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“Heirloom Quality” and Earlywood

May 03, 2016 0 Comments

heirloom woodworking hand tools

“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.

explosion at the spoon factory

 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. 

chisel and wood

 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:

woodworkers' toolkit

 “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:

  1. You could make it as cheap as possible (all too common these days). This means making products that were designed to be cheap, rather than to work. This means using the cheapest materials and methods. The end goal here is to win at the race to the bottom. The bottom of price and quality, and in the end to be able to take no pride in what you are making.
  2. You can make it decent. This means your product is not good, and not bad. If this is your goal, then this CLASSIC superbowl commercial should have had you in it! 
    Your goal here is to be just better than the other guy and/or just cheaper than the other guy. You are trying to make a product that you can say is better than it really is and the fact that isn’t won’t be blatantly obvious to your customer.
  3. You can make it heirloom quality. This means you compare your products to their theoretical best, not to competing products. You make every decision based on whether it will make your product better or worse. You use the best materials you can get your hands on and put them through the best processes you can think of. When you are done, you know your product is as good as it can be. This is the kind of product that gets passed on from generation to generation. As a maker, I can be proud of making and selling this kind of product and as a customer, you can be proud of owning it.

cobbler's hammer

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