Graham Flaig and Liam Barrell are following in the footsteps of a long and rich tradition of Alberta artisans.
They own Airdrie Woodworks Co., a successful home decor and kitchen products business founded in 2016: its motto is to “provide you with a selection of everything you need to make your home, a home.”
“We wanted to make products that people could use but were also not like everything else out there,” says Flaig.
“What we do is different,” agrees Barrell. “It’s more what we do with the wood.”
These artisanal entrepreneurs, both 16, just finished Grade 11 at St. Martin de Porres.
They met in Grade 8, but didn’t turn their passion for woodworking into a business until Grade 10.
“The idea came up in wood shop,” Barrell explains.
“We were just working on our projects together,” Flaig elaborates, “just having fun and making some quality stuff.”
“It was almost a joke at first, ‘Oh, we could sell this!’” Barrell remembers, “But we kinda liked how that sounded, and we just went with it, and here we are today.”
Now, they run two woodworking shops out of both of their parents’ garages, designing and crafting furniture and a variety of home products, including cutting boards and candleholders.
Their first experience selling their creations was at a church Christmas bazaar.
“A lot of people really liked what we were doing,” Flaig recalls. “It was kinda surprising to see everybody interested in the handmade stuff.”
The positive response inspired them to sell at farmers’ markets that summer.
“It went really great from there,” Flaig says. “People really liked the quality.”
“We kinda winged it in the beginning,” says Barrell, whose father had experience running his own business and offered basic advice, “but otherwise, we just started making stuff, and looked at markets to sell it and see if we could grow it.”
They sold around 100 cutting boards and dozens of sets of coasters that first summer.
A year later, orders are coming in almost daily. They attribute this growth to the uniqueness and quality of their woodworking.
“We’ve gained so much knowledge over a year,” Flaig says.
“We just tested the waters with that first market at the church, but we’ve learned a lot since then,” his friend agrees.
Most of their knowledge has come from the Internet.
“All our resources are online; you can see what anyone does all around the world,” Barrell says. “Everything you need to know is there.”
They don’t have a YouTube channel yet, but they believe it’s important for their customers to understand the process of their craft.
They post dozens of images on social media.
“It’s not a big factory; it’s us just using our hands, and building from start to finish,” Barrell says.
They build traditional household items, but their pieces are colourful works of art as much as functional tools.
“The grains are just so beautiful,” Barrell explains, “and there’s so many patterns that can form from the wood.”
“I never thought, when we got into this, wood could be purple or orange in colour. It’s really amazing.”
It’s these attributes that largely determine the end result, he adds.
The cutting boards, for instance, take shape from strips of a variety of hardwoods, which they arrange and rearrange until they are satisfied that they have created a unique and vibrant piece.
“It’s crazy – people always ask if they’re stained and dyed, but we don’t do any of that on any of our products,” Flaig explains. “It’s the wood.”
Barrell agrees, adding that they’ve become selective about what they use, often spending hours choosing boards from suppliers.
They use waterproof glue for the kitchen products and coat them with food-safe mineral oil, while candleholders, coasters and napkin holders have up to 10 coats of clear finish.
This all takes time.
“There are long nights of going out (to the garage) every two hours to throw on the next coat,” Barrell admits.
Their families have been very supportive, says Flaig, with Barrell’s father expressing pride in their ability to build “a very stable business.”
“This is the best time in our lives to do this,” Flaig reflects. “We’re still in school … we don’t have a mortgage or kids.”
How do they balance the demands of their craft with those of high school?
“Time management is key for all of this,” Barrell says without hesitation. “I go from homework to woodwork.”
“It’s not easy,” Flaig admits. “There’s a lot of work to owning your own business.”
However, he quickly adds, crafting a quality product is rewarding.
After graduation, Barrell is studying carpentry and construction, while Flaig has his sights on a business education.
“We’re going to learn two different things that complement each other,” Barrell says.
Their plan after post-secondary is to buy existing houses, and remodel them, adding in handcrafted features like wooden mantles, countertops and railings.
“This is just our beginning for sure,” Flaig says.
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