“Most goods in today’s economy are made in factories from around the world. That’s not what you’ll find here, in my shop.” – Ryan Baldwin
While working as an arborist removing trees from backyards and along city streets in Fort Collins, Colorado, Ryan Baldwin saw an opportunity to turn city trees destined for the dump into usable lumber. With a growing interest in woodworking, Ryan began setting aside wood from trees that featured interesting burls or grain and started turning bowls, but after helping a friend mill a log on a Wood-Mizer sawmill, Ryan said he was hooked. “Suddenly I saw the waste stream that was generated in tree work and the potential to recapture this material and turn it into something useful,” said Ryan. Although the utilization of urban wood was not a new concept, milling and selling locally-sourced lumber was uncommon in the area, so Ryan took advantage and worked to occupy this niche market.
As the home of Colorado State University, Fort Collins has been influenced by the school’s agriculture, forestry, landscape architecture and veterinary science programs. “Our community has an unusually large population of American elm and due to CSU’s botanical influence, the city has a diverse urban forest including ash, walnut, elm, honey locust, oak, pine, hackberry, catalpa, mulberry, sycamore, Russian olive, linden, cottonwood, willow, and more,” said Ryan. From the sawmill, Ryan produces rough-cut dimensional lumber and large, live edge slabs in a variety of species harvested in Northern Colorado such as maple, elm, ash, and walnut while also providing custom milling services. “All the lumber that we sell is urban wood reclaimed from the waste stream,” said Ryan. “This homegrown product is very unique – unlike farm-raised lumber, it is not perfectly straight with uniform grain.” The uniqueness of these urban trees include finding many interesting items inside such as nails, barbed-wire, and even bullets, but Ryan uses the distinct wood characteristics produced by these items to his advantage in marketing his products. “These trees, living beings, tell a story and it’s an amazing experience to see the beautiful wood inside them,” he said.
When milling became more frequent, Ryan increased his focus on furniture design and set aside hardwoods with interesting qualities. By supplementing his basic knowledge of tools and construction with a great deal of reading, research, and trial and error, Ryan established Baldwin Custom Woodworking in 2008 to create custom furniture in addition to his milling services. “I had a lot to learn – namely furniture design, aesthetics, finishing techniques, and the many intricacies of running a small business,” said Ryan. “I feel lucky that I’ve been able to turn a hobby into a real job.” Baldwin mills logs both for design projects and for the sale of lumber and slabs, splitting his time in half between both parts of the business. As an owner-operator, Ryan does it all from grading the driveway and sweeping the shop to milling lumber and working directly with customers to design custom furniture.
The majority of Baldwin Custom Woodworking furniture pieces are made from local, urban lumber, making each piece unique and truly one of a kind. “We don’t recycle our designs, instead preferring to work with clients to develop a design and choose a species of wood that best suits their needs,” said Ryan. “We feel honored to be able to produce heirlooms that will live on for generations.” Providing hand-made products such as desks, tables, chairs, china cabinets, armoires, kitchen islands, bathroom vanities, and more to both custom furniture and commercial customers, each client appreciates that the products are made with local materials.
“Our customers value that our products are unusual and not available from national retailers,” said Ryan. “The concept of having something custom-made is pretty special in today’s economy.” By offering products made from alternatively sourced materials, commercial projects are on the rise for Baldwin Custom Woodworking as contractors and builders seek LEED certification (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) to reuse material from a site for trim, flooring, and furniture. Ryan has also found growth by diversifying his business and offering kiln drying services and says that he has expanded his customer base to include other furniture makers and sawmill operators because kilns are often more difficult to find than sawmills.
With years of hard work and a few key investments including a Wood-Mizer LT35 hydraulic sawmill, Baldwin Custom Woodworking continues to grow. “The LT35 has been a critical asset that contributed to growth,” said Ryan. “It’s fast, efficient, easy to use and maintain– it’s truly an amazing machine and I love using it today just as much as the first day I bought it.” Ryan also points out that their two websites have been critical to the success of the business. “Customers love the websites, and we do our best to keep them updated with fresh content and recent photos of projects and inventory,” said Ryan. Cara Baldwin, Ryan’s wife, is a photographer with a marketing background, so her knowledge and expertise has been vital to the growth of the business as well. “We have also benefited from word of mouth referrals– both from furniture and lumber customers,” said Ryan. “It’s amazing to me how word spreads when people are happy with a product. It moves like lightning.”
Through all the day-to-day management of running a small business, Ryan finds the most joy in the satisfaction of his customers. “The best part of my week is when I deliver a piece of furniture to a client and get to see them see it for the first time,” said Ryan. “It’s a very cool moment, they usually can’t take their hands off it – they just want to feel the finish and see it from all angles.” The future is bright for Baldwin Custom Woodworking as Ryan plans to expand to a location where he can add a showroom for lumber and furniture and hire more help so he can spend more time with his customers. “I’d like to see us continue to grow and sell more lumber because that means less waste will go into our local landfills,” said Ryan. By identifying an untapped market and turning a hobby into a profession, Ryan has built a successful family-owned business that will continue to grow for years to come.