Craig Pearce // Union Wood Co.

Union Wood Co. seems to be a name that I hear fairly often as an interior designer in Vancouver. They’ve been around since 2009 and have a reputation for making some pretty cool furniture. When Ben Barber told me that he started working there after graduating from Pratt, I decided it was time for a visit.

Their showroom and studio space is cozy and welcoming. I quickly got the sense that I was back in my small hometown at my aunt's farm studio (this probably had something to do with the barn flanking the shop and the warm hospitality). I was intrigued to hear the story of how Craig, the company’s founder, turned a hobby into a full-time business. Almost ten years later, he’s curated a highly skilled, multi-disciplinary team of makers and developed a great sense for designs that resonate with people. It’s hard to believe that this isn't his only job.

Tell me about the space we’re in right now.

This is our tiny little showroom. It’s also a nice quiet space to talk to customers. We mostly have examples of things that we make in here – a table, sofa, chairs, shelving, a credenza, and even some smaller items like aprons. We also keep a sample set of wood finishes in here so we can review options with our customers.

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Which item do you make most often?

Tables are our bread and butter. That’s the thing we like the best. Tables are our favourite thing to make because it’s where all the fun stuff happens – it’s where you hang out, play board games, help your kid with their homework, share meals, and even where you do business. It’s the anchor for all of these activities. 

I was raised in a happy little family and we always came together around the kitchen table. I’ve always enjoyed that about tables.

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The tables are most recognizable to me as Union Wood Co., too. I was surprised to see this sofa and chair set – can you tell me about it?

This is our Sunday sofa and chair. These are fairly new. They’ve been around for about a year or so. We get the upholstery from a local supplier and make all the frames and the leatherwork here. We used leather on the backs because they’ll break in and age nicely. Each pillow is made by hand at a local upholstery shop we work with. Each pillow is high quality foam wrapped with down for extra comfort.

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How many people make up Union Wood Co.?

Union Wood Co. is made up of 8 or 9 woodworkers and craftspeople. Ryan does welding. Nicole does leatherwork. Allison comes in to take photos every now and then. It’s a tribe of people that all have different skills. It takes a lot of people to make all the furniture – it’s really a production. We still have a backyard shop sort of feel, but to make quality pieces on time takes a team and smooth coordination.

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When did you begin making furniture?

When I’m not here, I’m actually working as a firefighter. I’ve been working at a station in West Vancouver for about 10 years. On the road to that career, I got a job doing construction – mostly helping out of course. After doing a bit of that, I moved to Big White, a little ski town outside of Kelowna. While I was working at a fire station and building up my resume, I was working with a carpenter to help build houses. It’s a small town so most of the trades do multiple jobs. The carpenters that did the framing also built the furniture. We were building bars and restaurants, so we were also building the stools and tables.

The guy I was working with didn’t have any idea what he was doing as far as furniture, so I had even less of an idea. I didn’t even take woodworking in high school or anything. We’d go chop down trees (because it’s legal to do that there) and I’d peel off the bark. Then we’d cut it into whatever shape we wanted. We were using chainsaws – I’m surprised I didn’t lose an arm. That’s when I realized how rewarding furniture making is. I got to make things with my hands, but I also got to see the finished product and meet the people who get to enjoy it. So I sort of stumbled into this world of furniture.

How did Union Wood Co. start?

Fast forward a few years from Big White – I ended up back in Vancouver. I was working some other jobs, trying to diversify my resume for the fire department. Then I got hired. After a few years, I decided that I wanted to do something else on my days off. I had some free time and wanted to do something with it. I bought some tools and rented out a shop with a friend. That was about 9 years ago. I started making some furniture just for myself. I’m not an exceptional woodworker personally – I made some tables and things.

Then I started making things for other people. And it got to the point where I would say, “Oh sure, I can build that for you,” only to quickly realize that I couldn’t. That's when I knew it was time to build a team. I have always loved working in teams and it helps us be successful now, relying on each other to do what we're good at.

Is this space your first shop as Union Wood Co.?

No, our first shop was in Railtown. The neighbourhood was a lot different then – rougher. We were one of the first spaces in the area to have an open & closed sign. When we first moved in, we ripped off the door and put in a new door that you could actually see into. All the shops that are there now weren’t there then. The area changed but we also changed. We couldn’t find a space big enough and the rent was going up, so we moved here.

You’ve got a sweet collection of art and artifacts around here. Where does all of this come from?

As a hobby, I used to buy and sell antiques at the Railtown shop. I would go on these road-trips to places like Austin, Texas. I’d bring back lights and art and sell it. That stopped happening when the currency exchange rate changed and when we got busier with furniture orders. It took a lot of time and eventually wasn’t really worth our time. So now we’ve got all this weird, wacky stuff around.  

It sounds like you were really just doing whatever made you happy – was that generally the approach?

Yeah, I would mostly do things that customers wanted or liked. Sometimes though I would just do things and put them in the showroom, hoping someone would like it and buy it. That's how all good design starts really, from someone doing what makes them happy and others liking it.

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What’s your role in the Union Wood Co. tribe these days?

My role has changed from making things – you end up sticking to what you’re good at, and I’m really good with people. I stick to talking to clients and managing the business. My role as a creative has changed from hands-on making to business development. Its fun and exciting in the same way furniture making is; there's no shortage of creativity. I’m not getting the creative fulfillment from actually making tables, but I’m getting fulfillment from coming up with creative solutions to the challenges of building a team, coordinating with customers and managing projects. There are two other guys that help me out with things like ordering materials, taking site measurements, and project management.

What’s your approach to managing the studio?

I’ve never worked in another shop, so we’ve built a way of doing things based on what works for us. There are some aspects of more formal studios that are based on tradition or best practices. Some of these aren’t actually even best practices nowadays, so it’s been generally easy for us to not get stuck in a mold. We don’t really subscribe to doing things the way they’re supposed to be done – this makes for some good things and some not-so-good things. Generally, we continue to learn as we grow and we’re getting better every day.

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How does a project start here?

After we agree on what to make with the client, then the project gets a clipboard. We’ll put the design with dimensions, finishes, and schedule on the clipboard and put it up on what we call our Job Board – it’s basically a wall of clipboards. The clipboards furthest to the right are what we’re currently working on. To the left are projects that are next in the queue. We can see which projects we need to order materials for, what’s starting next and what everyone in the shop is currently working on. We can also easily coordinate deliveries and installs, and gauge lead times for new projects based on what’s on the Job Board.

From the clipboard, what happens next?

Then we start working on building the piece, or pieces depending on the clipboard. Our shop is laid out with the wood shop in the middle. In here we’ve got our wood storage, woodworking equipment like the planer and a giant sander, and enough room to have multiple people working on various projects at once.

Off to the side, there’s a metal shop and a finishing room. We just started doing more metal work recently so that’s been an interesting new venture – it’s such a different challenge from wood.

The finishing room is pretty small. We do some of the finishing in-house. Right now we’ve got a sexy walnut table in here. This guy is going to be oxidized, so basically blackout black. An oxidized finish is achieved with a mix of steel wool and vinegar. It creates a chemical reaction that ages the wood super quick. Walnut goes black when it ages. It almost looks like black laminate with a dope grain. It looks awesome. I’m excited about this table. It’s going to a character house in the West End. 

We actually added all of the 2nd story spaces after we moved in. We built out this space in a huge way. There’s a mezzanine with a leather workshop. The rest of the 2nd story is where our offices are.

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How many projects do you typically have going at a time?

We make about 3-10 things per week, several hundred a year. The lead-time for a dining table, for example, is usually about 8 weeks. We’ll go through that entire stash in the wood storage area in the next week.

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One of the cabinets in the showroom has a textural finish on the doors that looks like tree bark. What is this?

That’s the birch bark – it’s sort of a thing for us. This is really cool stuff. This was an idea that I had a few years ago. It’s actually bark from a birch tree. We get it from a guy that we work closely with. He goes up to the tree – this is an old indigenous technique – then cuts it up and down and then in circles and peels off the bark. The bark is quite pliable so they can make it into all sorts of things like canoes and shoes. It’s a natural fiber. The guy that gets it for us vacuum presses it into birch substrate. The end product doesn’t have a clear coat or anything on it. It’s hard, even though it looks soft, but we only use it on vertical surfaces.

I also noticed some millwork pieces in the shop. Is millwork something that you do regularly?

We definitely do some millwork – credenzas, desks, vanities, reception desks, small kitchens…our ideal scenario is to show up and drop off the piece we’ve made. Maybe it needs to be screwed into the wall, but we’re not big on laborious installs. It’s just not really our strength. A floating vanity we would do – like one of the pieces here is a floating vanity. It’s a thin veneer of metal on birch ply. It’s less expensive and weighs less than a solid metal piece. 

How did you get started doing the leatherwork?

I actually made myself an apron. I just wanted one to keep me from getting so dirty in the shop. Then someone wanted to buy one. Then someone wanted to buy 20. Now we sell about 1,000 a year. We mostly sell them to the restaurant industry. Leather is so analog. You just look at it, measure it, and make it. I bought a metal company that was going out of business and I bought all of these pieces – there’s an antique table that we make everything on, and old equipment and tools.

What’s something that you’ve learned over the years that makes your process smoother?

Establishing realistic timelines upfront has definitely been something that we’ve learned and been able to do well. People will beg for things to be done faster, but I know that typically it won’t actually get done any faster and I want them to get a quality product. It’s taken me years to learn how to deal with customers and manage people. It’s something that I’m good at and that I truly enjoy.

Personally, I also have the benefit of this other job that puts things into perspective. At the end of the day, we’re making furniture. There’s simply no such thing as a furniture emergency, and that’s a good thing.

To learn more about Union Wood Co. or to get in touch with Craig, visit unionwoodco.com.