Learn how Strong Oaks Woodshop gives old wood a fresh start through handmade furniture.
In 2008, Michael Schmiedicke was 40 years old and running a successful IT business in Front Royal, Virginia, 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, I would have to take 20 minutes off to do something else,” Michael says.
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. He built a dollhouse for his daughters, a shelf for a bedroom, and more. As time passed, the allure of working with his hands grew too strong to resist.
“I just noticed that it was getting harder and harder for me to go back to my desk when the 20 minutes was up,” Michael says. “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,” Michael says. “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 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 pieces of furniture for homes and businesses. He sources wood by dismantling old buildings and re-purposing pieces to create furniture that customers rave about.
“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 says. “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.’”
Growth was steady for Strong Oaks. Their first restaurant order for tables and chairs in 2009 was a catalyst. Sales increased each year, and in 2016, the business earned around $1.5 million in revenue.
In the early days of the business, Dian served as their first bookkeeper. The 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 says. “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’ first rented shop. Around that time, Michael explored selling in the Amazon store but wasn’t sure where his company’s handmade products fit into the product categories.
Then, he received an email from Amazon about Amazon Handmade, an online community where artisans can share their unique, handcrafted goods with customers around the world.
“I think they sent us an email just sort of advertising this new idea that they were having,” Michael says. “[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 Amazon Handmade since the very beginning.”
Strong Oaks joined Amazon Handmade and sales took off within a couple of months. Michael and his team boosted their selling knowledge by watching and learning from Amazon videos and webinars available through Amazon Seller University, a free educational resource covering topics like order fulfillment and customer service.
From ashes, we rise
In April 2017, a devastating turn of events saw a fire completely destroy the Strong Oaks shop 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 says. “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 community rallied around the business, and Michael and his team rebuilt the woodshop from the ground up.
“The good news was that it felt like we were starting from scratch. But in some ways, you know, we really weren’t,” Michael says. “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.”
Today, Strong Oaks continues to live up to its name. In 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to make headlines, they bought a new property to serve as their home base. In spite of the health crisis and subsequent supply chain challenges, the woodshop managed to stay open and hit $2.5 million in Amazon sales in 2021—not bad for a business that started out in a garage.
“If I had to give somebody advice,” Michael says, “you need to know that there’s discouragement and difficulties, and the unforeseen is going to happen. But when it does, [if] you stick to it, you’ll probably make it through.”
Is selling furniture your passion? Here are five tips for how to build a furniture business and sell furniture online. If you’re an artisan interested in selling your handcrafted goods on Amazon, learn more about Amazon handmade.