Small is really beautiful at Tyler Morris Woodworking in Fort Collins, Colo. The three-man shop run by its namesake specializes in smaller, repeatable projects, capitalizing on Internet marketing, and the efficiencies of doing high-caliber work over and over again.

Morris has developed a business model that maximizes his shop’s strengths and allows him to compete in a national market without in-house automation. That business model shows an attention to detail from the earliest product concepts, but it also shows an uncanny ability to quickly capitalize on new opportunities.

Keep it simple

“All of our designs are very simple,” says Morris. “I don’t have any formal training in design. We think of function first and then the simple design follows. We’re not interested in ornate mouldings or profiles.”

That has given birth to a line of products that includes recipe boxes, serving trays, cutting boards, and a very successful line of corbels. 

“I like to design within my manufacturing capacity,” says Morris. “I don’t want to run out and buy a new tool.”

That means the shop does a lot of template routing. Morris says they have more than 30 hand routers, mostly Porter-Cable models. And once they develop the templates for a new product, they can use them over and over again as the shop markets the same product to a wide audience through the Internet.

Corbels are king

The most successful of the shop’s products are corbels. Morris says he developed their first corbels as simple shelf brackets. Then he began getting calls for countertop supports. “I didn’t know what a countertop support was,” recalls Morris, explaining what he soon found out. “Many people opt for heavier countertop material like granite, and they need more support for overhangs.”
Once he started marketing his shelf supports as corbels and countertop supports, the line took off. They even developed a “Corbel Wizard” on their website to help people choose the right countertop support and make sure they won’t bump their knees on the corbels after they are installed.

And Morris has found a great way to parlay the corbel business into sales of his other products. Six weeks after a customer buys corbels from him, Morris sends the customer an email asking for pictures of the installed corbels. When the customer emails the pictures, Morris gives the customer a 15-percent-off coupon for any of Morris’ other products.

“It’s been very successful,” says Morris. “It’s part of our future to be interactive.”

Selling on the Web

Fully 50 percent of all of Tyler Morris Woodworking’s sales come from the Web, either directly through the company’s website (www.tylermorriswoodworking.com) or through other outlets. About 10 percent of the sales are on Amazon, which Morris is very pleased with.

“Our Amazon sales are totally worthwhile,” he says. “It’s no hassle. They only take 15 percent of each gross sale, and they promote my products for free.”

He also sells through Etsy, a popular outlet for craft artists, but that has not delivered as many sales. “Lots of people hit the ‘like’ button and save our items to their favorites, but there are not that many sales. Still, it’s a wonderful outlet, and it is easy to set up.”

Developing new products

The product line at Tyler Morris Woodworking grows somewhat organically. Take the example of one of the company’s early successes. Morris introduced himself to Carey Hewitt, the owner of a local Fort Collins kitchen specialty store called The Cupboard. Hewitt said he had been looking for high-quality recipe boxes, and Morris agreed to try to make some. They discussed the design and Morris built a prototype. Hewitt loved it.

“He said, ‘I’ll take 20. And then let’s discuss some other product possibilities,’” Morris recalls.

Serving trays, cutting boards, napkin holders and Shaker peg racks soon followed in the line of products that developed out of that partnership. The corbels grew out of a similar experience doing shelf brackets for a local restaurant owner.

More recently, Morris says a walk with his young daughter and an experiment pressing leaves they found led to creating of yet another product, an elegant little leaf press. It has a wood frame and wood screw to provide the pressure. Not only does he make and sell the presses, but his website includes basic instructions for getting into the hobby of pressing and preserving leaves.

Products to match the machines

When Morris gets an idea for a new product, he works closely with long-time employee Steve Wright to figure out the best way to manufacture the product with the equipment they have at hand. That includes a Butfering 36-inch widebelt sander, a 10-inch JET cabinet saw, a Laguna Tools bandsaw, a Delta 8-inch jointer, a JET planer, and a homemade downdraft sanding table.

They do lots of pattern routing and typically leave different routers set up to do different tasks. Most patterns are routed with a 3-hp Porter-Cable router with a 1-1/2-inch straight bit. For some of the distinctive corner spline joinery the shop uses a dedicated router table tenoning jig, which serves as a cradle.

“I don’t have any design training,” says Morris. “We think of function first and then the simple design follows.”

Not all projects small

While the shop does emphasize small, repeatable projects, not everything it does fits in that model. For example, some of the kitchen store products led to a continuing account to make store displays for Henckels knives. The shop also works closely with a local hardwood lumber dealer and mill. They subcontract jobs to Morris just about every week.

One area that Morris admits is a weakness is figuring the price points for his products.

“Honestly, that’s never been a strong point of mine,” he says. “I make a big error and often say to myself what will the market bear for this product. If I say $100, then I ask can I make the product for that. If I can make that work, then I’ll set the price.”

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