Thirty some-odd years ago, Keith Stephens, founder and president of Arizona-based Woodworkers Source, was an aspiring new woodworker with a perplexing problem. He and his wife Betty had designed a jewelry box plan, and Keith was determined to build it out of hardwood — it was to be his first hardwood project. Trouble was, he couldn’t find the wood.
After what seemed like a wild goose chase searching for a hardwood outlet in the Scottsdale area, he located a dealer who didn’t make the buying process any easier. “The counterperson wasn’t very helpful…I was directed to a pile of random width, random length rough lumber. After fumbling with a few boards and having no idea what to do, I returned to the sales counter and asked for more help,” Keith recalls.
That assistance wasn’t forthcoming. Instead of offering advice, the clerk held up Keith’s bill of materials for all to see and ribbed him publicy for even having a list in the first place. “Embarrassed, shocked and confused, I left the lumberyard wondering how I was going to get hardwood to build my jewelry box,” Keith says.
But, while some might have been undone by the experience, Stephens, already a seasoned businessman and accountant, saw it as an opportunity. Hobby woodworking was gaining momentum in the late 70s, and surely, other woodworkers must have had similar sourcing problems for material. A few years later, when Keith saw an ad for a lumber franchise for sale in Tucson, he bought it.
So began Woodworkers Source. The man with a project plan but no lumber was now determined to help other woodworkers have an easier go of it.
He moved that first franchise to a better location, expanded the inventory and initiated a marketing program. The business took off. A few years later, he opened a second facility in Phoenix and ventured into hand tools and exotics. His wife, Betty, joined the business to help manage inventory. By the mid 1980s, a third facility was opened in northwest Phoenix; Woodworkers Source was now selling Swiss-made Inca machinery as well as a full line of domestic and imported lumber. Son Mark came on board full-time in the 90s, when the company began offering hardwood by mail order and then on the web.
Today, Woodworkers Source continues to operate three three facilities in Tuscon, Tempe and Phoenix, with retail storefronts, mail order and a state-of-the art website. Currently, the company stocks about 150,000 board feet of 20 different domestic hardwoods, as well around 100,000 board feet of 80 exotics. Keith says the company’s extensive network of national and international suppliers ensures that Woodworkers Source can provide both a broad selection and lots of it. “If we don’t have what you need on hand, we can probably get it,” he assures.
Additionally, Woodworkers Source carries turning stock, plywood, veneer and other woodworking supplies. It’s also become one of the nation’s largest dealers of JET and Powermatic machinery.
Some woodworkers have concerns over the harvesting practices of exotic lumbers and the sustainability of these practices. But Keith points out that what can ensure the future of these important resources is to give tropical forests economic value beyond clearcutting for farmland or development. Managed harvesting of fruits, nuts, lumber and other forest products can be a way to conserve timberland and support local economies. Woodworkers Source participates in certified, sustain-yield forestry projects around the globe. They also encourage the use of lesser-known exotics, and they stock many of these species to create new market interest in them.
The company is still a family-run business committed to making shopping for hardwoods and supplies as easy as possible. “Our corporate mission statement is simple: we want to help woodworkers be successful in their woodworking projects,” Keith says.
When you spend some time exploring the company website (woodworkerssource.com), it’s easy to see the Stephens’s commitment to customer education and service. One feature I appreciate is the comprehensive wood library database, organized alphabetically, to help you learn more about the world’s hardwoods. Each listing provides a photo, general description, place of origin, working characteristics, common uses and other practical information you should know before making a purchase. The library alone is worth bookmarking, purely for curiosity’s sake.
The site also has extensive “Buying Help” and “FAQ” sections with information about board footage, surfacing options, kiln drying, moisture content issues, how to plan your projects and other useful tidbits. It’s even possible to calculate a project’s board footage right on the site.
Of course, customers buying lumber over the Internet can’t physically select their own boards, but Woodworker’s Source warehouse staff will pull boards to meet specific stock dimensions or wood figures. Keith says that, within reason, the staff can even photograph specific boards and e-mail those photos for approval.
If customers aren’t 100 percent satisfied with the wood they receive, the company guarantees that they will replace it free of charge. As Keith says with a chuckle, “With all of this inventory on hand, we’ll ship you the very best lumber we can … because we really don’t want it back!”