GARDNER – Long ago, this city was the furniture capital of the world – aptly dubbed the “city of the chair” – with factory chimneys outnumbering church steeples.
Then the jobs moved south and abroad.
Today, a small manufacturer is trying to revitalize Gardner’s old reputation, one piece of wood at a time.
Justin Robichaud started his custom carpentry business almost 10 years ago as the owner and sole employee of Wood You Build It.
Growing up in Fitchburg, Robichaud said he and his father would visit Gardner every Sunday and pass the billboard along Route 2 naming Gardner the furniture capital of New England.
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve been asking myself, ‘How is this the furniture capital of New England?’” He said.
“In terms of manufacturing, there is no more furniture manufacturing in Gardner. There used to be a furniture maker on every corner, and we’re talking big companies at one point. Now they are all gone. We lost them to deindustrialization and it all went overseas. “
Robichaud’s father taught him woodworking at a young age, he said, recalling a photo of him taken when he was 2 with a hammer and nail in his hand. At 8 years old, Robichaud had already built his first toolbox, a gift to his father.
“My dad claims it’s in my blood. I come from a long line of carpenters, ”said Robichaud. “Over time I started to realize that there was a lost art there, and to be able to bring this art form back to the community I belong to and to be able to create jobs – what could I do? ask for more? “
Robichaud said Wood You Build It was born out of both a necessity and a passion for this art form.
Girl an inspiration
When Robichaud’s daughter was crawling around the house when she was a baby, she would pull on a garbage bag hanging from a doorknob. Robichaud’s wife, Kate, asked him if he could find a way to prevent him from interfering, so using old planks he found in the attic, Robichaud built a beautiful original trash can out of it. drawers for his wife.
After that, Robichaud started selling similar wood bins on Etsy, an online shopping site focused on handmade or vintage items. Working out of his Templeton home, Robichaud began taking orders for custom parts, finding a niche in building handmade kitchen islands.
Orders started pouring in from across the country.
“I quickly realized I was on to something,” said Robichaud. “I was creating something by hand, which you don’t see often these days. I was doing it nationwide, and it was mostly made to order, which is pretty cool too.”
Customers will contact Robichaud and share exactly what they envision for their custom piece. For the kitchen islands there has been a lot of thought in the design, the ability to add drawers, a built-in trash can, wheels, endless paint colors and other customizations.
He called one of his pieces, the Yorkie Kitchen Island, a “Swiss Army Knife”, illustrating exactly how versatile one of his pieces can be.
Robichaud has an obvious passion for his work. Until two years ago, he himself took care of the design, construction, painting and delivery of parts while working full time.
He spent eight years as the sole employee of Wood You Build It – with the support of Kate – before quitting his job to focus fully on the business, finally moving to a 2,000 square foot facility in Gardner and hiring a handful of other carpenters to help him.
A good view”
One of his first employees was his longtime friend Brian Fontaine, a Templeton resident who began working with wood in his youth.
Before becoming a supervisor at Wood You Build It, Fontaine was a carpenter turned florist, who let Robichaud run his business in his old workshop.
“He has good vision,” Fontaine said of Robichaud. “He’s always trying to come up with new styles and different ideas. We all try to work together and help each other out, but he has the last call.”
Fontaine has also worked as a mill room foreman in the past and said working for Robichaud was a good change.
“With a smaller scale business like this, it’s more about quality than quantity,” said Fontaine.
Last year, the 12-person team moved to a 25,000 square foot manufacturing warehouse in Gardner.
“It’s not a big store where we do thousands of pieces a week,” Fontaine continued. “It’s a dozen pieces a week, but everything that comes out is handmade from scratch, so it’s a little different from a full-scale store that has 30 to 40 employees. than a handful but everyone’s really smart and seems to like what they’re doing. “
According to Robichaud, the team can produce a kitchen island in half a day before sending it to the paint booth. After reaching final assembly, the island is packed and loaded into the delivery van.
Whether the order is international or local, the delivery person will personally unveil the part and explain to the customer the features and how to care for the product. Robichaud said he was working with independent freight companies to ship his parts across the country.
Robichaud says he loves delivering parts to customers himself. Previously he personally delivered to New England, but now he travels to Minnesota and Florida to bring his work to his new home.
He said the best part of the job is seeing the expression on a person’s face when they lay their eyes on the room, whether it’s a kitchen island or a wooden trash can. , and say, “This is exactly what I imagined.”
“What I’ve learned over the past 10 years is that these customers in the United States always appreciate something that is handmade, something that is delivered personally, something that they know is. it took a lot of time and effort to create from scratch, like as opposed to having something show up at your door in a box with a full set of building instructions, ”Robichaud said.
This level of dedication is what has elevated Wood You Build It from a small, local business to one of Etsy’s most successful businesses in the country.
As a company that sources lumber locally, Robichaud said he has seen the effects of the lumber shortage and labor shortage as the transportation companies he works with. worked had difficulty finding truck drivers for their freight vehicles.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 2021, it’s that you just can’t be complacent,” he said. “Just when you think you’re going over one obstacle, there’s another. The shortage of wood, we’re not done. The problem is, it’s not as widespread as it is. six or seven months ago, but I still have a few vendors that I work with who, if I need wood, have to scramble to find wood for me. It’s an ongoing battle.
Robichaud said that as the business grows, jobs will increase. Rather than adding automated machines, he prioritizes the human aspect of the job to ensure that each part is made entirely by hand.
“Our business model is essentially completely handcrafted, made entirely of solid materials,” he said. “So if we end up being 10 times our current size, our employment will also be 10 times more.”
Wood You Build It still focuses primarily on kitchen islands, but expands its portfolio in 2022. Robichaud said the company is starting to handcraft kitchen stools – to match the islands – and tables, in particular. end tables, coffee tables and dining tables.
“I know what my ultimate goal is: basically I want to have the ability to make furniture by hand and furnish your whole house,” said Robichaud. “I want my job to be in everyone’s house, and it’s a big goal. But I know there is a way to get it and I’m going to do it. You have to take it someday. times and be grateful for what we have right now. “
For more information on Wood You Built It, visit woodyoubuildit.com.