A Life Built on BookmarksA modest woodworking business thrives on efficiency and ingenuity
Synopsis: Alan Bradstreet makes a comfortable living by working very small and selling very cheap — in very large numbers. He combines the attributes of a hard-headed businessman, an enlightened foreman, and an untiring worker. Though he’s made other pieces in the past, now he is all about bookmarks and nothing else. One efficiency: his shop runs on scraps. Read more to find out his recipe for success in woodworking, and how to find excellence in the smallest of details.
If a Newport secretary contains a waterfall of woodwork, then one of Alan Bradstreet’s wooden bookmarks holds barely a droplet. Then again, it might take one person the better part of a year to build a full-bore secretary; in the same 12 months, Bradstreet, who works alone in a small shop, would have stacked up 50,000 of his handsome bookmarks.
Bradstreet, 54, moved to Maine in the 1970s and found his way into woodworking. Unlike many other woodworkers who make a modest profit designing and building magnificent furniture, he makes a comfortable living by working very small and selling very cheap—in very large numbers. The Bradstreet collection of bookmarks comprises some 130 scrollsawn designs. It’s not that Bradstreet doesn’t have the same urges toward creativity and complexity as his peers; he has just chosen to channel them differently.
Bradstreet’s first decade in woodworking was spent in a 40-man factory in Auburn, Maine, that produced wooden kitchenware. He began as a laborer and worked his way up to foreman and eventually to vice president. He loved his years there and is grateful for the training. When he left in 1985, he took what he had learned and became a one-man factory.
When you visit his shop now, it is evident that Bradstreet combines the attributes of a hard-headed businessman, an enlightened foreman and a clever, untiring worker.
Bradstreet the businessman has focused on manufacturing one thing and has stripped away everything extraneous. For some years he made jewelry boxes, business-card holders and other small items, but these days he is bookmarks and nothing but.
Personal interests are purged here, too. Bradstreet is a mad collector—his house and barns are brimming with arcana, such as the eight antique, treadle-powered scrollsaws nestled together in one attic and the collection of 19th-century shaving-razor sharpeners displayed in a bathroom. But there’s no arcana in the shop. It’s all business.
Bradstreet used to sell through craft fairs, but now he and his wife, Susan, who handles all of the shipping and other office work, sell exclusively wholesale. By far their largest customer is L.L. Bean, whose outlet store in nearby Freeport sells about half of what Bradstreet produces.
With silky surfaces, nicely eased edges and beautifully scrollsawn decorations, Bradstreet’s bookmarks have a distinctly handmade feeling. But for efficiency’s sake, he sticks to machines.
From Fine Woodworking #158
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