|Turning a hobby into a business
It is all a hobby that went mad, and at the end of the day, we are still hobbyists at heart and maybe just a little mad.
In 1979, with an eye on retirement, my late father-in-law Joffre Stiles asked me and my wife Janet if we would like to take up farming on what was then a mixed arable and beef stock farm, so I gave up our tree felling business and moved from mid Kent to Sutton.
Bored with winter farming, I went felling part-time during the quieter months and had small quantities of prime timber planked locally for use in my hobby of turning and furniture making.
In 1987 the so-called Great Storm caused devastation across wide swathes of Southern England and after a few depressing weeks repairing damage and clearing blown trees on the farm, I decided to acquire more timber for some grand furniture making plans.
Like the trees, timber prices were on the deck, but figuring that it was still worth the same for my use, I offered pre-storm prices for timber and soon had a stock of prime timber in 17 types piled in every spare space on the farm.
A mobile Trekkasaw sawmill was hired in from Sussex for the two weeks it took to convert it and soon after, timber was stacked in the various redundant farm buildings that were eventually to be converted for the shop and timber supplies.
The following year, word got around that there was an obsessive compulsive timber nut on a small farm in Sutton and before long, more buildings were stacked with huge piles of timber in stick.
I had a few enquiries with regard to selling some of the Oak we had milled but was adamant that the timber was all for my own use - right through to retirement!
It soon became obvious (as our tractor driver John pointed out) that with the best will in the world, I would never use the wood in one lifetime, so sometime late in 1988, I started to sell some.
Soon after I was invited to join the Kent branch of the Association of Woodturners of Great Britain (AWGB) and realised I wasn’t the only woodturner in the area.
In 1995, just before the BSE debacle, we gave up the beef cattle. It wasn’t so much a question of foresight, more luck, but in light of subsequent the foot-and-mouth outbreak and the loss of a beef market in Europe (where they never had BSE nor F&M of course. . .) we have not regretted the change.
With frequent enquiries from our regular timber customers requesting that we increase our stock to include tools, accessories, finishes etc, we moved the timber business into the Stiles & Bates farming partnership and made a planning application to convert one of the cattle lodges into a shop to supply all the requirements of the woodturner under one roof.
At this time we had been hiring in a local sawmiller with a Tom Sawyer mill for our yearly milling but in 1998 bought an almost new Trekkasaw such as we had hired in the early days.
In the beginning Janet and I ran the shop with John Harrop (now retired) mixing in with his job of doing most of the arable work on the farm.
Soon after, with the job of rushing out to cut blanks or plane timber between customers stretching us, it became obvious that we needed some help, so we called in friend from his retirement to help out part time.
Three years after opening the shop we published our first mail order catalogue and soon after, a simple website.
In 2001 we asked Mike O’Brien (also retired but still pops in with cream cakes for us all) to join us from his job in a large tool store. Mike has brought with him his experience as a senior manager with BT and was the happy and helpful first contact for most customers. He is a woodworker and woodturner when he finds time and has a huge repertoire of terrible jokes. No wonder he fitted in so well.
Later the same year, with the job of cutting more blanks, planning more timber and now driving a keyboard stretching us further, we poached Mike Chapman to join us as a wood machinist.
Mike C is Mr Versatile, Mr Odd-job and our main wood machinist. He followed his carpenter father into woodworking and between making many of the new displays in the shop has taught himself to build a sophisticated database that has become the heart of our mail order system as this aspect of the business has grown.
He has since linked it to our all-too-clever Epos system.
Alfie (the one in the shades) is chief greeter and head of security!
Our timber and blanks
Timber is the foundation on which we have built the business and remains at the core of what we do best here.
As demand for our timber has grown, so the days of nipping out to fell or pick up single local trees are sadly a rarity now, but we do buy as much as we can from local fellers and timber yards.
We converted our Trekkasaw mobile sawmill to a static mill, (see our 2011 update below) so buy in round timber, mill and dry it then re-saw it further for wood turning blanks or planks for furniture of cabinet making.
Our machine shop is packed out with four bandsaws, radial arm, planer and saw bench.
They are all pretty old machines (now fitted with new fangled electronic brakes and dust extraction to comply with the safety regs) but we like them because they are solid and accurate.
The most exciting news of 2011 is that our son Pete has joined the S&B partnership!
Those of you who remember our pre-catalogue Newsletters from the nineties will remember us appointing him Director of Menial Tasks.
Now, with an engineering apprenticeship under his belt and ten years working as an engineering fitter, Pete has come back to the farm.
When our tractor driver of 40 years retired in 2008 we had the farm contracted so we could concentrate on the ever expanding timber business.
Pete now has the job of modernising the grainstore and re-equipping the farm in time for his first harvest in 2013.
And if that is not enough to keep him busy, he will also be taking on the timber business too.
Pete has worked on the farm since he was knee high the legal age to do so and did his first work in the timber job, aged five, helping his elder sister paint the ends of freshly milled planks.
He has kept his eye on both jobs ever since and is thoroughly enjoying being part of the team and taking on the challenges.
And before you ask, NO, this does not mean the old man will be retiring; far from it, but maybe a bit more time in the workshop. . .
Our new baby, a Forrester Tom Sawyer one-man sawmill replaces our faithful two-man Trekkasaw which has given us twelve years of good service.
The new machine is one we have been looking for since we hired one for a number of years during the 90s and now we have looked out some old photos, we see it is the very same one we used to hire!
Had to go to Scotland to find it but we now have a machine which should cut our sawmilling time in half or put another way, enable us to cut even more timber and beams.
As well as our routine blank cutting, we also cut and prepare timber to cutting lists for furniture and other flat wood working projects.
We mill hardwoods as the tree dictates - not to set lengths as is usual in softwood mills, so if you have a furniture project or similar, do contact us and please give cutting lists in component parts rather than by adding lengths together (ie. show 15 off 18”x 4”x 2” rather than 22’-6”x 4”x 2”) so we can find the pieces most economically.
When calculating planed, finished sizes of timber, please allow 1/4” (6mm) below sawn plank thicknesses.
For the likes of table tops, panels etc we supply widths from 4” to 9” (sometimes up to 12” depending upon timber type) planed all round for shooting together to make the full width.
We can also glue them up for you.
For stability, table tops and similar panels are made up of a series of planks glued together, either in set or random board widths.
For a modest charge, we will now assemble, glue and cramp such projects (within certain limits) and belt sand if required.
If you have a dimensioned plan we will work out the cutting list for you.
Do call us on 01304 366360, email us or call in and chat about it.
For planed or square sawn timber supplied to cutting lists, we have a secure Special Order page on our website which we will advise if you prefer to pay by this means after accepting our quotation.
We also mill beams, false beams, waney edged shelves and can adze the corners for ye olde look.
Adze a touch of interest...
In 2002 we converted the derelict old stables into dedicated craft teaching workshops with one workshop solely for woodturning and one for carpentry and joinery, wood machining and other craft courses as demand dictates.
Driving a keyboard
In 2003, we had website with an online shop built, one that we could update and refresh as necessary.
The website, developed to cater for our unique type of business was the biggest single step forward we had made since opening the shop and as we continually move to the high spots of most search engines (by whatever witchcraft!) we see an increasing amount of business from all over the UK and many countries overseas.
Catalogue number seven coincided with our celebrating ten years in the shop.
We are now on catalogue number 11 and brand new website in 2010, where did the time go?
With our new epos system and the maintenance of website and mail order, we now have more computers than bandsaws but know which we would rather be driving!
Heck, it only seems a few year back that we were trying to get Match of the Day on the microwave...
Our mail order service
Like most of our customers, we use mail order catalogues and the internet to buy a range of goods and have set up the mail order aspect of our business with this in mind, the difference being that we are now this side of the counter!
Like our customers, we like to browse a range of goods knowing they are in stock, and we expect to receive them as soon as possible after ordering by the most cost effective means.
For machinery, we use a national pallet service or have them sent direct from our suppliers.
Royal Mail and Parcel Force collect every day, so even with overseas orders we can run the whole job from here.
If our carriage charges might seem a tad complicated it is becasue we try and send by the fairest and best priced means possible.
We are well aware that you have a choice of suppliers and that we could lose your custom through one faulty blank or product, so although we know you would prefer to select your own timber and bits and pieces, we hope you will allow us to choose these for you with confidence.
You will want to receive these items as described and be pleased by your choice; we for our part would like your repeat business.
Dave, Janet, Mike & Pete - the S&B Team