Sunday, February 14, 2010


It’s interesting how a few minutes of conversation can influence your thought and perception for years while millions of words go in one ear and out the other.
I remember a customer coming to my workshop some years ago in a small Ontario town. This man wanted to have his kitchen cabinets replaced and had come to me, a cabinetmaker to do the job. I was in my early twenties at the time and he would have been twenty five or thirty years older. After he had explained what he was looking for I asked him if he had a design or if he needed me to do that part of the job as well. He reacted with suspicion and confusion and replied, “What design? I just want you to build it”. I did not have a lot of experience at the time in dealing with people, especially people my parent’s age who were suspicious that I was trying to take them to the cleaners with fancy talk about design. The customer left and I never heard from him again.
This experience has stayed with me for several decades and I still try to understand what happened. The conversation with the customer ended abruptly because he thought that I was bull shitting him when I tried to make a distinction between the design and the making of his kitchen cabinets.
I think perhaps that this experience also represents a change in the way that this type of work, the making of things is done. At one time, I am sure that carpenters, cabinetmakers and other trades simply designed and built almost simultaneously without a distinction between the design and realization of the job, much like the way one might dig a ditch, you just dig and adjust your digging until you have the ditch you want. You might spend of few minutes leaning on your shovel thinking about it, but you would not have distinguished this as the design part of the job.
The question is; can we separate design from making? Of course we can. It’s done all the time, more and more, in architecture and construction, industrial design and manufacturing. Even in art. Many artists never technically make anything although, in my experience, there is a lot more collaboration between the artist conceiving the work and the tradesperson executing it than is generally acknowledged. This is often the case with design professionals as well.
Some design professionals and trades people embrace their inter dependence and others resent it.
Recently I looked at all of the websites of architects who are members of the AIBC. I think there were more than one hundred members with sites. As I recall, only one of these sites showed images of the architects engaged with the building part of their projects, or buildings under construction. (Incidentally that one architect was a customer of mine and the building site represented was his own home.) All of the other web sites showed the architects either working at a computer, or sketching at a meeting table and images of finished projects. Interestingly, architects often use the term “build” when referring to their work rather than “design”, as in “we recently built a large home in Whistler”, when, in reality, they had nothing to do with the actual building work.
I ran into an architect friend of mine recently, who made this mistake when telling me what he had been up to lately. I didn’t say a word but I think he could tell from my face that I was not comfortable with his use of the word “build”. He backed tracked and said “well I don’t mean I actually built it. I designed it”.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Recently I have been asked my opinion on the value of FSC certification for small woodworking shops.
It’s difficult for me to offer advice to other woodworkers as to whether or not they should get certified but I can share with them my own experience.
About six years ago I was contacted by an architect named Omer Arbell, who was working at the time for Busby Associates, a firm specializing in “green” or “sustainable” design. Omer was looking for FSC certified woodworking firms to supply millwork for a demo project they were doing called “The Sustainable Condo”. It was a full size mock-up of a small condo designed to be “sustainable” or “green”. Omer was lamenting the fact that at the time his choice was limited to one firm, Ornamentum.
Given the very tight time constraints there was not much I could do to help with this particular project, but I did get the impression that this was a growing field and that demand for FSC certified millwork and wood products would grow. I also thought that this might be a new segment of the industry where the focus was not only on cost and a fast turn-around time, but that there was a new emerging community of like minded businesses interested in doing the right thing, not necessarily to increase profit, but to have a positive effect . It seemed like an opportunity to become part of a new progressive community.
I did some research into the process and decided to make the investment in time and money to get my shop certified. For a small shop like mine this involved putting in place procedures to maintain the chain of custody for FSC certified materials from the point of purchase through the manufacturing process and sale to the customer. It also involved re-arranging my shop to accommodate these materials and keep them segregated from non FSC certified materials and set up a system to provide documentation for annual audits by the certifying body.
One of the first things I learned was that because of the altruistic associations with FSC, green, sustainable and environmentally appropriate things, there was an expectation on the part of design professionals in the field that you would provide your services for either a discounted price or for free. Many so called “green” design professionals clearly expected us to discount our work in exchange for the “opportunity” to work with them.
Another thing I learned was that the segment of the public who were concerned about the environment and making a “greener” choice were not the same people who could afford custom, high quality woodwork. Often they turned out to be people who would buy from us if it didn’t cost more than other suppliers within their budget, such as Ikea.
Another important issue that I did not fully appreciate was the lack of supply of FSC certified material. I did speak to some of my regular suppliers about it and many of them such as A & M Wood Specialties, PJ White Hardwoods and General Woods had at one time either been certified or had considered it but not pursued it. At the time, there was only one certified materials supplier in Vancouver and that was the Eco Lumber Co-op. They carried a variety of certified products including flooring, veneer and lumber. However, shortly after I became certified The Eco Lumber Co-op dropped all of these products with the exception of flooring. Not long after that, The Eco Lumber Co-op went out of business, apparently because their sole supplier lost their FSC certification. At that point we were left with no suppliers for FSC certified material, at least not smaller quantities locally available.
Another problem was the reliable availability of sheet goods to substitute for traditional products like mdf and particle board. At the time I was using a Canadian product called ISOboard, made from corn stalks left over from the harvest. Apparently, this company got into trouble and was bought out by Dow Chemical, the company that had been providing them with the adhesive for the strawboard.
At first this seemed to be a good thing. They improved the quality and distribution of the product. Soon it became available with a melamine coating making it suitable for kitchen cabinets. They gave the product a new name “Woodstalk”, a play on words relating to the hippy, back to the land culture of the Woodstock nation and the corn stalks from which the product was made. I thought this was somewhat cynical because I associated Dow Chemical with napalm during the Vietnam war.
Just when it seemed like Woodstalk had become the industry standard for FSC projects, Dow closed the company and we were left without a suitable alternative.
It seemed only like months after receiving my FSC certification that I got notice from “Smartwood” the company that carried out the certification process, that we were due for our first annual audit and that it would cost something like $1500 to $2000. I was shocked as I had yet to complete a single project requiring FSC chain of custody. After some negotiation it was agreed that the audit would be conducted by phone rather than in person and the price would be reduced to $600.00. The only thing to be audited was a single receipt for a few hundred square feet of FSC certified veneer.
When the next annual audit came due, having done no subsequent FSC work, I declined and gave up my certification.
Although I haven’t spoken to other small FSC certified shops in the Vancouver area (I think there are only two or three) I suspect they will have a similar story. Ornamentum, the first one to be certified is no longer in business.
Some of the materials suppliers, such as PJ White have become re-certified and I think some of the larger shops are considering FSC certification, probably with an interest in satisfying more serious interest south of the border.


We have a new game in our house. It’s called Finding Stuff That’s Made in Canada. It's not quite like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it is getting close.
When I was growing up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, almost everything was made close to home. I grew up in “The Steel City” of Hamilton Ontario and in the farming area nearby.
My Dad worked at Westinghouse, a gigantic factory occupying several city blocks. Almost everything that used electricity in our house came from Westinghouse. Most of our neighbours worked at jobs that involved the making of something, everything from soap to steel.
A variation of the Find Stuff That’s Made in Canada game is Find Stuff That Used to Be Made in Canada. It’s too easy, as long as you have some stuff that’s more than a few decades old. In our house, I start with the piano, the label says made in Toronto. Can you image? At one time there were dozens of piano manufacturers in Canada.
So what? Some would say. As a maker of things I lament the loss of industry in Canada and the fact that anything that can be done cheaper somewhere else will be done somewhere else.
Some people suggest, only somewhat confidently, that only the “grunt work” is being exported and that the “brain work” will continue to be done here, the distinction in their minds being work done by the brain verses work done by the body, as though such a distinction existed. The truth is that all work that can be done cheaper elsewhere will be done elsewhere, and in fact it is the brainwork that is much more easily exported as there are hardworking, well educated, capable people in very low wage countries able to do this work with far less infrastructure and the final product, unlike furniture and appliances can be imported electronically rather than on green house gas spewing container ships.
In the ‘50’s and ‘60’s the standard of living in Canada was high. Families were larger and there was often only one person employed. Houses cost a fraction of what they do now and many more people lived in houses with yards and gardens, garages and workshops. Today our standard of living compared to many places on the planet is still high, but some costs like housing are gigantic. We pay much more for much less. Many families need two members working full time to get by. Our standard of living, to a large extent is dependent on the cheapness of imported goods and services.
What will happen, if for some reason such as the rising cost of energy, or social advances in developing countries, these cheap imported products are no longer available to us and we have to go back to making these things here? Long after we have ditched all the shop classes and trades training, long after we have turned all the factories into condos and the farm land into sub-divisions?
The only thing we will still be able to source from lower wage countries will be legal, accounting, design and consulting services.