Strong Oaks Woodshop founder Mike Schmiedicke was already an entrepreneur—he had teamed up with his brother and another partner to start a Web-development company—before he ever heard of Etsy. But the site, an online marketplace to buy and sell handmade and vintage goods and craft supplies, became the catalyst for Schmiedicke to change careers and fulfill a dream of becoming a full-time woodworker. In 2008, he opened his own Etsy shop selling furniture made from reclaimed barn wood. After humble beginnings in his garage, Schmiedicke now has several full-time employees and a brick-and-mortar woodworking shop of his own in Front Royal, Virginia, just steps from the Shenandoah River, all made possible by the early success of his Etsy shop.
We recently sat down with Schmiedicke to discuss jumping careers, the reach of the Internet, and his woodworking way of life.
Strong Oaks Woodshop founder Mike Schmiedicke
What were you doing for work before becoming a full-time woodworker?
This has been very much a second career. My first job out of college after getting my degree in library and information science was running a research library for a large non-profit organization. I went from there to doing website development with a government contractor in D.C. and eventually started a small business with my brother and another partner doing corporate website development.
Why did you start looking for a change?
The business was successful, but my interest in it was starting to wane. I was in my 40s by then and I remember telling my wife that I couldn’t see myself being a computer programmer into my 50s. The fascination of keeping up with the latest technology began to lose its appeal and it was painful to do work for startups and then see them implode. My wife Dian then asked me what I did see myself doing and I replied, "Woodworking." But we both knew that was a long shot.
Had you always been interested in working with your hands?
I have been doing this forever. Both my grandfather and great-grandfather were woodworkers. But my grandfather was a product of the Great Depression and he wanted his sons to go to college and get white-collar jobs. My dad eventually became a public school teacher, but he wanted to live on a farm. So we were always building things together—everything from barns and chicken coops to go-carts. We didn’t always know how to do something, but we knew we could figure it out. My mom was also a creative spirit. She would make everything. She would encourage us to make our own gifts, which is something we now do with our own kids.
So woodworking began as a hobby?
I was always going down to my garage to make things. If Dian showed me something in a catalog she liked that cost $400, I would take that money and buy the tools I needed to make it myself. It was great to get away from the computer and tinker away. My kids would also come down and help. There was this dawning realization that every time I went into the garage, the harder it got to go back to my desk.
So what finally prompted you to make the career switch?
The real game-changer was back in 2008, when my sister-in-law, who lives down the road a ways from us, got wind of what I was making. She really liked this set of Waldorf play frames I had made, which are like mini forts. She told me I should sell them. She is a very gregarious and outgoing person, so she made me a proposal: If she could get five other people to buy from me, I would then give her one for free. I said, “Sure, why not!” She is a writer, so she posted the pictures on her blog. And when I went to check them out, I saw that one of her friends she had written about was selling her knitting on Etsy. After I clicked through the site, which I had never heard of before, I was blown away. Here was a whole beautiful community of people who were living my dream. So I created an account, posted some pictures and walked away. I didn’t have any big hopes. It was just one listing and I figured it couldn’t hurt.
Mike Schmiedicke at work
What happened next?
Within a week, someone had contacted me and placed an order. It was really amazing. It was a huge confidence builder to have someone take me seriously and be willing to plunk down money for me to make them something. I made the piece, boxed it up and shipped it and got a nice review in return. A few days later, another order came in and things snowballed from there.
But you were still doing this on the side, right?
Yes, I was making pieces for about a year on the side, doing as many as five projects a month and putting everything back into the company, buying new equipment and supplies. Every once in a while I would take the kids out to pizza to celebrate.
Was there a key turning point in the growth of the business?
The big turn was when a restaurant approached me about making furniture for them. It was very stressful, though, because it was the first major project I had undertaken. It was for a southern barbeque joint and the owner liked the look of the things we had done up to that point. He wanted three-dozen chairs and 15 tables. I had never built a chair before. But that didn’t stop me from saying yes.
How did you pull that off?
I hired my brother-in-law James, who had been laid off as an electrician, to help. He would work during the day while I worked for the Web-development business and then I would come down at night and take over. There are a lot of parts when it comes to building chairs. James would cut all the wood and then I would do the more complicated joinery work. We did all of this in my garage, which was like 10 by 16 square feet, in the middle of winter. Eventually, we were storing stuff in my living room and basement as well. It was crazy. We began the job in January and finished in March and it was a huge hit with the customer and a home run for us.
Was that the push you needed to start woodworking full-time?
That was definitely when I started to speed up the transition. It was clear that was my way forward. But I had a five-year plan that I was working toward where I would eventually ease out of the Web-development business. I wanted to make sure there was a smooth transition as I handed my longstanding customers over to my brother. Eventually, I got to the point where I was woodworking during the day and doing the Web development in the evenings. But the Web business also made sure I didn’t have to take any money out of woodworking business, which freed me up to keep building it up without having to go into debt or ask for outside money from friends and family. I have only been working full time at Strong Oaks since 2012.
Where do you get the wood for your products?
Since we make our products out of reclaimed wood, we’re always on the hunt for new supplies. It’s also a really important for us to be able to share the story of where our wood comes from. Our clients appreciate that. One of the things I was able to do early on was buy a barn that I could salvage for its lumber. I bought it for $6,000 and spent another $10,000 or so to have it de-constructed. But that gave me enough wood supply for two years.
How many products have you made to date?
That’s a good question. We’ve probably made a couple thousand chairs and barstools. Maybe a couple hundred beds, about 600 or so tables, and a million other oddities in between there. When I think about it, it really has become something.
And you don’t have to do it all alone anymore, right?
That’s right, I have been able to take on guys who have come from other backgrounds, like timber framing, wood flooring, and cabinetry, and get them to translate their skills into working with reclaimed wood, which is a whole different ball of wax to work with. We even have a young man who has apprenticed with us through high school who we have seen really blossom in four years. Those are real accomplishments I take to heart.
Darren Dahl is an entrepreneurial writer who writes about small businesses, and even teams up with them to write books as a ghostwriter.
Photos: Sherry Hayes