History (WTW)

Kinetic Art: Dream to Reality - The Fledgling Business


This is the second of a series of blogs about my history in the craft industry. If you missed the first post start here.

The craft community of the '70's was an amiable, chatty group and although the early craft fairs may not have been a huge financial success, we were among friends trying to make an alternative living. We shared experiences and knowledge and a fellow crafter mentioned that we should investigate exhibiting at Rhinebeck. Rhinebeck was a juried show that was quickly becoming the premier craft show in the country, and we had never heard of it (Remember those days with no Internet?). The American Craft Council initially brought the show to the fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY in 1973 and it combined both wholesale and retail opportunities for the growing craft industry in America. (For more information and a funky history of Rhinebeck check out the articles here and here).

Our early display. It was precariously balanced on scrap wood when we set it up in the tent on lumpy ground at our first ACC Rhinebeck craft show in 1977.


WTW first applied to Rhinebeck for the June 1976 show with the line of executive playthings and was rejected. It was a humbling experience. It also pointed to a problem that we faced until the advent of the internet - how to show motion. Jurying was limited to five static slides. It was very difficult to convey how the pieces moved or operated in a photo. Makers of musical instruments faced similar problems. I've always assumed that we finally made it through the jurying process because one or more of the jurors (mostly fellow craftspeople) had seen my work at one of the small shows and could explain it.

Like many things in life the set back turned out to be a good thing. Over the next year I developed the wall sculpture concept and expanded my woodworking skills. We got the "fat envelope" the next year and Wood That Works as a fledgling business was born.

The new category presented by the wall pieces opened the door to Rhinebeck and the national gallery scene. Luckily Rhinebeck was located in neighboring New York state which made our participation possible. In June I loaded up the second-hand pick-up truck emblazoned with red and yellow flames on the sides and headed west. Marji had to remain home because school wasn't out for the year and she was still earning the bulk of our income teaching high school art. Instead Larry, my roommate from college, was riding shotgun.

Establishing a business is always easier with a little help from your friends!

In some ways Rhinebeck was similar to other tent shows that we had attended. It took place at an agricultural fair ground which brought its own set of challenges. In warm weather it smelled like a barnyard and in bad weather it was a sea of mud. But in other ways Rhinebeck was a very different affair. On the opening evening there was a wine and cheese gala where the artists exhibited their work and mingled with gallery owners and buyers. This was a "no sales" event allowing gallery owners to see everything that was available prior to the initial day of the show. There was a lot of excitement around the WTW booth. The wall pieces were a new genre in the craft world - it wasn't pottery, weaving or glass and this was exciting for the gallery owners. Many owners said they would be back the next day to place orders.

Larry and I were stunned that first morning to find gallery owners lined up at our tiny 10' x10' grassy booth waiting to place orders. The orders started rolling in. After an hour or so of taking orders, Larry turned to me and asked how many pieces I had in stock and how many I could make. I wasn't sure - this had not been a problem before! Larry, always a creator of charts, set-up my first production schedule on scrap paper so that I didn't over promise myself.

A database before computers! It is amazing the stuff one saves.

I would have been hopelessly over-committed without his input. That first day we sold to many galleries around the USA including in Texas, California, and Hawaii. Many galleries from that first group showed my work for years but only one is still with us. Gregory's of Salado, Texas has been showing my work since the beginning and still shows it today! (update: Gregory'e closed shop in 2012 to retirement!)

At the end of the day I called Marji and told her that we could go ahead with the planning phase of the new house/studio we had been dreaming of building. In fact we needed to go ahead with it, I was going to need more (and warmer) space to work! 

The original shop was so tiny all finishing took place in the lean-too shed outside. The ventilation was supurb! During the early years I did have one part time employee, Lisa, working above.

To continue to part 3: Click Here 

Kinetic Art: Dream to Reality - The Craft Year

People have a lot of questions not only about my kinetic sculptures, but also regarding our history in the craft world. Over many years, Marji and I built a business that has defied the odds and became a career. Recently discovered photos brought down from a dusty attic shelf have inspired this series of blog posts chronicling the evolution of Wood That Works.


Amazingly, it started pretty much on a whim. I had been designing small, wooden children's toys and "executive playthings" as a way to fill the empty time at a boring programming job. Not only did the doodling fill time but it also provided a way to work with my hands on nights and weekends. Building things had always been a favorite pastime. Location wasn't in my favor and my workshop was the second bedroom of our small second floor apartment. I can't imagine what the downstairs neighbor thought!

When I discovered that I enjoyed the "toy" work more than the "real" job, I quit the practical job (during a recession no less -– ah, the confidence of youth!) and started showing my work at small craft fairs under the name Wood Works. (The "that" was added with the wall pieces). There wasn't a business plan guiding WTW with goals and a mission statement as many entrepreneurial pursuits require today. I assumed I'd have to go back to a paying job at some point. It was the 70's, Marji had a teaching job she loved and it didn't cost us much to live. The lack of a traditional business structure allowed WTW to change with the evolving craft market that was still in its infancy in the mid to late 1970s.

In the beginning, the craft shows where I displayed were small gatherings, located in varied venues including grassy fields, church basements, and high school gyms. I showed my work, talked to people, and made a little money. Our big sellers were classic toys like the Do-Nothing Machine and Jacob's Ladder. They sold for about $5 each. We learned that people liked the toys that moved and I designed a line of motion toys – Zylo, Spinner and Gizmo with Zylo as the king of our "high end" market.

We had to sell an over-whelming number of pieces to make a profit never mind a living. I was doing the assembly work myself with family help and had no intention of scaling up to include employees. I never saw myself as a boss! Something had to change if this was to have any future. I realized that in order to make this endeavor more profitable I would have to design something unique that would appeal to buyers in this fledgling market.

It was during this time that, through a strange and serendipitous route, we learned of a rental in rural Woodstock, CT. It was part of an old farm and not only did it have charm, it also had shop potential! The old barn was long gone but a cinder block milk shed was still standing and, if we cleaned it out, I could use the space. Marji and I moved from the inappropriate apartment workshop and setup my first real (although cold) workshop. It was time to broaden my product line.

One of the comments often shared with us, especially with regards to Zylo, was that it didn't run long enough. That started me thinking about ways to make things move for longer periods. I knew how clock escapements worked and they ran for long periods but didn't find the motion of a pendulum very interesting. I decided to try making a weight-driven escapement that would move something other than a pendulum. I did lots of experiments and built several pieces that moved including a large freestanding clunker of a piece we called Albert that was powered by a 20 pound weight, hardly moved, and ran for 20 minutes. I gradually refined the ideas, moving the concept to the wall. I came up with three designs that used five pound weights and ran reliably for about a half hour, B.W Cornwallis, Inventor Released and Wandering Asterisk.

I first presented the wall-mounted pieces to the public at a weekend "tent" show in Farmington CT. We mounted the pieces on my utilitarian but decidedly ugly shop test stands and put them behind our table display of toys. We hoped they would attract people to our display and inspire them to buy toys. After a lot of discussion between Marji and I, we put the insanely high price of $95 on each of them. At that point our high priced Zylo was $15! I didn't think they would sell but I knew I couldn't make them for less.

To my amazement and joy we immediately attracted a mesmerized crowd and in about 20 minutes sold the original working models of all three. I remember walking around the outside of the tent that weekend finally seeing a future that might actually work. I had lots of ideas for new mechanisms and designs churning in my head. It's one of those highlight moments that has stayed with me. I also realized that I had found that elusive niche that would be seen as unique in the growing craft market.

We did have a lot to learn however. I had sold my only prototypes. I had to go back to the drawing board (literally) and remake the sculptures from memory! 

To continue to part 2: Click Here