Carving a niche business

Updated: May 22, 2020

by Iris Winston (Ottawa Citizen), Dec. 2004

The ice storm and his chainsaw inspired Peter Van Adrichem to turn a hobby into a full-time, growing enterprise.

The ice storm of January 1998 devastated forests and left 1.5 million households without power. A natural disaster of massive proportions, it had a lasting effect on the lives of many people.

For 45-year-old woodcarver Peter Van Adrichem it was the catalyst for a new career. With so much raw material at hand, it seemed an ideal time to turn his long-time hobby into a full-time occupation. It was also the perfect time to get creative about the tools he used.

"I had been carving by hand as a hobby for about 20 years, using chisels and other small tools," says the former employee of the local soil and water conservation authority. "But after the ice storm, there was so much wood kicking around that I thought I had better use the wood that I had gathered more quickly. I tried using a chain saw and it worked out really well."

He gestures around the converted barn at an assortment of wooden bears, some life-size, eagles, fish and other animals, each carved out of a single piece of wood. In one corner of the open studio, a snowy owl watches over a cedar castle, inspired by his daughter's interest in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. At this time of year, he adds such seasonal pieces as reindeer with red-light noses and snowmen with woolly scarves to the samples on display. On other occasions, he goes to the raw material, frequently turning a rooted tree stump into a totem pole, creating a wooden sculpture out of a disused hydro pole or carving a relief mural on the wall of a wooden building.

"With the experience of many years of hand carving, I imagine what the piece is going to look like before I get started. Then I carve with the chain saw, until I'm happy with it."

Balancing working to commission with carving "on spec" pieces, Mr. Van Adrichem estimates that he produces some 35 to 40 major works and several more small carvings a year, ranging from $10 for small hand-carved pieces to $650 for his larger chain saw items and $20 per foot for totem poles. Prices for commissioned works are negotiated separately.

"I don't count. I just keep on going," he says. "In the winter, I do hand carving in my workshop. As soon as the snow has melted, I move outside and start work on the chain-saw carvings."

When he first started in the wood sculpting business full time, he worked from home and sold his carvings through art galleries and stores. At that time, he had been laid off from his job and took the opportunity to test the market in an area of work he particularly enjoyed. Although the economy was buoyant and the timing good for his endeavour because "people had money to spend on art work", the home-to-gallery process was not entirely satisfactory, he says.

"Working in front of my house with a chain saw was not great, for the neighbours or in terms of walk-in traffic. And selling through galleries and stores meant that they would take from 30 to 50 per cent."

In August, Mr. Van Adrichem changed the way he operated his now-established business. He rented a barn on a one-acre property on a highway near Manotick. "I got it just in the nick of time," he says. "The building was supposed to be torn down, until I showed interest in renting it."

He selected this location partly because it would attract drive-by custom and partly because the low-rental property was spacious enough for outdoor displays. The combination of keeping expenses to a minimum and selling direct to his fast-growing client base just makes good business sense, he says.

The major expense in setting up the studio was the $2,000 of his savings that he spent on chain saws. His monthly operating expenses, including insurance, are under $500. As for the raw material of his art, "after the ice storm, there was plenty of wood for free."

Free wood is still the best, smiles Mr. Van Adrichem, who is regularly given unwanted timber by individuals and other businesses pruning or removing trees from their property. Tree-removal companies also offer him wood."There is an expense if I have to go into the city to pick it up, but I am always grateful for any wood," he says. "Just recently, the hydro company was cutting down trees near Manotick Station, so they offered me a lot from there."

More wood is coming his way as the word on his chain-saw art spreads. "I am beginning to get a regular, repeat clientele. Some people are starting to collect my work and have more than one piece. Last year, I did well," says Mr. Van Adrichem, whose various supply sources means that he can offer his clients items in a variety of woods. He regularly sculpts in white pine, basswood, cedar and willow and has used black walnut, black cherry and Manitoba maple for some of his pieces.

Currently, Fleetwood Studio is a one-person operation, most of the time -- Mr. Van Adrichem's four children frequently help to varnish some of his finished sculptures and his wife, Rina, prepared his website. He is considering hiring an assistant, he says, "but I don't think I want to expand much more than that, although I do represent a few other artists and that side of the studio could grow." He also has plans for summer art exhibits and intends to invite other artists to display their works on the outside walls of the barn.

His main focus, however, is on his own work. And, his business philosophy is simple. "The trick for me is to keep expenses to a minimum, be productive in my work and sell at a reasonable price."

Fleetwood Studio can be reached at 613-258-9980 by appointment in Kemptville, Ontario.

(Dec. 2004)

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