Mule Cabinetmaker: Selling Progressive Tools to a Conservative Market

Mule Cabinetmaker: Selling Progressive Tools to a Conservative Market

Woodworking is a fundamentally conservative profession. With a few notable exceptions, woodworkers don’t easily change long-standing traditions. Just try to explain the advantages of a dado stack to a German schreiner or offer a sliding table saw to a Missouri cabinetmaker. Both will probably smile politely and then go back to practicing their craft just like they’ve always done it.

“You can’t fight city hall,” concedes John Withrow, owner of Mule Cabinetmaker. But that’s just what his company has been doing for the past 20 years. They’ve adapted tried-and-true European woodworking concepts — such as the sliding table — and attempted to introduce a string of innovative products to the North American market. While resistance has been strong Mule’s Accusquare rip fence is starting to open people’s minds.

For John Withrow, it all started two decades ago. In partnership with his wife, he had a kitchen cabinet business just north of Toronto. While attending a local woodworking show, John got his first look at European woodworking equipment.

“They were miles ahead of us,” John recalled, “with sliding table saws and other things we’d never heard of. And I thought, that’s great, but how many guys can afford the $15,000 they cost. So we started thinking about how to make one that would go on the average guy’s saw.” One thing led to another and soon they were applying for a U.S. patent on a sliding table concept. It was rejected. Then they met the late Roger Cliffe, the well-known woodworking author who made some suggestions and wrote a letter to the patent office that helped them get the patent.

A late night brainstorming session with his brother helped John come up with the Mule name. The idea was that it meant something strong or long lasting. They then faced the twin millstones of any would-be entrepreneur: manufacturing and marketing.

“We had a 2500-square-foot woodworking shop and thought we could do this [manufacturing] as a little side line,” John noted. “But within two or three months we closed the woodworking business altogether and moved across the street. Initially we did everything ourselves. It took us a while to learn that unless you have proper metalworking equipment (which we couldn’t afford) and know how to use it, you’re a fool to do it yourself. We needed CNC equipment, and we needed a vendor to do the actual metalworking. As for specs, we couldn’t even make a drawing. But since we spent so much time working out the design we knew what we wanted.”

As for marketing, selling the table themselves was not something they wanted to do. They worked through a major distributor for a time, but after a couple of years, John said, “we decided to do it ourselves.”

At that point, Mule had some name recognition in Canada, and Charles Self had written up the table in one of his books. But in some ways, it was like starting over again.

“We thought we’d take one country at a time and, being Canadian, we stuck with that.”

But even in Canada, according to John, the sliding table never became a strong product. Then about 15 years ago, they added a router table … that also hasn’t gone very far. But when they added their Accusquare rip fence 12 years ago, things finally began to take off.

“We were probably the last guys on the block with a rip fence. We still couldn’t get anybody to talk to us in the U.S., but in Canada, the only competition was Biesemeyer and Excalibur. We had a very good fence and were selling factory direct and over a two-year period starting eight years ago, we outsold both companies combined. We had a couple of guys going to shows in the U.S., but it was only four years ago that we finally started advertising in U.S. magazines.”

That advertising, coupled with making Rockler Woodworking and Hardware another source for the Accusquare fence, has made all the difference. The company advertises with several magazines, but one has been more successful than the others.

” I always wanted to be part of Woodworker’s Journal and our advertising in the U.S. really didn’t take off until after we advertised with them. Woodworker’s Journal reaches the kind of general woodworkers who are interested in our product.”

As successful as the rip fence has been, however, according to John, a lot of people are reluctant to try any new ideas. And without a large advertising budget, it’s tough to change perceptions.

“Today, our sliding table costs 20% less than it did when it first came out 20 years ago, and is much better made. But to most people it’s just something to make miter cuts and they are reluctant even to spend that much money. But if they started thinking of it as a cabinetmakers sliding table they’d realize the money they could save. Look at it this way. An average new kitchen costs $10,000 to $12,000. Now add up the cost of a major table saw … $600 with no fence, to the cost of our fence, our sliding table, and our router table. That’s everything you need to make your own perfectly square cabinets and it adds up to, let’s say, $1,200. Add in the materials — wood and hardware from $900 to $1,200 — and you could make that kitchen yourself for only $2,400! That’s one of the best investment a woodworker could ever make.”

But sales continue to grow and John has high hopes for the company’s newest product … the Euro Jig. He got the idea from an article by Ian Kirby about two years ago, that described a front locking rip fence that didn’t go to the back of the saw, but stopped at the blade’s center. This reduced the possibility of the board binding if it expands after the cut, greatly decreasing the possibility of a kickback. John thought it was a great idea and incorporated slots on both edges of the jig (it can be flipped over), one for thin plywood and high-pressure laminates, the other accommodates the core and overlap on melamine. It can also be used as a stop for a miter gauge or sliding table.

Though not even in the development stage, the company may someday look at a splitter.

As John sees it, there’s a big need. “A splitter is an important part of the table saw, yet unless you buy a Unisaw, Powermatic 66, or a General, the splitter the comes with the saw is probably the first thing you throw away. When wood comes through a blade it can kickback due to either spreading out or pinching together. Our Euro Jig takes care of the spreading, but a good splitter is required for the latter. The challenge would be to make one that people can afford and is worth buying!”

Sounds right up Mule Cabinetmaker’s alley. Visit Mule Cabinetmaker’s website.

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