Inside Earlywood: A Q&A with Woodworker Brad Bernhart

Gorgeous utensils from Earlywood. Photography by Dan Armstrong.

{SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM OF THE POST TO ENTER OUR GIVEAWAY!}

I think about Brad Bernhart every day.

Every time I stir a simmering pot, scrape caramelized bits of roasted vegetables off a baking sheet, scoop granola into a cup, spread almond butter on my toast, cut up a piece of fruit, or ladle a chunky soup into bowls. I hold in my hand the beautiful, functional, durable utensils he has created, and feel lucky that I get to use them daily.

It’s not every kitchen tool that brings you joy, yet joy is precisely what’s at play here.

I told you about Earlywood a little while ago, and have kept in touch with Brad since, so when he told me about the new products he had designed — a set of mini cutting boards, slender tasting spoons, a tapered bread board — I was excited to try them out. Like all Earlywood products they are beautifully crafted, and I was especially taken with the miniature cutting boards and their one-of-a-kind wood pattern. Aren’t they striking?

Bread board, set of mini cutting boards, and set of tasting spoons from Earlywood.

Tapered bread board, set of mini cutting boards, and slender tasting spoons from Earlywood.

I have long been curious to hear more about Brad’s process, and he has agreed to participate in a little Q&A for our collective enjoyment.

Gift-giving season is around the corner and you’ll want to explore the Earlywood range, because any of Brad’s products will make an affordable yet truly special gift for the cooks you love. And as a gift to you, C&Z readers, Brad has offered a generous prize that you can enter to win at the bottom of this post. Happy reading and good luck!

Clotilde Dusoulier

Tell us a bit about your life path, and how you got to where you are.

In a nutshell, this is my life path: Kid, ski bum, student, engineer, husband, father, Earlywood!

Clotilde Dusoulier

Walk us through “a day in the life of Brad.”

My days are not consistent by any means. My wife is a nurse and works night shifts, so she is often in some state of preparing for work or recovering from work, but if I had to describe a “typical” day this would be it: If I have it in me, I try to get up before my kids do so I can knock a few things off my plate, like take a shower or drink some coffee in silence! Then, in come the kids. My little ones are two and three years old, and it takes them about ten seconds to go from 100% asleep to 100% fired up and rowdy. We cook some breakfast, get some clothes on and get ready for their day. That’s when I usually pass the torch to my wife and go to work.

I might spend a few hours in the office e-mailing and working on business stuff, then if everything lines up… I’m off to the shop to make some sawdust. I work as hard as I can for as long as I can, then it’s back into the hurricane of my children. We usually eat dinner as a family, do some kind of activity, then go through their bedtime routine. At that point, I finally have some nice quiet time to take care of myself, but as many parents can probably relate with… I just fall asleep!

earlywood_design

Clotilde Dusoulier

You just released new cutting boards and some tasting spoons. Can you describe your process for coming up with new products?

Although I am an ex-mechanical engineer who used to use a specific method for designing new products, that’s not exactly how I do it with Earlywood products. I like to know that my product designs will withstand the test of time, so I don’t rush the design process.

For example, for the bread boards that I just released this fall, I started designing last January! I made about 40 different variations of them. I passed a few out to friends as well as put a couple in my own kitchen to be tested for strength, etc. over the course of six or seven months. Nothing popped up, but if there had been an issue with strength or warping or anything else, I would have time to problem solve that before releasing to the public. I took the stack of forty cutting boards to craft fairs throughout the year and got comments from shoppers about the boards. I applied that feedback and modified the design a little. Then I conferred with some people whose opinions I trust to pick the two designs that I am offering now. I am always keeping a few key design goals in mind:

  • Simple not busy
  • Clean not cluttered
  • Modern not rustic
  • Solid not cheap
  • Warm not cold
  • Functional not frivolous

These qualities essentially describe how the boards were designed, but that’s only half of what happens. There are so many questions on the manufacturing side of things that need to be answered before I put them out for purchase, for example: How do I clamp the pieces together? What kind of glue will be best? How will the woods work together and how they will handle misuse, like heat, cold, and water? How should the grain be oriented in the pieces? Where am I going to store the wood to make these? What kind of box am I going to ship them in? How heavy are they? What do I need to charge for them? What should I call them? The list goes on! There are a lot of steps that go beyond the actual production, as well, like how to ship them and how much to charge.

There is a lot to consider when releasing a new product and that doesn’t even cover any of the pictures, descriptions, etc. that I need to feature them on my website. It ain’t easy!

Earlywood utensils oiling and drying

Clotilde Dusoulier

What excites you the most about your work? What is the most challenging thing about it?

The most exciting thing for me, which might not sound exciting to other people, is when I show up at the shop at the beginning of the day. I walk through the door, smell the sawdust and the wood, and have a whole day of making ahead of me! I love being in the shop and never get tired of being there.

The most challenging thing about running Earlywood is the number of hats that I need to wear as a bootstrapping entrepreneur. I was thinking about adding a bunch of pictures to my “about us” page that were all pictures of me with different job titles under them. A few would be: maker, new product designer, purchaser, marketer, web developer, store owner, traveling craft fair vendor, accountant, visionary, COO, CEO, CFO…the list goes on! It’s a lot to keep in one person’s head at one time.

Clotilde Dusoulier

What makes you different from other makers of beautiful wooden utensils?

What makes me different from most wooden utensil makers is my unique blend of art and science. I was an artist, drawer, painter from a young age and still love it. I even took on an art minor when I was in school for mechanical engineering. I use my artistic side to design great-looking and great-feeling products, which a lot of utensil makers do, but then when I’ve got a design I like, I go to town on it with engineering! I hear of and see so many spoon makers who start, make some products, then quickly go right out of business because they burn out.

Making spoons out of hardwoods is not easy and it’s even harder if you want to try to feed your family doing it. You can’t make a living doing this unless you are really fast and efficient about the process. I use every bit of engineering knowledge I have regarding lean manufacturing, process improvement, material selection, etc. to make it work for me. All of this together is why you can buy a spoon from Earlywood today, then buy another one from us in five years and not only will we still be in business, but the two spoons will look very similar.

I try to operate like a great restaurant. You want to go in and order your favorite meal without worrying that it will be different each time.

Red Lodge, Montana, where Earlywood is based

Red Lodge, Montana, where Earlywood is based

Clotilde Dusoulier

What would you most like to make that you haven’t made so far?

I would like to and will make some larger cutting boards and some utensils with more than one wood in them, like the old wok ladle that I’ve posted pics of on my Instagram page. It’s just a matter of time!

Clotilde Dusoulier

If you weren’t a woodworker, what would you like to be?

I would love to be an astronomer. I absolutely love everything related to space, physics, and the cosmos!

Clotilde Dusoulier

Do you have role models, in your craft and beyond?

Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” So instead of having a role model that is a person, I think my role model is a better version of myself and that’s what I shoot for!

Clotilde Dusoulier

You create beautiful utensils for cooks to use. Are you an enthusiastic cook yourself?

I do love to cook, but I’ll admit, when I’m cooking, I often think about the utensils and how they add to the cooking experience more than I think about the meal! My wife Charlotte is inspirational in the kitchen though. Even if you give her a recipe to follow, that never happens. She makes magic of whatever we have around!

Behind the scenes at Earlywood

Behind the scenes at Earlywood

Enter the Giveaway!

I am very, very excited about this giveaway, as Brad will be making custom-branded Earlywood products exclusively for Chocolate & Zucchini readers. These products are limited edition and will be engraved with the mention C&Z ♥ Earlywood. One lucky reader will receive:

Custom-engraved Earlywood C&Z Cutting Board

Brad will ship anywhere in the world, so all readers are welcome to participate, regardless of location.* Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below; you will be automatically signed up for the C&Z newsletter, but of course you will be free to unsubscribe at any time. You have until Tuesday, November 24, 2015 at 10pm EST to participate, and as you can see I’ve included lots of options to increase your chances. The winner will be announced here on Wednesday the 25th. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

* Please note that if you are outside the US and Canada, the package may be subject to customs and sales taxes on reception, and these will be at your expense; check with your local postal services to know the details.

Brad working on Earlywood products while being photographed by Dan Armstrong.

Brad working on Earlywood products.

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