Originally published in Business Digest, October 1997

Forest for the Trees

by Craig C. Bailey

When Bruce Beeken and Jeff Parsons invite someone to have a seat at their Shelburne Farms woodshop, there are plenty to choose from. The two have a soft spot in their collective heart for chairs, evidenced by the half-dozen or so lined up against one wall.

Career woodworkers who design and manufacture custom furnishings, Beeken and Parsons create products that are as much suited to museum exhibits as they are to dining rooms. In fact, one of their prototype chairs, a mere mock-up to transition between two-dimensional sketch and polished finished product, sports more luster than furnishings a certain writer allows to grace his humble domicile.

Delivering high-quality furnishings is the end result, but recently the pair have focused their attention on the opposite end of the process: the harvesting of timber. With an eye toward wise use of available, sustainable resources, and aspirations to positively affect consumer demand for plentiful wood species not typically found in high-quality furniture, no one can say that Beeken and Parsons can't see for the forest for the trees.

The roots of their partnership reach back to the mid 1970s, when Beeken and Parsons met while attending Boston University's program in artisanry. Beeken, a native of Hanover, N.H., who moved to Charlotte at age 11 and later to Burlington, spent a couple of years doing apprenticeships in Putney between graduating from Burlington High School in 1971 and moving to Boston.

[Jeff Parsons & Bruce Beeken] Custom woodworking doesn't always mean one-off work. Jeff Parsons (left) and Bruce Beeken of Beeken/Parsons in Shelburne have created hundreds of chairs for libraries at Norwich University and Vermont Law School. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

"There was this one kid in the shop whose first project was a backpack frame," he says, referring to his early encounter with Parsons at college. "It was very much within the tradition of boatmaking and the woodcraft lore that really got me interested in making things to begin with. So I think we established an affinity for one another's ethic early on. And the rest was just a matter of fate."

Upon college graduation in the late '70s, the two went their separate ways, unaware they would both eventually end up in Burlington.

In 1979, Parsons, who grew up outside of Boston, took a job doing woodwork with Reale Mirror Manufacturing in New York City and, later, in Plymouth, N.H. Two years later he found himself moving to the Queen City when a friend of his brother's, and an original partner of the now- defunct Depot Woodworking Co. Inc., tipped him off about an opening at the Burlington production woodshop.

Beeken was already in town. The previous year he had established Bruce Beeken Furniture on Flynn Avenue, which he moved to the farm barn at Shelburne Farms in 1980. It didn't take long before their paths crossed.

In 1983, when Depot approached Beeken for assistance in developing a start-up piece for a new furniture line, Beeken suggested that Parsons build the prototype in Beeken's shop. Eventually, Parsons went part-time at Depot when he began sharing the shop space at Shelburne Farms, and ended up leaving Depot altogether. Beeken/Parsons became a formal business partnership that year, and has gone on to produce a steady annual income ever since.

"We are custom manufacturers. Clients come to us because they're having difficulty finding what they want," explains Parsons, who lives in Ferrisburg with his wife, Alison, and his three kids. "We attempt to hear what it is that they want -- to develop something that is uniquely suited to their needs and interests."

"Some of the equipment we have is unusual for a couple of guys in a small shop. It's industrial scale, automatic repeat function equipment for making mortises and tenons and shaping wood," adds Beeken, referring to the tab-and-slot-like system that holds together the company's furniture. "It really is a statement on our interest in straddling the line between specialty pieces and small production scale of work, which is where we're interested in moving our business."

Occasional bleats, moos and clucks from the children's' farmyard adjacent to the woodshop punctuate the discussion as the two tell their story. "We are here because our approach to what we're doing is consistent with Shelburne Farms' general philosophy of resource utilization -- conservation, careful use of resources," says Parsons. Their latest initiative, Vermont Forest Furniture, fits that mold perfectly.

The two credit Bob De Geus, a utilization specialist with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation since 1989, with providing the seed of the program. In handling rural development through forestry, De Geus strives to add value to wood products in Vermont. Over the course of several years, he says, he's maintained a symbiotic relationship with Beeken/Parsons -- sharing his knowledge about wood, while they've taught him about design.

"The idea that the end customer in the raw material chain, the manufacturer, has, for many years, had little or no voice in what happens in logging and sawmilling peaked my interest," says De Geus. "It became clear," he continues, "that the key element to using the wood that we grow here more wisely, and using it more completely and more efficiently, rested with design."

The problem, as Beeken and Parsons describe it, is that a relatively small number of tree species commonly found in Vermont forests are favored for furniture. Consequently, disproportional harvesting of those species threatens to throw the natural balance of Vermont's forests out of whack. The two see themselves, as manufacturers, in a key position to help determine what types of logs are harvested and contribute to sustainable management of Vermont's forests.

"How can the wood products industry support or contribute to sustainable management of our forests?" asks Parsons. "We think that it is possible for the wood products industry to have an impact. One of the ways it can do that is by adjusting the sort of materials that they use. They can place quite an emphasis on using the full range of species, for example, rather than the one or two species that grow in our area that are particularly popular."

In late spring 1996, with the help of De Geus, Beeken/Parsons, which recently has harvested much of its timber from Shelburne Farms' approximately 300 wooded acres, secured a $20,000 grant to try to answer the question that Parsons phrases as, "Is there a good way to incorporate lower value materials into higher value products?"

"That was a grant that came from money that Sen. Leahy was instrumental in legislating called Rural Development Through Forestry," explains Beeken, who lives in Shelburne with his wife, Sara, and daughter. With additional matching funds secured from individuals and foundations raising the budget to $70,000, the pair purchased 4,000 feet of beech, a species that constitutes 10 to 15 percent of the standing hardwood in Vermont, and began experimenting.

"Europeans use beech," says Beeken, "but American beech is really not part of the furniture industry."

"Many timber stand improvement plans call for the removal of beech to allow the more valuable species to grow," adds Parsons, which, he adds, has the potential for disaster. "If one's timber stand is predominately hard maple, and the Asian long-horned beetle turns out to find Vermont a hospitable environment, that land owner is in a bad way -- not to mention the other environmental implications. That's a simple dollars and cents way of saying that diversity within species in a woodlot is a good thing."

While beech is plentiful, it can be difficult to work with, making it less favorable. But Beeken/Parsons discovered that with special care -- studious drying and cutting -- such materials can be made furniture-friendly. "It requires certain accommodations from industry to use it," says Beeken.

What's more, the pair experimented in maximizing yield from logs. "Sawmills generally recover something in the order of 50 to 65 percent of the useable material of a log," according to Parsons. "We've found that with the sort of process that we were using, we were able to recover a significantly higher rate. That requires that we allow wane in the board -- that is the inclusion of some of the bark or the edge of the log," as well as the center of the tree, a feisty filet that industry sawmills often exclude for scrap.

When Beeken/Parsons presented their findings to the state in late spring, it was obvious that they had only scratched the surface of the issue. As a small business doing innovative research, the two secured a Phase 0 grant from the Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a statewide program based at the University of Vermont and funded by the National Science Foundation. The Vermont EPSCoR grant helped Beeken and Parsons apply to the federal government for a Phase 1 grant in September. The Phase 1 grant would provide between $50,000 and $100,000 for Beeken/Parsons to develop specific pieces to be made from underutilized materials like beech and explore the market for such items.

"There's no question that's a big issue," says Parsons of the issue of consumer demand. After all, as customer manufacturers, aren't they ultimately at the beck and call of their clients? And if the client wants maple and not beech, what's a designer to do?

"We're probably in a better position than most to address that issue," says Parsons. "We've always had a certain amount of success steering clients toward what strikes us as appropriate material. The client ultimately has the final say, but we have a tremendous amount of influence."

In fact, they might have more influence than they realize. De Geus says that trends in furniture design start with small outfits like Beeken/Parsons before they trickle up to the major manufacturers. "A lot of the big furniture companies steal like crazy from the small operations," he says, emphasizing that when he characterizes them as "thieves," it's done affectionately. "My belief is, if handled properly," he adds, "bigger firms will see this as an opportunity for them to do something to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

"If you've got a bunch of these small shops out there that are selling product gang-busters, because, not only is it good product, but it has good values behind it including where the wood comes from, then that lesson won't be lost on bigger factories," De Geus adds.

Alec Webb, president of Shelburne Farms, agrees. "We're really excited about that," he says. "It could be the beginning of a much larger trend that would affect much larger enterprises. It could really have a major impact."

Beeken/Parsons will find out in May whether they get the Phase 1 grant. Either way, they plan on continuing their work on Vermont Forest Furniture, and look forward to focusing their other attentions on chairs. "I think we'll probably always make tables, because tables go with chairs," says Beeken. "But chairs represent a design challenge. We really like chairs."