A Banker Turns Woodcrafter
NOTHING IS quite so gratifying as to have your hobby—the thing you most enjoy doing in your spare time—turn out to be a profitable operation, instead of a costly one.
This has happened to C. Andrew Kuhn of Whitehall, Wisconsin. Kuhn, who is cashier of the bank in Whitehall, turned his basement into a workshop a couple of years ago, simply because he felt the need of a hobby to relax his tense nerves after a strenuous day at the office.
"I just don't care for hunting or fishing, not even golf, but I always did like to monkey around with wood and metal," he explains. "So, I decided to buy a few tools and see what I could do with the scraps left over from building our home." Almost before he realized it, his little hobby had grown into a small gift business. "What's more," says Kuhn, "the symptoms of ulcers have completely disappeared."
When the wrought iron craze first hit the country, and before he had equipped his shop with power tools, Kuhn set out to make some furniture for their home. "Every table in our house is made out of a door or part of a door, with wrought iron legs," he says. "We thought we were original, but since we've had them we've seen dozens like them in various magazines." One of the most attractive wrought iron pieces in the house is a large sword fish that hangs over the fireplace. It was copied from one that cost $35. This one cost eighty-two cents.
PROBABLY THE thing that really started the workshop rolling was a little Sunday school sale held for the purpose of raising money toward the purchase of a new furnace for the church. Mrs. Kuhn, who is superintendent of the Sunday school, had quite a problem on her hands, with only twenty-nine enrolled, including the eight teachers. Although the children wanted to help toward the purchase of the furnace, nobody knew what such a small group could do to raise money. Only three of the pupils were over twelve years of age. Kuhn's workshop furnished the solution.
The Kuhns turned their basement into a craft shop and put the children to work. Under Mr. Kuhn's guidance, the little group turned out enough gifts to clear $100 toward the furnace. The things they made were simple—birdhouses and feeders, dust pans, hot pads, birch yule logs, and numerous other gadgets they had seen in gift shops or magazine advertisements. Kuhn, of course, made the more difficult items and the children sanded and painted them. The sale was held a few weeks before Christmas, and shortly after it was over, Kuhn began to get calls asking him to make some more of the most popular items and sell them. He began turning out cutting boards and fancy redwood feeders by the dozens. Local people bought them, and soon orders began to come in from neighboring towns. The owner of a northern Wisconsin resort gift shop dropped by one day and placed an order for several items suitable for the tourist trade. He brought along the picture of a muskellunge, the symbol of the northern Wisconsin vacationland, and from it Kuhn designed a hanging board for kitchen utensils. This customer wants the famous musky painted on all his gift items because it gives added appeal to the souvenir buyer. Painting is done by means of silk screen.
This gave Kuhn an idea. He could make the same items for the Ozark resort shops and instead of using the musky, put a hillbilly on them. He made up a mailing list, getting the shop names from magazine and newspaper advertisements. Then he wrote each of them telling them about the gifts he made and sending along one or two small items so that they could look them over. He included a list of other items available and their prices. A few of the shops sent in small orders. Those who didn't respond, got a follow-up letter along with another sample gift. In time, a very good business has been worked up in the Ozark area. Once a shop has placed an order, a sample of each new item is mailed to it as soon as it is produced. Kuhn finds this a much more practical way of selling than to produce a catalogue. It is much cheaper, in the first place, and it gives the customer a chance actually to see the product he is buying.
KUHN IS as skillful at getting materials for a reasonable price as he is at making the gifts! For example, when the local bowling alley put in a new floor, he was right there to buy the left-over flooring for $5. It was first quality maple, and provided enough pieces to make cutting boards for just about everybody in the state of Wisconsin. Any time there is a building project in his community, Kuhn is there Johnny-on-the-spot to try to make a deal for the scrap lumber. The bank recently remodeled and the plywood scraps from the fixtures soon found their way into the Kuhn basement and are now being turned into everything from picture frames to small pieces of furniture.
Kuhn acknowledges that he is no good at designing or thinking up new gift ideas. That is Mrs. Kuhn's department. She either dreams up the items they make, or finds pictures in magazines to model from. She keeps a file for the workshop, and when she runs into a gadget that she thinks is suitable, she cuts out the picture and files it for future use. If she originates an idea, she makes a rough drawing and together they work out the final model.
"Christmas at our house starts about mid-August," she says. "It would be unheard of for us to buy a gift for anybody—we make them all." One of the latest Christmas gadgets produced by the Kuhn craft shop is a collapsable tree, designed for a picture window decoration. This is well adapted to the mail order business, as it can be shipped easily and cheaply.
THE MAPLE cutting boards seem to be in demand constantly. They are made in several sizes in order to utilize all materials. One-by-three inch strips are used; consequently, in order to make the board square, the length depends on the number of strips used. For instance, if a ten-inch board is desired, ten ten-inch strips are cut. As has been pointed out, Kuhn uses maple flooring boards to make these; therefore, he has tongue and groove joints in the large cutting boards. He feels they are no harder to work with, and perhaps give a little added strength. This is how he makes the cutting board (figure shows side view):
The first step is to cut out all parts that are not perfect, in order that no blemishes or knots show up later. The ten ten-inch strips are fitted together dry, at first, to make sure a warped board has not been selected. This is important, as a warped board cannot be glued properly.
Only waterproof glue is used, since the boards require constant washing when in use. Both ready mixed and powdered glue have been used by Kuhn with equal satisfaction. After the strips have been fitted together dry, they are glued and placed in gluing clamps and left there at least twenty-four hours, until the glue is completely dry. Once dry, the block is removed from the clamps and both ends squared off with a fine tooth table saw or hand saw. In order to give the block a more finished look, all edges are tapered by cutting off the corners at a forty-five-degree angle on the table saw, Then, the block is run through a surface planer. If a planer is not available, the two edges may be run through a jointer and the top and bottom surfaces sanded.
To speed the process of sanding, a coarse sand belt is used, working across the grain. After it is comparatively smooth, the sanding is done with the grain. As the surface becomes smoother, the sanding process is continued, using a fine belt and working with the grain. The real joy of making these boards, to a man who likes working with wood, comes in producing a very satiny finish. Kuhn does this by repeated coats of white shellac, followed by a thorough rubbing with fine steel wool, dusting well before each coat of shellac.
If flooring scraps are used to make these boards, there may be a slight gap at tongue and groove joints. To make these gaps less noticeable, Kuhn fills them with a paste made of fine sanding dust mixed with glue.
To give the boards a more finished look, small legs are attached at each of the four bottom corners by drilling holes in the legs and the bottom corners and attaching the legs by means of dowel and glue. The legs are cut from small pieces of maple.
TO MAKE the small cheese boards, strips one inch wide, six inches long, and ¾ inch thick are used. Small rubber headed tacks are placed in each of the four bottom corners to serve as legs and to avoid any possibility of scratching cabinet tops when in use.
Birdhouses and bird feeders are also popular sellers the year around. There are about twelve styles, in stock at all times including everything from a plain plywood to a fancy three-tier redwood model with glass sides. Kuhn wholesales them at $4 each, about $6 less than for comparable ones advertised in magazines.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Kuhn workshop is that he never knows what he'll be making next. It all depends on the demand. Recently, an adult art class opened up in Whitehall. Immediately, the students came to Kuhn for easels and palettes. All they have to do is draw an illustration of what they want.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Kuhn spend most of their spare time in the workshop. The margin of profit is small, under the present system of operation, but the hobby is a profitable one, and they hope, before too long, to turn it into a full-time business.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.