|Top Managers Find Inner Peace in Carpentry;
A $700 Sander That Eats Its Own Dust
By GEORGE ANDERS
Courtesy of The Wealth Report – Wall Street Journal WSJ.com
August 10, 2007
His peers buy yachts, vintage wine and high-end golf gear for fun. But for software executive Jon Ramsey, there's nothing like the deep rumble of a $2,700 Powermatic table saw.
"It sounds like a jet airplane taking off," he says. The Powermatic is the centerpiece of Mr. Ramsey's basement workshop, where he turns raw lumber into finely crafted tables and dressers for his home. It's noisy, sweaty work -- and that's just fine. For him and many other senior executives like him, old-fashioned woodworking is the perfect antidote to the endless blizzards of memos, meetings and strategy shifts that define life at the top.
Affluent amateur carpenters have been around for decades, but the current boom is being fueled by a belief that escaping to the world of chisels, saws and glue can whisk away the stresses of modern corporate life. Traffic is growing at Web sites that cater to wealthy hobbyists such as sawmillcreek.org, where registered users have more than doubled in the past year to 20,000. The leading hobbyists' magazine, Fine Woodworking, has a circulation of 270,000 copies, up 10% in the last decade, and 80% of the readers are executives, lawyers or other types of professionals.
Business for high-end hardware retailers is growing, too. Woodcraft Supply LLC, which started in Boston, now boasts 83 stores nationwide, up 20% in the past two years.
At Highland Hardware Inc., in Atlanta, there's a waiting list for hand-made, $400 Granfors Bruks axes -- Swedish implements used to make chair legs. Years ago, such costly products were curiosities. Now customers flock to them. The biggest challenge is "keeping our waiting list orderly," says Lawanna Bales, Highland's chief executive officer.
Handmade-tool makers are also gaining cult status, particularly among fussy customers with unlimited budgets. When Phillip Rademacher, a Lawrence, Kan., money manager, decided this summer to build a 21-foot-high gazebo in his spare time, he ordered four hand-forged chisels from Barr Tools of McCall, Idaho. They cost as much as $140 each, vastly more than what
big hardware chains charge for machine-made alternatives, but Mr. Rademacher says he never hesitated.
"With Barr chisels, you can peel off a paper-thin piece of wood without any trouble," he says.
Barr Quarton, the blacksmith who makes Barr chisels, started out selling primarily to professional carpenters. Now his handmade tools are bought mostly by high-end hobbyists online or through specialty retailers. The same is true for Thomas Lie-Nielsen of Warren, Maine, whose handmade planes cost as much as $350 apiece. Among his customers: former President Jimmy Carter.
One of the most ambitious amateur woodworkers is Carl Bass, the CEO of Autodesk Inc., a San Rafael, Calif., software company. He owns a workshop about 20 miles from company headquarters where he keeps three table saws, two lathes and a huge assortment of hand tools. His projects include a mahogany and birdseye maple coffee table, a cherry mirror, and a walk-in wooden rocket ship that he built for his children.
Creating all these projects "helps me relax," Mr. Bass says. "It helps me be calmer about dealing with Wall Street. And it gives me a deeper understanding of design. That's important, because we sell our software to designers who make movies, cars and the like."
For George Cigale, the CEO of Tutor.com Inc., building cabinets at home provides a vital chance to clear his head of workday clutter: Cell phones don't ring; staff meetings aren't packed back to back; well-meaning subordinates don't write down every word he says. Instead, he says, he can let his mind wander. "I'll play through difficult conversations of the past week," he says. His New York-based company provides online tutoring for grade-school and high-school students. Its customer base is changing, and Mr. Cigale is trying to get the balance right between his traditional library-based sales channel and new chances to connect directly with families. "The best strategic thinking for me happens when I'm not fully engaged," he says.
For Bob Thornborough of Calgary, Alberta, woodworking is a chance to escape the sour moments of a long career. He spent much of the past decade as president of Learning Management Corp., an educational-software company, and had a big say in matters like pricing and customer acquisition. He didn't call all the shots, however. After the company was sold, he parted ways with the new owners.
Now he has become an avid builder of wooden clocks. To produce perfect clock gears -- some have as many as 144 teeth – he bought a computerized routing machine on the Internet for about $500. He experiments with a vast range of woods, including Baltic birch and black walnut.
"For the first time in my life, I can do exactly what I want," Mr. Thornborough says. His wooden clocks don't keep perfect time, but they look beautiful, he says.
Mr. Ramsey, who is chief technology officer at Atlanta-based SecureWorks Inc., has a host of other top-tier tools in addition to his Powermatic saw. Sometimes he hasn't known enough to use them well, he concedes, but he's improving. His collection includes an $800 Delta drill press; a $40 Crown marking gauge made of brass and rosewood; and $200 saw blades with carbide tips.
Another ardent wood hobbyist is Paul Turner, the former head of research at Pricewaterhouse Coopers' technology center. A materials engineer by training, Mr. Turner started his career in the 1960s at AT&T Corp.'s Bell Labs unit, where he enjoyed rolling up his sleeves and working with early versions of fiber-optic cables. But as he rose into the management ranks at Bell Labs and later at PwC, he spent more of his time behind a desk -- with little chance to do hands-on technical work.
In retirement, Mr. Turner has built an expansive woodworking studio. A four-stall horse barn next to his Carmel Valley, Calif., home has been turned into a sprawling workshop, packed with shelving for nearly 100 boards of lumber.
Mr. Turner picks most projects to please his family. Several years ago, he built a mahogany bed frame for his wife; dollhouse furniture for his grandchildren followed soon afterward. "I'm working for smiles and hugs," he says.
In choosing tools, however, hedonism takes over. When Mr. Turner smoothes wood, it's with a $700 Festool hand sander that has a tiny built-in vacuum that sucks up the sawdust. "No cleanup!" he says. Some of Mr. Turner's favorite projects, in fact, are the ones that require the most elaborate tools. Last year he and his stepdaughter decided to make a concert-quality harp. That required them to create a devilishly thin -- and carefully tapered -- sound board. Nothing in his workshop seemed adequate to the task.
So Mr. Turner built a jig with a large sanding device to get the contours just right. That project turned out well, whetting his appetite for bigger jobs. So he recently bought a refrigerator-sized Deckel milling machine for $5,000. It's a relic from the 1960s, lacking modern computerized controls. But Mr. Turner loves its dials and adjustable blades. "It's an incredibly powerful machine," he declares.