Getting a young woodworking business off the ground is hard enough, especially considering the cost of quality professional machinery and commercial shop space. That's particularly so in high-rent urban areas, where, ironically, competition can be as elevated as the overhead. Many small shops fail against these long odds or limp along with less than professionally adequate equipment or shop space. But in the Philadelphia area, one woodworking entrepreneur has found a way to help these small shops while boosting and diversifying his own business.

Bill Gershenfeld had his own growing woodworking and millwork business in Philadelphia, and says at one point he wanted to end up with 50 employees. But as his business grew in that direction, he said managing all the workers became "too painful." Still, he had bought a big building on Stenton Avenue as part of his original plan. Could he use that to strike in a new direction? The answer was the Stenton Guild LLC, a woodworking cooperative that gives small shops machinery, shop space and often even contracts for work to do that all might have been otherwise outside their grasp.

How it works

Of the 27,000 square feet in the three-story, historic brick factory building that is home to the guild, about 10,000 square feet is currently devoted to woodworking. That includes a mix of shared and separate shop space for about five independent small shops with plenty of room to add more.

Gershenfeld has leased top-quality commercial woodworking machinery and set it up in a common central location in the building. All the guild members have full use of the equipment, which includes such things as a Felder sliding-table saw, Felder Format 4 planer, Cehisa edgebander, SCM 16-inch jointer, a Timesavers Speed Sander widebelt sander, a Powermatic table saw and a Grizzly dust collection system.

The independent shops share the equipment and some tooling like sawblades and sanding belts. They each pay rent ranging from $450 to $1,000 a month, which includes utilities. Besides that bargain rate for space and quality machinery, the shops benefit from a steady stream of extra work that Gershenfeld can funnel their way.

"I've gone from employees to subcontractors," he says, noting that about 10 percent of the work done at the guild is contract work for his clients.

Strength in numbers

The guild setup mirrors the operation Gershenfeld has with seven one-man shops working under the same kind of arrangement at another Philadelphia location with 29,000 square feet, where his original shop had been based. He sees it all as an exciting way of growing successful woodworking businesses that help each other advance.

"There's a synergy starting here," he says. "It's neat walking through the shop and seeing guys sharing techniques."

There are also some very real practical advantages for the solo woodworkers. For example, when there's heavy lifting to do like loading or unloading a truck, there's usually someone else to help. When there's an engineering or business hurdle to surmount, there's usually someone else in the building who can offer a suggestion. Need an extra hand on an installation? Just look around the shop.

What's not shared

While everybody in the guild arrangement talks about the benefits of what they share, the shops are truly independent business operations. Gershenfeld requires everyone to have their own business and liability insurance policies. There is a liability waiver everybody signs protecting each other in shared arrangements.

Gershenfeld says the growing cooperative enterprise has given him a new outlook on life personally. Instead of worrying about managing hordes of employees, he finds new satisfaction in helping to incubate fresh woodworking businesses. And he seems to have no shortage of work to keep him and his co-op shops busy. In fact, as he tells stories about individual projects shared and accomplished by independent shops in his two buildings, he sounds more like a proud father than a business entrepreneur. But the cell phone and client contacts are seldom far from his ear, and he's found his own new business growth with the guild.

For more information about the Stenton Guild, go to  www.stentonguild.com.

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