Profiles: Brad SmithComments (0)
This article is from Issue 89 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Maker of Farm-Fresh Furniture
For nearly 40 years, Brad Smith has made his living as an independent craftsman, cranking out a quirky line of what he calls “Farm-Fresh” Furniture. His business, Bradford Woodworking, is located about 30 miles north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on a bit of property carved from what was once his father’s farm. The surrounding fields have since given way to development, but Brad’s place is still undeniably rural. His two shop buildings could easily be mistaken for classic old country barns, down to the saw-shaped weather vane on the top of one of the cupolas.
His spacious timber-framed main shop building is a sight to behold. The spacious structure is chock-full of lumber and a great mix of industrial and cobbled-together equipment that Brad and his assistants use to produce 400 to 500 pieces of furniture a year. On the day I visited, he had five projects underway in addition to a batch of his iconic axe handle chairs: a custom live-edge coffee table, three cabinet commissions, and an experimental circular dining table featuring blades from three dozen old hand saws embedded in epoxy. Nearly all of his work is distinctly contemporary, but with identifiable links to the past. His machinery is surprisingly low-tech, and much of it customized by Brad himself. In the back corner lurk his two axe handle lathes, ancient beasts (circa 1920) that Brad uses to crank out the legs for his chairs, stools, bedposts, and more. Despite their hair-raising, pre-OSHA appearance, Brad claims he can take someone right off the street and train them in under an hour to safely run one of the lathes. I met with Brad to see if I could get a better handle on his story.
WM: What made you choose a career in woodworking?
BS: I enjoyed my high school drafting classes, but one day my teacher took us into the wood shop to make some models. There, I found that I liked working directly with materials even better, so I took a woodworking course my senior year. (Ironically, my instructor ended up working for me several years later when he gave up teaching.) After high school, I opened a small shop doing refinishing and repair work.
WM: But didn’t you also attend RIT’s (Rochester Institute of Technology) School for American Craft?
BS: I found after a few years that I wasn’t growing as a craftsman, and I was getting a little lonely. So, I enrolled in the furniture program at RIT to learn more about design and to meet more people. As part of my senior year, we had to choose and prepare for a specific career path: teaching, industry, or setting up an independent shop. I chose the latter and developed a line of kitchen implements to sell at craft fairs. By then, I’d also met Sandy, the woman who was to become my wife.
WM: So, you and Sandy started on the craft fair circuit?
BS: Yes. Right after I graduated in May, I was accepted into the ACC (American Craft Council) show in Rhinebeck, New York. The show was in June, so Sandy and I hustled to make enough inventory to stock the booth. We ended up taking wholesale orders for about $16,000—several month’s-worth of work—which got us started. I still do six or seven shows a year.
WM: How did you get from kitchen implements to axe handles?
BS: Having studied furniture design, I wanted to try making pieces of my own. I thought a stool would be a good place to start…who doesn’t need a stool? To keep costs down, I decided to buy the legs. My original thought was that a sledgehammer handle would make a nice stool leg. I went to the Thomas Registry (this was pre-Google) and found a place an hour away that made tool handles. When I got there, however, I saw a cart load of axe handles…
WM: But now you own the lathes to make your own handles?
BS: That’s right. After the first few batches, the owner didn’t have time to make handles for me anymore (mine used different wood than his stock handles). But he allowed me to use his equipment. Eventually, he got out of the handle business entirely, and sold me the two lathes I still use today.
WM: And the rest is history?
BS: Those lathes helped me to make some truly unique pieces that no one else can achieve. That gave me an edge.
WM: What advice would you offer someone interested in selling at craft fairs?
BS: A couple things: First, you have to make do with a hundred compliments before you actually make a sale. Also, keep in mind that you’ll be competing against thousands of people doing for fun what you do for a living. Woodworking is a great hobby, but a tough way to make money.
WM: Is retirement on the horizon?
BS: What else would I do? I love making furniture, I’m still physically able to do it, and I’m not really a sit-around kind of guy. Plus, I love working with clients to get their input so they feel invested in “their” piece. I still get a kick out of it!
See more of Brad’s work on our website.
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