Reclaimed lumber is at the heart of Strong Oaks Woodshop’s success. Learn how the business, and its owner, give centuries-old wood a fresh start.
In 2008, Michael Schmiedicke was 40 years old, running a fairly successful small IT business in Front Royal, VA when his physical therapist made a blunt suggestion: “You have got to get out of your chair.”
Michael was suffering from chronic health issues including repetitive stress injury in his elbow and carpal tunnel in his wrist. “So he put me on this schedule where for every two hours that I was working,” Michael recalls. “I would have to take 20 minutes off to do something else.”
That “something else” turned out to be woodworking. A father of three young children at the time (a fourth child would come later), Michael puttered around in his garage, trying his hands at building a dollhouse for his daughters, a shelf for the bedroom, or something for the kitchen. As time passed, the allure of working with his hands grew too strong.
“I just noticed that it was getting harder and harder for me to go back to my desk when the 20 minutes was up,” he said. “And I realized how much I was enjoying what I was doing, making things down in the garage. And so, at one point, [I had] this conversation with my wife, [telling her], ‘I don’t know if I really want to be a programmer in my fifties.’”
Claiming a new career and reclaiming wood
With the family’s financial needs in mind, Michael and his wife, Dian, agreed he would continue to run his IT business while transitioning into doing woodwork full time.
“I started making some fairly small things and then selling them online,” he said. “I knew how to build a website, and I knew how to, at least, put stuff up. And that first year, I made $10,000. It wasn’t anything amazing, but it was encouraging to me that there was somebody out there who wanted the things that I could make.”
By 2013, sales were steady enough for Michael to step away from IT completely to run the furniture business he’d named Strong Oaks Woodshop. The name was inspired by the centuries-old trees that stood around his home, and his desire to use reclaimed lumber to create custom-made, handcrafted pieces of furniture for homes and businesses. He finds the wood he uses by dismantling old buildings and re-purposing the wood to create furniture that customers rave about.
“Like these are like old growth trees, right? They were 100, some of them even 200 or 300 years old when they were cut down,” he said. “And then they did, from that point, another 100 or 200 years of service on somebody’s house or barn. When I’m talking to [a new employee] about what it is that we do, and why we’re trying to make things in a particular way, it’s because I want to honor that heritage of a 200-year-old tree that then does 200 years of hard service, whether holding up somebody’s barn or their house. The least we can do is to make furniture that’s going to last that same amount of time long after we’re gone. I want somebody to be able to say, ‘My great granddad bought that piece of furniture from this guy back in Front Royal.’”
From there, it was steady growth for Strong Oaks Woodshop. Their first restaurant order for tables and chairs in 2009 was the catalyst for continued growth, increasing sales each year all the way up to 2016, when the business earned around $1.5 million in revenue. In the early days of the business, Dian served as the business’ first bookkeeper, and their kids also got involved as they grew older.
“They’ve all been on trips with me to New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to take down these old structures that we use to reclaim the wood from to make the furniture,” Michael said. “All their childhood adventures kind of revolved around those trips where we’d be gone for a week or so doing these demolitions and them camping out, hanging out with the crew.”
I want to honor that heritage of a 200-year-old tree that then does 200 years of hard service, whether holding up somebody’s barn or their house.
Along the way, Michael was able to move out of his garage, to Strong Oaks Woodshop’s first rented shop. Around that time, Michael explored selling in Amazon’s store but found it challenging to navigate because he wasn’t sure where his company’s custom handmade products fit into the categories that existed at the time.
Then, he received an email from Amazon about Amazon Handmade. “I think they sent us an email just sort of advertising this new idea that they were having,” he recalled, “and to us then that sounded like a really great fit, [and] definitely more along the lines of the kind of work that we were doing, the type of manufacturing that we were able to handle. And so, we’ve been part of the Amazon Handmade program since the very beginning. We have our own website that we sell from, but Amazon is probably our second biggest sales channel at this point.”
Once Strong Oaks Woodshop joined Amazon Handmade, sales took off very quickly with the business making substantial sales within a couple of months. Michael and his team boosted their selling knowledge by watching and learning from Amazon videos and webinars available on Amazon Seller University. But there were hard lessons as well. They found out that sometimes, a customer returning a piece of furniture for, say, being the wrong size, could trigger a complaint which would end up getting the business’s Amazon store shut down.
“We actually had to hire a third-party service to help us navigate that,” Michael said.
He also advises sellers to be realistic about their advertised timeframes for everything, including production time and shipping.
From ashes, we rise
In April 2017, a tragic turn of events saw a fire completely destroy Strong Oaks Woodshop along with all its tools and lumber.
“To just lose everything when we were, you know, sort of like on the top of our game and really entering into the next level was just heartbreaking and just absolutely gut wrenching,” Michael said. “That was a lot to come back from. It took a huge toll on me personally and obviously on my family. But with a lot of support locally, a lot of people just did so much to help us through that time.”
With help from the community who rallied around the business, Michael and his team went on to rebuild the woodshop from the ground up.
“The good news was that it felt like we were starting from scratch,” he said. “But in some ways, you know, we really weren’t. We had 10 years of experience by that point. We had a lot of sales contracts and jobs that we could do, we just had to find space. We had to find tools. We had to find lumber again. So, we worked our tails off, [and we came] back to life again. And I just have so much gratitude for my workers, the community, everybody who supported us and are still supporting us.”
Today, Strong Oaks Woodshop continues to live up to its name. In 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to make headlines, they bought the property that now serves as their permanent home. In spite of the health crisis and subsequent supply chain challenges, the woodshop managed to stay open and hit $2.5 million in sales on Amazon in 2021—not bad for a business that started out in a garage.
“If I had to give somebody advice: You need to know that there’s discouragement and difficulties, and the unforeseen is going to happen,” Michael said. “But when it does, [if] you stick to it, you’ll probably make it through. Our shop was burned to the ground, and we were standing on the backside of that with nothing, and it came back around anyway. I pray to God nobody ever has to deal with that. For me, it really made a difference, having strong motivation. My wife and my kids, like that’s what makes it work. When I want to quit, I can’t really quit because there’s no plan B. This has got to work.”
Artisans from over 80 countries are following their passion and selling their handcrafted goods on Amazon. Learn more about Amazon Handmade.