Redefining Labour: A Wood Shop Story

Photo Credit: Zack Embree

Photo Credit: Zack Embree

Every start-up business has their challenges, but even those with a sure-fire stream of products face daunting obstacles. And then there are those who want to trouble the very idea of a “product.”

“I am much more interested in the ideas of labour and utility,” says Chris Nichols, co-founder of Wood Shop, an emerging co-op in Vancouver that makes custom furniture from discarded pallet wood.

Wood Shop’s business model is one of upcycling: recycling with an upgrade. Upcycled products start out as waste and are converted into something useful.

Crafting furniture from reused materials is not itself novel. But how to navigate understandings of what is “useful” and of the impact on the lives of those whose hands are defining this usefulness are the more pervasive and abstract concerns.

The pastiche element to Wood Shop’s work is not lost on Nichols, even if he does not explicitly broach the idea. “There is something about recreating things for spaces that you occupy and in which you live that is deeply satisfying to me,” he reflects. “The work then becomes more than just instrumental to pay a wage – it becomes part of our lives at a visceral level.”

Arguably, Wood Shop is recontextualizing their materials for different purposes than for what pallet wood is intended, and this challenge to the outlying economic logic in which the young business is operating is where they are finding their nest.

Nichols met his partners Andrew Hewins and Ben Huff in a small alternative business school. All three were seeking ways to escape the technocracy of the capitalist society that seemed destined to pester them.

Hewins, an Australian expat, had stumbled upon the school almost by accident and was interested in exploring the opportunities he could find there.

A quiet yet acute observer, he gravitated to the idea of Wood Shop intrigued by the potential to be his own boss, as he remarked. “Simply put, I felt there were gaps that I could help fill in Wood Shop.”

Huff had been living in Greater Vancouver for a short while working random jobs in recycling warehouses after finishing school out east. But they were always jobs that frustrated him. “Meeting Chris, and hearing his idea about the furniture business, it compelled me because I knew that unlike all my previous jobs, this would involve working towards something other than just the bottom line.”

This is the sense of purpose that drives the team, making all the added challenges worth it, according to Huff.

But articulating that “something more” is still the elusive other that moulds the labour practices of the Wood Shop founders.

Precisely what is to be done to foster a new economic logic that fulfils and provides such labour fuels the team to spend significant periods of time to palaver to consensus on exactly why they want to be a co-op.

The simple answer is to provide stable yet meaningful employment for themselves and others, but the how and the why is still a web that Hewins, Huff, and Nichols are attempting to untangle.

It started with Nichols’ sole proprietorship and his passion to make a living from his hands in ways that troubled conventional understandings of instrumentality.

“I was looking to satisfy unarticulated needs I had for my life and also my family,” he tells me candidly over coffee. “I really wanted to do something that was bigger than me and part of a community to rethink what it simply meant to be a labourer. I went to school, did my MA, started my PhD, dropped out of my doctoral program, tried to write for a living but did not make enough money, and would construct things on the side and constantly found work for it. But the funny thing was I actually enjoyed construction.”

As a self-made DYI carpenter, Nichols worried there was not anything different about it in that fundamental way he sought.

So Wood Shop was born, but after months of struggle to self-identify, they are only now just exiting their infancy. Going back to the basics of discussion, community, and labour has now redominated their time.

“When we started, we spent the first several months just getting our feet wet,” explains Huff. “And now that we have grown, we came to a crossroads with our values, and we needed to reiterate and restructure them, so we did a reboot to load our systems again.”

The three recently spent a couple of weeks doing no construction at all and instead brainstormed over idea boards to reformulate their mission within the greater community, their respective roles in the business, and how they want to do business differently to better provide for their well-beings and their families.

“As a co-op, we are mandated to provide employment, so we are excited about growing to provide simple lifestyles and stable jobs for those that care and want to contribute to the supportive society of which we are hoping to be a part,” Nichols concludes.

“This idea of what it means to do and provide labour meaningfully remains our driving force.”

And with that is still reflected an idea of sacrifice necessary for the kind of supportive society towards which the Wood Shop founders gesture, something so admirably insidious they seem to remark on it without even realizing.

“Everything about what we are doing is motivating,” says Hewins. “I feel I have more to give to the project than the project has to give me.”