March 2005

A Passion for Fine Furniture

Thomas Moser has not let his love for timeless furniture design obscure his sense as a 21st century businessman.

By Rich Christianson
Thomas Moser has not let his love for timeless furniture design obscure his sense as a 21st century businessman.

Thomas Moser honed his furniture skills by restoring furniture antiques. The experience of studying the details, joinery and finishes of hand-crafted pieces up close and personal led him to develop a profound appreciation for the art of fine furniture making.

So consumed was he by his hobby, that he ultimately chose to forsake his tenured position as a professor of speech communications to pursue woodworking as a full-time career.

Thirty-three years later, Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers, based in Auburn, ME, is one of the best-known names of high-end, hardwood furniture in the country. The company's designs draw on the influence of Arts and Crafts, Shaker and other 19th and early 20th century movements.

All of Moser's products are sold direct to customers. Most sales are generated by the company's lush four-color catalogs or through its six showrooms in San Francisco, New York, Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago and Freeport, ME.

Wood & Wood Products caught up with Moser about one month before he was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the Texas Woodworking Show and CWB Conference in Dallas. Among other things, we were curious to gain his perspective on the furniture industry, including the impact of furniture imports on his company.

Wood & Wood Products: What is your impression of contemporary furniture design?

Thomas Moser: I think the state of contemporary furniture design is in pretty good shape. One of the things that is probably universally true of furniture design in the United States is that it is reiterating earlier forms almost entirely - revivals or rediscoveries of the things from the earlier part of the 20th century. The rediscovery of arts and crafts and art deco is particularly quite wonderful. Because I have a love for historical forms, I find this trend very comforting and much more interesting than were some of the extreme attempts at high industrial design in the early G�ÿ70s.

W&WP: Who is Thos. Cabinetmakers' main competition?

Moser: I would have to say that small bench-made or studio furniture shops throughout the United States, with one or maybe several cabinetmakers, present our greatest competition because they are doing one-off pieces. They make furniture with very high value-added components in terms of design and workmanship. They often sell at a fairly high price point and they appeal to the connoisseur as well as someone who needs a bed to sleep in.

The vast influx of imported furniture, produced particularly in Southeast Asia, is no competition to us because it is a commodity. If you are looking for a national brand, it would have to be Stickley. They are rediscovering arts and crafts furniture from the early 20th century, but are selling at a price point slightly below ours and, I think, to a different clientele.

W&WP: What separates your company from its


Moser: What separates us from the market competition of small artisans is a perceived, and in many cases a real, difference in terms of dependability. We've been around for 33 years. We're now selling furniture to, at the least, a second generation of individuals. They know that we will be here and that we stand behind our product with a lifetime guarantee. If there is ever a problem with workmanship, materials or anything like that, we'll correct it at our expense. When we say that we will have it shipped by April 17, then we make it by April 17.

While a lot of handwork goes into the fit and finish of his furniture, Moser has been using CNC technology since the mid-1980s.

Unfortunately, the one-off small shops tend to be run by artisans who don't have strong business discipline. It is not uncommon to hear them say, "I have a three-year backlog." But, let's face it. There are not too many customers willing to wait three years to have something made for them. This whole notion of them being a craftsman or an artist instead of being a businessperson gives us a bit of an advantage.

W&WP: You say that you don't feel much pressure from Asian competition at this stage. Do you feel that you still have to be on your guard, that it will become a bigger factor?

Moser: Very few Chinese furniture manufacturers sell directly to individual consumers like we do. Their strength is being able to produce by the container load for broad distribution. That's the exact opposite of our model. We build one piece at a time to order. Close to 25 to 30 percent of our output is custom or adapted in some way to a customer's need, whether it's a fabric, a dimension or an even a complete piece of furniture. We really have a very intimate and personal relationship with our customers. We have our own delivery and installation service. You don't get that level of service from Lacquercraft and you never will.

W&WP: Are you amazed at how fast China has come on the U.S. furniture scene?

Moser: I knew that this was going to happen, but I didn't think the American century was going to come to a screeching halt. I thought we'd have at least another 50 years. There's no question that a country with a billion, 600 million people, with that level of intelligence and tradition of discipline and hard work that China has, was going to prevail. We pretty much have given up.

W&WP: Is being an American company a selling point? Do you have customers that appreciate the fact that they are actually buying something made in America?

Moser: I would like to think so, but I may be delusional. Just look at the popularity of Walmart, which sources the majority of its products from China. Price is a huge driver. People are willing to swallow their national chauvinism or pride if the price is cheap enough.

But I think there are exceptions. To the extent that our furniture is positioned as art, or as high-quality craftsmanship, and not as a commodity, then its origin is very important. I'm not sure that Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers would be as successful as it is today if it were produced in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The fact that we're from Maine and there is a strong perceived image of Maine integrity and workmanship has helped us. I would like to think that the fact that we are an American company producing furniture with American workers is helping us, but I must say that I don't know how strongly I hold that view.

W&WP: One of the biggest problems facing this industry is finding people who want to work in a woodworking plant. Does your company share this dilemma?

Thomas Moser's furniture pays homage to classic art forms, such as these New Century Side Chairs inspired by ancient Chinese design.

Moser: We have 91 production workers of varying skills. We have been very fortunate that the wood culture is very strong in Maine. The whole idea of forestry and wood products has long been a big part of what Maine is. Couple that with the fact that all of the other industries, particularly footwear, apparel, textiles that used to exist in Maine are all gone. Those same people, who at an earlier time would have been working in another industry, had no place to go except the service industry. So we are fortunate in that we have a pretty good labor pool to choose from.

One of our advantages is that we have a very strong vetting program whereby many people in this company are either related to, literally or figuratively, the guy he's working next to. There's nothing better than that. All of these politically correct rules that forbid you from knowing anything about the person that you hire become irrelevant when you depend on fellow workers to help with your personnel search.

If you were to ask, G�ÿHow do you select your woodworkers,' I would say that the overarching requirement is that they be good, happy people. A good attitude, a sense of optimism and being comfortable with themselves are far more important than a certificate or, in many cases, experience from working in another wood shop. The problem with many people who work in other wood shops is that they come with many horrible habits.

W&WP: Where does technology fit into the scheme of things at Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers?

Moser: We installed a Thermwood 5-axis machine in 1987. It was the first time a 5-axis Cartesian router was used for making wood products. Prior to that time, that technology was used by Harley Davidson to make windscreens for motorcycles and by the aircraft industry for magnesium honeycomb cores for wings.

We still have no technology in assembly, finish or fit. That's all hand done at the same workbenches that we have had for years. But we do use technology in our parts area. This past summer, we installed a 3.5-axis machine, very fast with a 12-head tool changer.

W&WP: How do you balance the use of technology with your company's reputation of handcraftsmanship?

Moser: What you see and touch is all done by hand. The efficiencies of manufacturing are gained in the area of parts. Our energies as a company are closer to the dining room than to the forest. Most of the resources, both human and material, are in design, marketing and execution. We don't have a sawmill. We don't do any kiln drying. We don't have a veneer mill. We buy components when we can. We buy a lot of squares. We try to use other peoples' manufacturing assets in some of the early work. In other words, you have to look at where the value-added occurs. The value for our company is not in cast iron. It is not in machinery. The value added is in the handwork.

We want to automate the parts making so that we don't have to inventory. We're working hard toward just-in-time and lean manufacturing principles. In order to do that, you either have to have dedicated machinery that you never change the setup on to cut the same part or you have equipment that is programmable and is easily changed. We have developed a machine for making hand-cut dovetails that we can changeover in 5 seconds to any size drawer. Is that a contradiction to the concept of handcraftsmanship? In a sense, I guess so. If you want to be technical, I guess there's nothing handcrafted in the world except a piece of pottery. Everything else uses a tool and almost everything uses power to drive the tool.

There was a time when we took a shooting plane to plane a tabletop. It took two to three days, you wound up with severe lower back pain and you got a pretty nice tabletop. We now can sand a tabletop using a 52-inch, four-head Timesavers in 12 seconds and save our backs. Was the furniture more valuable because we bled on it in the process? I don't know.

W&WP: How important has the World Wide Web been for your business?

Moser: It's just now coming on and hasn't been hugely important. Last summer, for the first time, we could take an order on the Internet as total e-commerce without having to talk to anybody or receive a check.

It is more a source for people to get to know who we are than to transact business. We still transact business almost entirely either on the phone or in one of our showrooms. We do three or four drops of catalogs, sending out in excess of 100,000 each time.

W&WP: Can you envision a time when half or more of your sales will be through the Internet?

Moser: Not unless it's international, I can't. People need to sit in a chair in order to buy it. They need to touch it, feel it, experience it. The Internet is a communications tool. It tells people stories and answers their questions. It is not a substitute for having seen the product in your neighbor's dining room or in a showroom in San Francisco. I just can't imagine ever selling, though we do, off of a pixel.

Once a relationship has been established, the Internet can be used as an ordering tool for repeat business. But I still think the catalog is a more persuasive thing. You can look at it in your own time. The photography and reproductions are so much better in a catalog than what's on the Internet.

W&WP: What direction will your company take in the future?

Moser: We're stepping away from commercial work. The largest order we ever had totaled several million dollars for the University of Georgia. Trying to navigate that order size with a bunch of $3,700 orders was very difficult. The logistics were maddening. The analogy that I use is that we are usually hunting rabbits and every now and then we shoot an elephant. When it happens, it's the worst thing because it becomes a question of how we are going to get it done.

While we do some corporate or institutional work, it is not something that we are strongly pushing toward. I think our best work is in the residential environment.


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