“Heirloom Quality” and Earlywood
(Or, as Brad says, “That road to a more sustainable, less disposable world”)
The word “heirloom” once alluded to objects of quality imbued with family history and passed down through generations: the handcrafted bamboo fly rod Uncle Henry used to catch his first trout; the little oak wedding bed you can’t quite imagine both of your grandparents fitting into; the sepia-toned, walnut-framed photograph of Great-Aunt Helga, looking as grumpy at age three as she did at 93.
Nowadays, the objects we possess tend to be less “heirloom quality” and more “upgradeable”—and disposable—than they were during Great-Aunt Helga’s childhood. That furniture from Ikea? It looks good right now, but it is probably not going to be passed on to the grandkids. The fishing pole I gave my son (made with aluminum, in China) bent and then broke the season after I bought it.
There are exceptions, of course, but when it comes to manufacturing these days, it seems quality takes a backseat to price, convenience and mass production. And then there’s that bewildering concept called “planned obsolescence”—defined by The Economist magazine as “a business strategy in which the obsolescence (the process of becoming obsolete—that is, unfashionable or no longer usable) of a product is planned and built into it from its conception. This is done so that in the future the consumer feels a need to purchase new products and services that the manufacturer brings out as replacements for the old ones.” Think cell phones: if we don’t own the newest, thinnest, most feature-packed model, it’s time to get an upgrade, or so the world says.
As a result of these wild and wacky economic forces, long-lasting, handcrafted goods are harder and harder to come by. And in the process, the word “heirloom” is slowly disappearing from our vocabulary.
That’s where people like Brad come in.
Brad’s hope, he says, is to craft products that his grandchildren will pass on to their grandchildren. And by creating objects that are not only beautiful and useful, but are also durable, Brad helps us recall—and recreate in our own homes—a time when most of our possessions had meaning and purpose…when less of what we owned was disposable. When less of what we owned was “obsolete.”
With all of this in mind, I decided to ask Brad what “heirloom” means to him. This is what he had to say:
“If you’re not already, picture yourself as the maker or manufacturer of some product. For this product, you can choose anything…a chair, a picture frame, a blender, pen, a dog leash, even a wooden spoon. OK… really pick something. Now, for that product, if the manufacturing process was entirely up to you, you could make the product a number of ways:
The choice to make heirloom-quality products is about pride in what I do. It’s about confidence in how long the products will last. And it’s about taking that road to a more sustainable, less disposable world and hoping that the importance of the intentional ‘things’—or heirlooms—in our lives will rub off on those who use them.”
--By AA and BB
We think a lot about the products we craft. We also think about the origins of the wood we use to create them. We wonder about the forests around the world that supply us with that wood, the mills where those trees are cut and dried, and the people who do the work, from start to finish.
- A millworker walks a stack of logs in Quintana Roo, Mexico. By Mark Stephens.
With the exception of our hard maple, which grows here in the United States, we use tropical hardwoods to make our utensils. Why? Because, true to their name, tropical hardwoods are just that... hard woods. This means they’re durable, and strong—the best woods we could possibly choose to craft tools and cutting boards that will last a lifetime, or longer. We source our tropical hardwoods from a lumber mill called World Timber Corp in North Carolina. The mill’s owner, Joe Steinbach, and his partner, Matt Westmoreland, have high standards. For about six weeks of each year, they travel the world, visiting the sawmills that provide them with lumber and working with the millworkers to cut it to their specifications. Once that lumber makes it to North Carolina, it’s kiln-dried. Brad’s orders—of bloodwood, jatoba and Mexican ebony, mostly—arrive by semi-truck to the Earlywood studio north of Red Lodge. The studio has no loading dock, so Brad uses an engineer’s ingenuity combined with the help of a tree, some chain, a tow strap, and some crossed fingers to unload the freight. (The last delivery weighed about 7,000 pounds, to give you an idea of the task at hand.) Brad then spends the larger part of a day stacking it in the studio. After a good night’s sleep, he begins, once again, to turn those pieces of roughsawn hardwood into beautiful kitchen tools for the rest of us to use and enjoy.
- Some of our products, made from Mexican Ebony
But where does that wood come from, really? Before it’s loaded onto the delivery truck in North Carolina? Where does it grow? How is it harvested and who, for that matter, harvests it?
- This guy harvests it! Mill boss, Quintana Roo. By Mark Stephens.
Let’s take a look at Mexican ebony, which we use to make many of our products. Also known as Katalox (pronounced “cat-ah-losh”) and Mexican royal ebony (although it isn’t a true ebony), its scientific name is Swartzia cubensis. Not only is Mexican ebony related to the chickpea, it’s known for being an outstanding “tonewood,” which means it has good tonal properties. Between this and the decline of ebonies traditionally used in the production of stringed instruments, Mexican ebony is becoming a wood of choice for luthiers worldwide. At 3660 on the Janka hardness scale (compared to 480 for our neighborhood pine, the lodgepole, for example), Mexican ebony is strong and tough. This means it’s essentially waterproof and about unbreakable, making it a great choice for kitchen utensils and cutting boards…as well as guitars. Typically dark brown to black with hints of purple and, occasionally, edges of creamy, golden sapwood (the living, outermost part of a tree’s trunk, branch or stem), Mexican ebony is a treat for the eyes. It’s a tropical hardwood. This means, obviously, that it grows in the tropics—in southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, specifically.
- The Quintana Roo region of the Yucatan Penninsula (where Earlywood's Katalox is grown
The particular mill that supplies Katalox to World Timber Corp, then to Earlywood is a great example of sustainable forestry. The local community was given a large parcel of forested land by the Country of Mexico. This land is divided into 20 different sections. Only one of the 20 sections can be harvested each year and then, only certain types of trees that are a certain minimum diameter are harvested from that section. This guarantees work and future work for the local people.
Mark Stephens, operations manager at Woodworkers Source in Scottsdale, Arizona, has an interesting perspective on the cutting and milling of tropical hardwoods, including Mexican ebony. About 10 years ago, Mark visited lumber mills in the jungles of Quintana Roo on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
- A Mexican Ebony tree, ready for rough sawing
In his blog post, “Sawmills of the Yucatán”, Mark wrote, “Something I've learned about the exotic wood business is that the woodworking community has little clue as to what goes into producing lumber from trees. The work is immense, and often highly unsafe. On top of it, the work takes place outside in extreme humidity and heat. They don't have luxuries like forklifts to lift bundles of wood at a time, either. We're talking about a lot of heavy, tedious, work-by-hand.”
- Safety in the mill Mark visited was not the top priority
Mark’s blog includes an extraordinary selection of photos from his visits to the region’s sawmills and furniture studios. His post also expounds on the notion of selling imported hardwood lumber “as an act of conservation.” It makes for an interesting read, to say the least.
Many thanks to Mark for allowing us to use his photos. To see more, visit Mark’s site.(http://www.markdstephens.com/sawmills/)
Trees surround and support us. They capture carbon, produce oxygen and provide shelter for birds and other wildlife too. They shelter us as well: the floors we walk on, the furniture we sit on, the cabinets that hold our dishes and dry goods, the framing within our homes’ walls, the porches and decks where we enjoy a summer’s afternoon, the instruments that play the music that soothes or stimulates us—objects made from wood are everywhere. The list goes on and on.
- A young Jatoba tree in a park in Brazil
It’s no wonder our forests are dwindling. Here in the US, the demand for wood products is climbing at twice the rate of our nation’s population growth.
Worldwide, around 46-58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year—that’s the equivalent of 48 football fields every minute.
What’s a woodworker to do? To begin with, get a perspective. The greatest cause of deforestation, for example, isn’t the demand for lumber, it’s industrial agriculture. This is particularly true in tropical and subtropical countries where enormous swaths of land are cleared to plant massive mono-crops of soybeans, cotton, maize or palm oil (hereis some backup on that), or to graze cattle. Paper production is another big factor. So is the lumber we use to build our homes and businesses, to craft our furniture and, yes, to make kitchen utensils.
- A small chunk of the Amazon rainforest... in tact.
There’s no way around it. Being human, especially in the developed world, typically means leaving a rather large ecological footprint. But whether your kitchen tools are made of wood or another material, they have an impact, as Brad so eloquently wrote on Earlywood’s “Sustainability Policy”
While we’re not excusing ourselves for our lumber use here at Earlywood, we’re trying to put it into perspective. No matter how simply we live, there are certain tools we need, others we may not exactly need, but nevertheless enjoy…and there’s a certain joy that comes with using a well-made tool, especially when you realize that Brad has devised a way to give back to the planet that has so generously given to him.
- A LOT of tree seedlings being nursed before they head to the Atlantic Rainforest
For about 3 years now, Brad has worked with The Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion program to plant 100 trees for every one tree he uses at Earlywood. The best woods for our uses don’t grow here in the US, Brad tells me. They grow in tropical climates. So that’s the region Brad has chosen to target through the Conservancy’s reforestation program, specifically Brazil’s endangered Atlantic and Cerrado forests. One of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, the Atlantic Forest is also one of the most threatened, due mostly to ranching, industrial agriculture and urban expansion. Home to more than 10,000 plant species and over 1,300 vertebrates, the Cerrado Forest is also under threat. With help from people like Brad, The Nature Conservancy is working to promote large-scale restoration in both of these forests.
Recently, Brad decided to up the ante. Rather than donate 100 trees for every one tree used at Earlywood, Brad will donate $1 to the Nature Conservancy’s reforestation program from every order placed! Whether it’s an order for 100 items or just one, Brad will give a dollar to help “plant a billion” trees in Brazil. That’s a lot more trees than he was planting before.
This new program starts TODAY and we will have a page up on our website that tracks our progress. We'll be in touch when that goes live.
- A patch of Amazon rainforest cleared for other uses.
Earlywood is a tiny business compared to many, and one could say the environmental efforts Brad makes are just a drop in the proverbial bucket. But, as wise old Aesop once said, “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” I would venture to add that no act of environmental stewardship is wasted, either. So, as you’re serving up this venison stew with your Earlywood long server or using your flat sauté to cook up some of these morels, you might think about those forests in Brazil and give yourself a pat on the back for helping to replant them. For by purchasing from Earlywood, you do just that.
- AA and BB
Most of you know that Brad Bernhart is the founder of Earlywood. But how many of you actually know the man who crafts what he hopes are your most indispensable kitchen tools? To shed a little light on Brad—and Earlywood—we thought we’d take some time to talk to him. For insight on the company’s early beginnings to the satisfaction and inspiration that keep Brad making the tools we love, read on!
- The Bernhart Fam-dam
What inspired you to start Earlywood?
Two categories of things inspired me. First, the things I want to do: be creative, work with my hands, start a business, be challenged, be my own boss, have a flexible schedule, spend time with my wife and kids, live in Montana. And, the things I don’t want to do: commute, work a desk job, answer to other people, sit, know exactly what the next 10 years will be like, live away from my family, work hard and make more money for someone else than I make for myself, regret not going for it!
Why kitchen utensils?
I have always loved wooden spoons. Every time I go to a friend’s house, the first thing I do is check out their utensil selection. There can be so much history in them. It’s common to hear, “that was my grandma’s,” or “that was my great-grandma’s!” Kitchen tools become so loved by those who use them daily, and I love thinking that I could be creating family heirlooms. Also, being a mechanical design engineer, I think I have a unique way of looking at utensil designs. That’s why a lot of my designs are so functional, even though they might not look like a “typical” wooden spoon.
- Inside the Earlywood Shop
There’s a story behind the Earlywood name. Can you recap that?
Myself, my wife, and a good friend were tossing names around one day over a few beers in Portland, Oregon. The name “Earlywood” came up and I liked it. After some research, it seemed pretty obvious that it was the one.
What does the word mean?
Earlywood is the light-colored portion of a tree’s annual growth ring. It’s the part of the ring that grows early in the growing season—in the spring and summer—and it’s the part of the tree that’s responsible for delivering water to the rest of the tree. Because it grows quickly, during those wet, sunny months, it usually makes up the bulk of the tree’s mass.
What inspires you?
Clean design, efficiency, heirloom quality, creating, challenges.
- Final shaping of a ladle handle
Among your customers is there a hands-down, all-time-favorite Earlywood tool? If so, which is it?
Definitely. The Trifecta, which is a three-piece combo. The three tools together take care of 90% of the jobs you’ll ever need to do in your kitchen. I just checked yesterday and the Trifecta has 38 reviews on my website and every single one of them is a five-out-of-five star review!
How about you? Do you have a favorite Earlywood tool?
For sure. My favorite is the longest tool in The Trifecta. It’s called the “Large Flat Sauté.” I have 12 of them in my kitchen at all times. At craft fairs, when people see it, they usually ask what it’s for. If they buy one, they inevitably come back the next year and go on and on about how much they love it. And that’s when they buy 10 more for all of their friends!
- Two of my favorite Earlywood tools (L Flat Sautes) in action
What keeps you going?
I love showing up at my shop in the morning with a full day of hard, creative, honest work ahead of me. It's a very fulfilling and satisfying feeling. It may be very 1950's USA of me to think this way, but it makes me feel like I’m really doing something good for myself, my family, my community, my state, and for the country in some small way. I’m sure that feeling will grow when I start employing people and helping them support their families too.
What do you like most about your job?
I love seeing how many people are really loving Earlywood. Creating a product, then taking the chance of making and selling that product to the general public is similar to starting a new relationship. There’s the chance that your new idea or product won't be accepted. That leaves you feeling pretty vulnerable. When it all works out and people reach out to you specifically to tell you that they love your stuff and that they are trying to get all of their friends into it, it feels damn good though!
-Red Lodge, Montana. The home of Earlywood.
You’ve told me you listen to podcasts while you work. Tell us one of your favorites.
There are so many great ones out there and I listen to about 20 of them. If I had to pick one though (that wasn't e-commerce related), then it would be “Reply All” from Gimlet Media. It's two guys who tell great This American Life-like stories that all relate in some way to how the Internet has and does affect us and our lives. It’s nonfiction, seriously entertaining, and highly recommended by me!
“When I grow up, I want to be...” When you were a kid, what did you want to grow up to become? Did you imagine you’d be making kitchen utensils?
I definitely wanted to be a helicopter skiing guide in Canada! Actually...I would still take that job! I was ALL ABOUT skiing as a kid. I even moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for four years after high school so I could ski as much as possible. I never thought I would be making kitchen utensils. If you had come to me when I was 12 years old and told me what the future had in store, I wouldn’t have believed you.
- Our backyard... the Beartooth Pass
What’s your vision for Earlywood’s future?
Excellent question. Earlywood is teetering on the edge of becoming more than a one-person show with a bit of temp help here or there. And this is something that my wife Charlotte and I need to sit down and discuss. It’s so easy to say, “I want it to be bigger,” but I don’t want the business to grow just for the sake of growing. I want Earlywood to be a great compliment to my life. I don’t want it to define my life.
If you could make anything, absolutely anything—and I don’t mean just kitchenware, what would that be?
Something else that is made of wood and small and can easily become a family heirloom...blocks for kids!
- Written by Lexy Adams