can of ice cold Miller. As we sat and talked about the joys and travails of woodworking, I couldn’t help but think that this was the way business should be conducted.
Bob agreed to start making chairs for Eldred Wheeler, and I placed an initial order for six continuous armchairs. Bob’s output was limited because he pretty much worked alone, so I committed to buy all the chairs he could make. This seemed to suit him, and, with a handshake, Eldred Wheeler was in the Windsor chair business. Within a year, it became apparent that Bob needed to expand to keep up with our increasing demand. He struck on the idea of creating another company, focused on streamlining Windsor chair production. Since he wanted to remain in his idyllic little shop by Bristol harbor, he approached his brother-in-law, Dave Wescott, about managing the new company. Dave agreed, and within a week had found a manufacturing site a short distance away, in Warren, Rhode Island. The week after that, the three of us arranged to meet and kick off the new venture. The new facility was a wonderful old building, originally used to process and store grain. It had well-worn hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings, and great natural light. As we toured the building, we realized that the fledgling Windsor-chair production company didn’t have a name. Bob asked for ideas. I can’t remember the discussion now, but have often been reminded that I suggested we keep things simple, and floated the name of Warren Chair Works. The name stuck, and before long WCW chairs were being delivered to Eldred Wheeler.
Dave did a great job of streamlining production, and pretty soon WCW was able to produce more chairs than we could absorb. Since we were unable to fulfill our commitment to purchase all of the company’s output, we released Bob and his new enterprise from any exclusivity. As before, we sealed the agreement with a cold beer and a handshake.
To help pay the bills, we frequently accepted one-of-a-kind requests from dealers and interior designers. Some were uninspiring, such as an octagonal sofa table with shelf. Others, such as a driftwood gray tea table, were unusual. Still others were challenging, such as a group of handcrafted folk art–style items we made to decorate the library of a country inn. These sideline commissions were good learning experiences, and often afforded us an opportunity to develop a new product idea. For instance, decorating the country inn’s library provided an opportunity to search out a variety of courting mirror designs. Eldred Wheeler’s familiar heart-crest courting mirror was first crafted as a commission piece for the inn.
Another project, furnishing the lobby of a Cape Cod bank, led to the expansion of the Windsor line to include a Pennsylvania armchair. The architect overseeing the lobby’s interior design wanted an informal country feel, and asked us for chair suggestions. Bill and I mentioned continuous-arm Windsors as a possibility, but the architect felt they might be too fragile for a commercial environment. Keeping with the informal theme, we countered with the idea of a Pennsylvania Windsor armchair. One would think that colonial Philadelphians were much larger than their New England counterparts, given the far grander scale of Pennsylvania Windsor armchairs. The architect liked the idea, and commissioned twelve chairs.
Our excitement with the order quickly dissipated as we pondered how we were going to build the chairs. Bob Barrow made all our Windsors, and he had never made a Pennsylvania one. Worse yet, we didn’t even have an example or pattern for him to copy. Fortunately, I remembered that a few weeks earlier, Bob Zexter had purchased two wonderful Pennsylvania Windsor armchairs. After driving endlessly around New England in search of antiques, Bob discovered these rare and valuable chairs at a yard sale two houses from his own home. I phoned Bob and explained our dilemma. As always, he was happy to help.
The antique chairs had great form: Pennsylvania arrow feet, great proportions, and broad, comfortable seats. One chair had an especially good crest, with finely carved scrolled ears. Bob offered to let us use the chair as a model for our lobby project. He even offered to drop it off at Barrow’s shop, since it was just down the street from his home in Bristol. I took him up on his offer and quickly called Bob Barrow to let him know that his model chair was on its way. We agreed that he would make a prototype first, so we could show it to the architect before producing the rest of the chairs.
A couple of weeks passed before I received a call from Bob Barrow, saying the chair was ready. Excited, I jumped in my Datsun pickup and sprinted to Bristol. As I entered Bob’s shop, I immediately noticed the prototype chair. He had positioned it along with the antique on the floor next to his workbench. The chair looked great. Other than the color, it looked virtually identical to the original. Still, I asked him what he thought; in other words, was he happy with the outcome? He answered with a broad smile, motioned me to try the chair on for size, and reached for a couple of beers. I realized I had never sat in either of Bob Zexter’s antique chairs, and as I plopped myself onto the prototype I noticed that it was very roomy, and contoured for comfort. “This is good,” I thought to myself. Then I leaned back to enjoy the full benefit of its support. I suddenly felt I was reclining in a chaise lounge, rather than sitting in a chair suitable for a bank lobby.
Bob immediately noticed the surprised look on my face. “Sits great,” he offered. Without responding, I quickly moved to the antique. Sure enough, it had the same tilt to the back. The wonderful thing about antiques is their variety. Most were made to order, and this chair must have been made for someone who wanted to kick back and put his feet up on something; great on a porch but not so great in a bank waiting area. I pondered the best way to break the news to Bob, but he had already detected that something was wrong. I explained that I should have sat in the chair before having him reproduce it. It was my fault, and I insisted on buying the prototype. He laughed, saying it wasn’t for sale. It was going to stay next to his fridge and see its share of Millers. I smiled, and as I got up to leave, he offered to have another chair, with a straighter back, ready in a couple of weeks.
After picking up Bob’s second prototype Windsor, I immediately went to work on the problem of how to improve our natural finish so the chair would more closely mimic an antique. I somehow came up with the idea of using roofing tar, diluted with a little paint thinner, as a way of producing a dark grimy look. My instincts were right. After the first coat, the chair looked like it had just come from a lengthy stay in an abandoned barn. However, I became concerned when, after several days, the finish still hadn’t dried. Not wanting to take any chances, I decided to finish the rest of the chairs with our standard natural finish. It was a good thing, because a year later my tar-based finish still became tacky on warm days and left a black signature on the backside of anyone unfortunate enough to sit in it.
Over the next year, the Pennsylvania Windsor armchair spawned numerous other Windsor chair products. For example, I commissioned Bob to make the frame for a writing-arm Windsor. He constructed it with tiger legs and crest. I added the writing surface and drawers, and finished the piece as a birthday gift for my wife. Bob had a young family, so he made a Pennsylvania Windsor highchair and accompanying youth chair, both of which I purchased for my young daughter. The comb-back design of the chair also prompted Bob to begin making New England comb-back chairs. These designs carried forward into the Warren Chair Works line, and most are still offered today.
Our First Retail Store
To increase our contact with potential customers we decided to open a retail store in Osterville, on Cape Cod, in May of 1978. After scouting a variety of locations, we settled on a small, stand-alone building at the north entrance to the village. It originally had been a country store, so it had parking in front, which was a plus. Being at the edge of town, however, the summer foot traffic rarely ventured that far—a big negative. Bill’s wife, Lee, managed the store for most of our first summer season. My wife, Joanne, also pitched in, helping out on Fridays or at other times when we were shorthanded. In order to overcome our location handicap we sometimes set up displays in our parking lot. For example, Bill convinced his friend George Starr, an authority on decoys, to demonstrate decoy making one weekend. Other times, we would send one of our craftsmen to the store to demonstrate various woodworking skills, such as carving or dovetailing. When I tended the store, I would sometimes sit in a Windsor out front and tinker with some small item while I watched the activity on the street.
I remember one occasion when, while tending the store, I was working on a carved candle box patterned after one in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury. It was made from old wood and had elaborately carved pinwheels on its front panel and lid. I was determined to put an old red finish on it, and decided to use milk paint, because it could be easily worn and stained to create an aged surface. We carried milk paint in the store but unfortunately had sold out of the red color. Normally I would have waited to finish the box, but it was a slow day and I was impatient to work on something, so I elected to use some modern latex enamel I found in an adjacent storeroom. Unlike milk paint, which dries brittle, modern latex paint remains pliable. As I rolled the box in the parking lot gravel in an attempt to diminish its newness, I noticed a man observing me from the sidewalk. I felt I had to project an image of confidence, even though things were not going very well with the box. As if on stage, I would grind the box in the gravel, pause to inspect it, make a few comments to myself, and then nod my head in feigned approval. The man watched for a while, and then moved toward me. “A possible customer,” I thought. I smiled and asked him how he was enjoying Osterville. He said it was his first visit, and so far he was very impressed with the village. He then looked at the box in my hand. I mentally prepared a response about my antiquing process. He asked if I minded if he made an observation. I was thrown a little off guard; maybe he knew something about finishing—or worse, about antiques. “I am a physician specializing in alternative medicine, and, after observing your coloring for a while, I think you need more sun. Also, looking at your fingernails, possibly a zinc supplement.” With that he smiled, turned, and strolled back down the street.
Even with all our efforts, there were many days when we could count our visitors on one hand. A customer was to be treasured. In those early days, the sale of a single large piece could tide us over for a week, so when we had a “score” there was an immediate call to Hanson to relay the news. If it was a weekend, the call went to one of our homes. Apart from providing much needed customer orders, Osterville was critical to Eldred Wheeler’s survival that first year. It gave us exposure we never could have obtained through our limited advertising or happenstance customer visits to Hanson.
Situated on the southern coast of Cape Cod a few miles west of Hyannis, Osterville was a summer vacation destination that attracted people from all over the United States. The tourists would inevitably spend time exploring the various shops up and down Main Street. They were relaxed, and would take time to chat with storeowners or watch demonstrations. The store was a wonderful venue for us to express our vision, describe our products, and obtain essential feedback.
Towards the end of our first full year of operation, we began receiving inquiries about opening Eldred Wheeler stores in other locations. The first such inquiry was from Debby and Lew Weinstein, who wanted to open a store in Wilton, Connecticut. This was soon followed by requests to open other stores: Ted Partridge in Peterboro, New Hampshire; Bet and Bob Foster in Yarmouth, Maine; Harriet and Steve Baker in downtown Hingham, Massachusetts. The thought of bringing dealers on board was troubling at first. Dealing directly with our customers helped us understand their likes and dislikes, which is especially important when selling an imperfect, handcrafted product. The concept of a middleman was somewhat chilling. We envisioned misunderstandings that could result in a lot of returned pieces. What ultimately led us to sign up dealers was the fact that most were avid antique collectors, and, most importantly, had an understanding and appreciation for what we were trying to accomplish. In hindsight, it was the right move, because our dealers not only tremendously expanded our distribution network but also were major contributors in defining our product offerings.
Cash flow is a constant worry for most fledgling companies, and ours was no exception. During our first two years, I remember thinking that Eldred Wheeler was like an overloaded airplane trying to take off. We would struggle to gain enough speed to lift off, manage to get airborne for a few moments, but then touch down again for lack of momentum. We desperately hoped we would manage to lift off and stay aloft before we ran out of runway (i.e., cash). One week, we would sell several major pieces and think that we were on our way, only to finish the next week without selling even a pipe box. Our mood continually alternated between exuberance and despair.
During the first year, our total sales were a bit less than $50,000. Having started the company with only about $2000, we sometimes went to great lengths to avoid having to put in more money. We went through some tense times. Can we make the payroll this week? Can we pay our suppliers at least something? It often boiled down to the delivery of a single piece, which created some hectic and (in retrospect) humorous situations. One example is still vivid in my mind. We had received an order for a red painted porringer tea table. The customer wanted the top well worn, but the base in an old painted finish. We received the order on Monday, for pickup late Friday morning. Our payroll was distributed at about 4:30 on Friday, and the proceeds from the tea table were essential to our workers getting paid that week. Mike Bushway and I had worked on the table during the week, and by Thursday evening it looked great. Early Friday morning we put the final coat of wax on the base and were ready for the customer’s arrival.
Our Hanson shop was divided into two sections: a small display area near the front door, and the workshop in the rear. A partition with a door separated the two areas. About 9:30 on the Friday morning in question, Bill decided to move the table up front. He motioned to one of our part-time, high school workers to go and get it. As the kid approached the display area and turned the table on end to carry it through the door, he accidentally scraped the top against the head of a screw, which was slightly protruding near the door jam. The result was a shallow, but very noticeable, two-inch-long scratch, which was smack in the middle of the tabletop. After a brief moment of blind panic, Mike and I saw that the scratch was shallow and could be easily corrected with a little sanding followed by a bit of stain and sealer. Sure enough, by 10:30 it was as good as new. Our touchup work had taken place on an elevated platform in our finishing area. Fearing another mishap, I decided to bring the table up front myself. As I stepped off the platform I lost my balance and lunged forward. The table immediately contacted the top of a workbench directly in front of me. This prevented me from falling, but unfortunately left two unsightly scrapes on either side of the spot we had just fixed. Mike hauled the table back to the platform, and as we were deciding whether to laugh or cry, Bill poked his head through the door and announced that the customer had just arrived.
He first noticed the distraught look on my face, then the obvious scrapes on the tabletop. He quickly stepped into the workshop and closed the door. It was time for a powwow. After a few moments, we decided on a strategy and moved into action. Bill would chat with the customer, buying a little time, while Mike and I figured out how we could quickly repair the table. I could hear Bill offering the customer a tour of the front showroom, including a preview of our new Rhode Island lowboy. Since we only had three products on display out front, this delaying tactic wouldn’t buy us much time.
Our biggest problem was that, under normal conditions, it would take almost an hour for the stain to dry before we could apply a coat of fast-drying sealer. We needed an alternative, so everyone in the shop was contributing suggestions.
I was becoming increasingly pessimistic when Mike suggested we might try a hairdryer to speed up the drying time. Thankfully his girlfriend had left hers in his truck, and before my head had stopped bobbing in agreement, Mike had fetched it. After briefly scraping and sanding the problem areas, we carefully brushed on a light coat of our natural maple stain. Mike set the hairdryer on high, and holding it about eight inches above the table, began waving it like some sort of magic wand. To our relief, we could actually watch the moisture leave as the surface color changed to a powdery pink. The 18th century yielded some great woodworking innovations, but modern technology has its moments.
Fifteen minutes had passed when Bill opened the door and anxiously peered in at us. Mike flashed ten fingers at him. Bill swallowed hard, closed the door, and launched into a monologue about sailing on Duxbury Harbor. With the stain dry, we turned our attention to applying the shellac-based sealer. Fortunately, shellac dries quickly, and after a quick rub with fine steel wool and a light coat of paste wax, the table was ready. Ten minutes later, Mike and I were very carefully loading the table into a very excited customer’s station wagon. I’m sure that the customer was never aware of the frantic activity on the other side of the showroom wall. Years later, I had the opportunity to see the table again. It looked great, and was still cherished by the couple who originally purchased it.