North Dakota Company Focuses on the Games People Play

David Ripley emphasizes functionality and aesthetics in his company's line of high-end board games and specialty items.

By Tom Caestecker, Jr.

David Ripley is probably too humble to admit it, but his multitude of accomplishments puts a new spin on a well-known cliche. When applied to him, the saying could go, "jack of all trades, master of...everything."

Ripley's current enterprise, a two-year-old company called Noble Collections Inc., headquartered in Bismarck, ND, produces high-quality, specialty items made of wood, especially classic board games like checkers and cribbage. The company has enjoyed rapid success and owes its good fortune primarily to Ripley's vision. He draws his knowledge from a Silicon Valley-style background in electronics, a keen understanding of modern American culture, an appreciation of history and a personal love for the medium of wood.

"For our products, the inspiration came from my own personal interest in high-quality and beautiful objects with ties to history," Ripley said. "For years, our society de-emphasized quality in things involved in our daily use. Many now want to have objects of high quality, because there has been a backlash against merely convenient, disposable and cheap items."

When Ripley was 13 years old, he began taking lessons with a private tutor in the field of electronics/communications. Later, he became one of the youngest ham radio operators in his native California. At age 24, he became professionally involved in electronics in the area of environmental measurements. A few years later, he moved to Dallas and helped pioneer in the field of silicon microstructures.

"In Dallas, we linked pre-modern and post-modern technology and brought technology's cost down to an affordable level so it could reach mass markets," Ripley said. "We specialized in areas of medical, industrial, automotive and aerospace technology."

Today, Ripley applies the expertise gathered from his previous endeavors to build products that evoke images of craft, skill and people's connection to the world around them and the past. He combines his technical background with his personal views about what triggers people's emotions and sense of wonder to design Noble's games, including checkers, backgammon, mancala, cribbage and chess.

"The subtle ties with history are what make these products so special to our customers," Ripley said. "Emotions create these ideas and make us nostalgic."

To provide a history "lesson" for customers, a short, written history is set into the back panels of all the games Noble produces. On the back of the cribbage board, for example, one learns about the game's inventor, a young heir who, because of his youth, made some foolish mistakes. His errors caused such upset to the king of England that the youth was eventually driven to killing himself.

"In creating the Historic Game Collection as the launching point of Noble's product line, our objective was to design a product that reflects its deep-rooted heritage," Ripley added. "Games were also a good place to start, because there was a lack of competition in the market for games of this quality, and that has allowed us to position ourselves in many distribution channels."

Of course, added to the visual attractiveness of Noble's products is their degree of functionality. It is this feature of making the products "work" that illustrates Ripley's technical past. The checkers board for example, has a spring-loaded storage area for the game pieces. That way, when the game is not being played, the pieces are neatly filed within the board itself and aren't stored loose, virtually eliminating the chance of them being misplaced.

"The characteristics of functionality and aesthetics -- a Noble trademark -- is a reflection of my past as a micro-machinist," Ripley said. "We're making beautiful products that work, products that people won't shove into cabinets like plastic-dominated board games, where the pieces may roll around and fall out of the box and get lost within the cabinet."

Four wood species are used in the Historic Game Collection: cherry, maple, black walnut and mahogany. Presently, the company uses solid wood exclusively, but will move into the area of some composites, when appropriate, Ripley said.

"The color qualities of the species and their respective finishes are very important for certain looks," Ripley said. "Cherry has a nice interior appeal, and walnut does too, in addition to having a tight grain. Maple allows us to achieve an Early American look with its lighter appearance.

"Next year, we will be introducing several new products, including a Collector's Edition of the games," he added. "We will be making a limited number of games in the wood type of the country in which the game originated. Mancala, for instance, originated in Egypt, so we will use African zebra wood. Cribbage came from England, where walnut grows."

Other full product lines will be introduced, including the Lifestyle Collection, which centers on accessories for smoking and drinking, such as aperitif toasting cabinets, which house liqueurs and glasses. It will also comprise cigar humidors.

The other lines will be the Heirlome Collection (objects "with strong personal feeling for the home"), the Legacy Collection (luxury products for home offices), the Chiffonier Collection (for bed and bath products) and the Etui Collection (small decorative cases used to present, or memorialize special events in peoples lives).

Noble Collections markets its products through catalogues such as Herrington's and Norm Thompson, and the retail outlets and catalogues of high-end stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom's, FAO Schwartz and Neiman-Marcus. Other marketing venues include interior designers and corporate gift businesses. Through these methods, the company has opened 1,200 new accounts this year and projects 2,400 new accounts for 1998. The wholesale price for the games ranges between $80 for cribbage to $500 for a chess set.

"One of the most difficult things about being a young company is acquiring credibility in the marketplace," Ripley said. "We have achieved that credibility by strategically not selling directly to consumers, but through the finest stores in the world. Our success early on has been phenomenal."

Ripley pointed out that he located the company in North Dakota because of the "down-to-earth, well-educated" workforce. He called it a fertile ground for entrepreneurs like himself.

"In a state like this, there is an opportunity for real trailblazers," he said. "There are many rewards. For instance, we only have a one percent turnover rate; we invest in employees and they work out well for us."

The company's corporate offices are in Bismarck, ND, and the 17,100-square-foot factory is an hour's drive away in Hazen, ND. The production process for the game boards starts with lumber being sanded on a Timesavers widebelt sander. It goes to a Komo VR 408 P CNC router to be routed for either a cribbage, backgammon, chess or checkers design or grid. After the respective design is routed, the panel returns to the sander and from there, it goes to a deburring station. Then parts and internal mechanisms required to create special features, like the spring-loaded storage area, are sanded and inserted into the board. Trim cutting and general sanding complete the production process.

After final sanding, the boards are stained and go through a five-step finishing process. This process, using a Cefla finishing system from Stiles Machinery, includes: a coat of lacquer; application of graphics; two more coats of lacquer; sanding and a final coat of lacquer.

"We use a patented finishing process of 'onion-skinning,'" Ripley said. "We also custom design vacuum cavities so that we can finish a product on both sides, clamp it uniformly and still have no scarring."

The application of graphics, such as the game's history and the Noble logo, to the games also involves a unique process. After one coat of Pratt & Lambert lacquer, the graphics are pre-sanded to break the surface of the lacquer. The graphic is actually "lacquer paint" which is printed on a special carrier. It is then dipped into a butyl alcohol solution, allowing the lacquer paint to adhere to the lacquer surface of the board. Once adhesion has occurred, water is applied to the back of the paper, which releases the graphic from the carrier. Water is also used to wash off any extra residue.

When the boards have dried, they move on to the leather department, where top-quality, Pakistani goat leather is fitted for the squares on checkers or chess or the triangular shapes on backgammon boards.

Delta disc sanders are used for sanding small, wooden game pieces. Some pieces are made of brass, polyglass and steel, and are outsourced to a North Dakota company. Other shop equipment includes Mercury vacuum seals to hold boards in place, Bessey clamps, a shaper and a Unisaw from Delta, several custom routing jigs and a Biesemeyer miter saw.

Following his vision for the future, Ripley hopes that Noble will continue to provide customers with many unique products that will take people back to a different time and emphasize their connection with people's emotions.

"The versions of these games that we have created have brought the games to an almost ritualistic level," Ripley said. "They also represent a return to human interaction which has, in turn, been spurred on by computers. People are on computers all day at work; they don't want to come home and get on them again."

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