Handcrafted 18th Century American Furniture

Expanding the Team

Our cabinetmaking ranks had grown as we christened our new workshop. Ben brought in a friend, Jeff Bickford, to oversee both the rough mill and finish mill. As a result of a newspaper ad, we hired Ron O’Hara to head our rapidly expanding assembly group. Ron started his career as a finish carpenter but decided to give the corporate world a try and was accepted into the McDonald’s management training program. After a year as a restaurant manager, he found his heart was really in woodworking after all. We also hired Jody Reale to lead our finishing department. Jody had relatively little background in finishing, but had managed several individuals in her previous job. Her enthusiasm convinced us that she would provide badly needed leadership and structure to our finish department. These three new additions formed the core of Ben’s new management team.

Each of these individuals contributed greatly to improving the efficiency of our production. They developed ways to do things easier, faster, and better. For example, Jeff coordinated our cutting lists and wood deliveries, and improved the way we stored rough stock. Previously, we estimated our wood needs for the upcoming month’s production and ordered an amount we thought would cover it, plus a little extra. The wood was delivered in bundles, which we stacked anywhere we could fit them in our wood storage area. A cutting list would be reviewed for an upcoming production item; let’s say a group of six lowboys. Maple, cherry, and pine would be pulled from the various bundles, then milled, rough-cut to dimension, and loaded onto pallets for transport to the finish mill upstairs. This process would be repeated for the next item, perhaps a run of ten tea tables, and so on. This approach worked well enough in Hanson, when we were making one of this and one of that, but our production levels were much higher in Pembroke, and too much time was wasted pawing through stacks of wood to find a particular board. Also, the residual stocks from ordering a little extra each time had accumulated to the point where they were taking up a good deal of space. Because we didn’t keep track of what was in our stockpile of leftovers, we continually ordered more new wood then we needed to, thus creating a vicious cycle.

Jeff determined that it would be much more efficient to look at the coming month’s production as a whole, and key the rough-cutting to wood type rather than production item. That way, he could link the timing of wood deliveries with a group of cutting lists. In other words, when we received a load of pine, for instance, it moved directly to the cutoff saw, where it was processed according to a variety of cutting lists specifying all the pine parts needed for the next month of production. In essence we were taking long, cumbersome bundles of wood and reducing them to compact pallets, or as we used to jest, “reducing them to a pile of rubble.” Jeff’s approach greatly improved efficiency and throughput. It allowed us to avoid the bottleneck in storage space that would quickly have capped our production level.

Jody, Jeff, Ron, and Ben also hired, developed, and mentored numerous craftsmen. They worked individually with each new employee, demonstrating the current approach to a given task but also encouraging them to come up with new ways to do it better. They spent time explaining the company’s woodworking philosophy, based on 18th century work ethics and values. Most importantly, they created a feeling of camaraderie; of kindred spirits striving to craft the best handcrafted furniture available. Many of their protégés stayed with Eldred Wheeler for more then a decade, and became mentors themselves. We also employed several “voc-tech” students to help with finishing and assembly. We had an informal apprentice program, where students would arrive after school at 2:00 and work until closing at around 5:00.

Apprentices typically began in the finishing department, sanding pieces in preparation for staining. After several months, the students would move on to assembly, learning how to use a spoke shave and cabinet scraper. Today, the Eldred Wheeler “alumni association” numbers in the hundreds. Some of our former employees have even started their own businesses in handcrafting furniture. I can’t remember everyone who helped us hit our stride in Pembroke, but Bob Nickerson in the rough mill, Mike Blanchard and Stu Gilmore in assembly, and John Prendergast in finish deserve special mention.

With our expansion, we decided it was time to hire someone to act as a receptionist, bookkeeper, and office manager. Up to this point, Bill had pretty much handled all these functions himself. We aggressively advertised in local newspapers, and received numerous excellent résumés. But people who look good on paper sometimes disappoint, which was the case with our first two office hires. The first person had the phone presence of a disgruntled dockhand. She lasted a little over a week. The second was great on the phone, but after a month and a half it became clear that bookkeeping was beyond her. Our third hire was Lois Parlee, and three proved to be our magic number. Lois was wonderful, and immediately went to work putting our bookkeeping back in order. During her first week, she discovered an extra $10,000 that had been “lost” due to a mistaken ledger entry. We were ecstatic. Unbelievably, she found another $6000 the next week. We knew then and there that Lois was a “keeper.”

With Lois joining our ranks, our company numbered 16 full-time and several part-time employees. We even had a delivery person. She had graduated from Radcliffe, but found the professional world unappealing. Looking for a simpler life, she moved to a farm near Pembroke and spent most of her time tending her horses. She happened upon us while looking for part-time work to supplement her income. She had a large pickup truck with a covered bed, so we decided to give her a try. At the time, most of our orders came from around New England, and her flexible hours made scheduling a snap. Bill was thrilled, since he had been making most of our deliveries, and his Jeep Grand Wagoneer was getting a little tired. The arrangement worked wonderfully. Customers praised her professional demeanor, even if they were at first taken aback at the sight of a young woman lugging a five-drawer chest across their lawn.