The Garrett Wade Story
I am well into my baby-boom years. And as I look back on many past decades – all the way back to those very early days – I think on what was important, and not important, in my development as a person. If fact, one relatively brief experience when I was 12-13 dramatically stands out – a slice of two summers, learning how to make furniture as part of a manual arts “training” class at a local Junior High.
My summer shop teacher was a gent named John Woodell (see – I remember that detail), and the first tools he let me touch were a rasp, a coping saw, a hammer and sandpaper. Those tools plus a piece of mahogany, some dark red leather, and decorative tacks allowed me to build a handsome curved-foot footstool. To this day I still have it and it remains quite perfect.
Mr. Woodell (we all called him that, of course) was a calm mentor to us all, insisting that we learn the basics (and satisfactions) of hand work before we were even allowed to approach anything with an attached motor.
Clearly, I grew to love the feel of what my hands accomplished, and during the second summer, “graduated” to making a 36” diameter solid mahogany coffee table with a 2” wide curved surface veneer border, curved rails with a scraped single bead close to the bottom edge, and four hand-planed, tapered legs. I even made the bead scraper by filing the shape in a piece of thin steel. I have never forgotten any part of this.
It’s important to understand that I was just having a boyhood good time. In no way did it ever occur to me that this was an “important” experience. But now I know with certainty that it was “shop” that gave me that first sense of accomplishment, real self-esteem, and confidence; and that this would become crucial for a sense of adult selfhood and singularity. Without really knowing it, I internalized this feeling deeply.
So this ended in time, of course, and I went on to high school, college, the Navy, and eventually acquired an advanced degree. At no time during those years did I have easy access to any woodworking shop facility. But I remember that the monthly magazines (yes, they really existed – lots of them) I most looked forward to were the likes of Popular Mechanics. This is a “confession” of a guy with 6 years of advanced education. Throughout these years, that childhood memory kept coming back.
Was I prepped for a conventional kind of work career? Absolutely. And I followed the expected path into the land of the gray-flannel suit. For about 5 years, I worked in a conventional corporate environment, worked hard, and got paid well, but increasingly I felt the results of my work to be shallow. Maybe I was unrealistic in my expectations, but in the end I felt a sense of palpable dissatisfaction.
During this 5 year period, I was fortunate enough to be granted access to an empty room in the basement of my apartment building, and set about setting up a woodworking shop for the first time in over 15 years. The challenge, I quickly found, was in acquiring the tools I knew I needed to do the craft (small machinery, a good bench, a variety of both routine and special hand tools). It was a real struggle. What I could find was inadequate and had nothing in the way of the special functions that I craved. But in time and with persistence, I succeeded and began to work with wood again.
With perfect hindsight, it is now apparent that the secret passion then began to take hold, and I realized that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But what was that unique insight or talent that I could “bring to the party” and contribute?
It was while I was on vacation that the answer came to me in a flash: I knew a lot about woodworking hand tools and had a real passion for good ones that were almost impossible for the non-professional to find. But the critical question was, were there other pending middle-aged (or older) people like me who secretly longed to reconnect to a stimulating earlier experience with manual arts training in secondary school? The instant answer for me was: “There had to be”. A month later, I quit my day-job and went to work.
Thirty months later in mid-1975, after I had completed my sourcing activities (mostly in Europe) and had prepared (with a lot of good help) the first Garrett Wade catalog, I placed a single 1/2 page ad in the only small, middle-brow, dedicated woodworking magazine that existed at the time. I got 5,000 catalog requests.
My timing was spot on – an admitted bit of good fortune. The country was in substantial cultural turmoil (Vietnam War, Women’s Lib, hippies, Haight Ashbury etc.) But I was on my way with the dream intact. The lesson is that interest and passion can come from any point in life – even childhood. Don’t ignore it.