A One-Man Shop Carries On

A son reflects on his father’s woodworking career, building fine cases for expensive instruments.

By Phil Bowie

“Some people warned me fifty years ago that plastics were going to replace the things I was making and put me out of business,” my father, Erol Bowie, tells folks, “but there’s always been a demand for quality wood items, and I think there always will be.”

 

     
     
   
  Mahogany drawer cabinets in a range of sizes hold hundreds of vials containing precision wire gages. Photo by Gilman Smith  

The shop that he founded — with little more than an aptitude for working with his hands, plus all the woodworking knowledge he could acquire by himself while working in a cabinet shop — still makes fine mahogany cases to hold expensive gages and instruments.

Erol started his business in a rented two-car garage in Northhampton, MA, in 1945. He had to scour the country to find even used basic woodworking machinery, because none had been manufactured during the war years.

He produced his first line of cases to hold measuring gages for the Van Keuren Co. of Watertown, MA. For appearance and holding close tolerances, the best wood for the job was, and still is, mahogany. He used three-piece case tops and bottoms to prevent warping, with strong fingerjoints at the case corners.

The case fillers, which often had many square pockets to hold the various-sized gages, had to first be split into strips. The strips were run over a table saw many times at precise settings to form the pockets, then the strips were glued back together to make the fillers, which were finally fitted into the cases. He lined some models of the case fillers and inside covers with glued-in felt to help protect the expensive contents. Hinges and hardware were brass.

The beauty of his cases was the result of a meticulous finishing process that began with fine sanding, a wipe-on stain/filler, a coat of sealer, hand sanding, a coat of clear lacquer, a final steel-wooling, and a topcoat of gloss lacquer. The finishing process was more difficult in the early days because his spray booth was only a large cardboard box taped into one of the garage windows, with a converted automobile fan for ventilation. “I was just plain lucky I never had a fire,” Erol says.

Erol also made prototype store displays designed to hold such items as Ace combs, sunglasses and Wearever fountain pens, using wood in combination with glass and plastics. He figured cost estimates and suggested methods so other, larger shops could produce the displays in quantities.

The shop was a second job for him because in 1944 he had also started teaching woodworking at Northampton’s Smith Vocational School. Over the next 25 years he worked his way up to head the department there, retiring at age 64.

In 1949, Erol moved his wife and two children to the hill town of Williamsburg, where with the help of his 74-year-old father-in-law he built his home. A year later he built the one-man shop he had always wanted, right next door. At 1,200 square feet it was not a large building, but it was perfect for the things he made. Its luxuries included a 16-foot by 16-foot efficient, safe spray booth and a central vacuum system.

The list of different cases grew to more than 60 kinds, from two-inch-square boxes up to large drawer cases four feet high, designed to hold hundreds of plastic bottles containing precision wire gages, and cases with fillers to hold disc-shaped glass flats, and cabinets to house monochromatic lights. (In use by the final customer, a glass flat is placed onto a metal surface, and the monochromatic light is directed onto the glass. Rainbows of light appearing in the glass show the flatness of the metal surface beneath the glass to within a few millionths of an inch.)

 

     
     
   
       
     
    Erol Bowie’s one-man business was purchased by his former student, Gilman Smith (right), and still produces many of the same fine mahogany case designs today. Photo by Phil Bowie  

A Continuing Relationship

The small shop that Erol Bowie founded and Gilman Smith carries on has yielded something more than decade-after-decade of ultra-fine-quality wood products. There is a bond between the two men that has also endured.

Twenty years after he bought the shop, the letterhead for G. Gilman Smith Custom Woodwork still bears the note, “formerly the E.W. Bowie Co.” Every day, at 96, Erol comes over from next door to bring Gilman his mail, and Erol often helps out by assembling plywood shipping crates for the larger gage cases that Gilman makes. They work together to mow the grass around the house and the shop, and Gilman uses a snow blower to clear Erol’s walks and driveway. There is a decades-old unspoken understanding between the two. One will be there for the other.

“I was lucky to have him for a student,” Erol says. “Where would I have found somebody else as qualified to take over?”

And Gilman says, “I was lucky to get him for a teacher. I don’t know what else I would have ended up doing. I like it fine right here.”

     

Erol also yielded to many requests to make such things as church podiums, elegant mahogany jewelry boxes, display cabinets for silver services and fine furniture for family and friends. He once built a five-foot-high model of a Williamsburg church that is still used in town parades.

At times, when the shop demanded more hours than he had, even working nights and weekends, Erol hired part-time helpers. Among the best of these was Gilman Smith, who first went to work in the shop in 1960 when he was a junior in Erol’s trade school class. “He paid attention,” Erol says, “and he knew what quality meant.”

In 1978, Erol added 480 square feet, and in 1981, he sold the business to Gilman, who except for a three-year stint in the Navy and four years on another job had worked in the shop at least part-time for 20 years.

“Buying it was a big decision for me,” Gilman says. “I think I lost some hair over it, but I’m glad I did it now, of course.”

Gilman still makes much the same line of cases for the Van Keuren Co., and he has added more gage and instrument manufacturers to his customer list. Like Erol, he has never advertised — all of his business has resulted from word-of-mouth. “You do a good job and people hear about it,” Gilman says.

The orders come in regularly, for 25 of one kind of case or 15 of another, and Gilman stays as busy as he wants to be, which usually means six days a week. Of course, there have been changes over the years.

“I could write a book about inflation,” Erol says. He had to raise prices many times just to keep pace with rising materials and overhead costs, but the prices are still low compared to the case contents, which can range up to many thousands of dollars. (Gilman charges from $8 for a small case that holds a single one-inch-diameter optical glass flat up to $500 for four-foot-tall multiple-drawer gage cases.) “I’ve also seen the time when I’d order 1,000 feet of mahogany and not get a board under 20 inches wide,” Erol says, “but you sure don’t see that anymore.

Gilman buys 1-inch or 1-1/2-inch rough mahogany, 500 board feet at a time. He resaws the thicker material to yield 1/2-inch stock, and planes the inch stock down to 3/4-inch. He has bought a new Campbell Hausfeld compressor, a 13-inch Delta planer and a Grizzly Industrial stroke sander, but otherwise much of the machinery has been in the shop for decades, including a Delta table saw, a DeWalt radial arm saw, an ancient Crescent Machine Co. bandsaw, a jig saw, a six-inch Delta jointer, an old Duro overhead router, a Delta drill press, a vertical Peerless belt sander and a Delta shaper.

A variety of newer electric and air portable tools speed up the work. Though he has replaced the case finger joints with tongue/dado joints and he no longer uses any stain, he still otherwise finishes the cases in the same meticulous manner.

Today, more than half a century after Erol began the business, it remains a successful one-man shop. “I like being independent,” Gilman says. “After all these years, I’d have trouble going to work for somebody else. And I like giving my customers products they really seem to appreciate. One of my customers is firmly convinced that when he goes to a trade show with his gage products, his customers from all over the world recognize that he has better instruments than his competitors partly because they come in high-quality mahogany cases.”

Like Erol Bowie, Gilman Smith takes a good measure of satisfaction from that.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.