Woodworkers Source is a family business started by Keith Stephens in 1978. Keith’s wife, Betty, and their son, Mark, are also active in the business. The Company has three retail locations and a top notch web site offering the broadest selection of hardwoods in the United States. The retail stores also stock sheet goods, veneers, power and hand tools, and woodworking supplies.
Here’s the full story as told by Keith.
In the late sixties my wife, Betty, and I were just starting our life journey together. I was a CPA with a large international accounting firm and Betty was a Registered Nurse. We enjoyed working hard but were usually broke. Then in 1970 life started to change. You probably know the words …“I’m pregnant!” With a baby on the way we wanted a house and found one we liked in Scottsdale, AZ.
The house was in fine shape but improvement projects started to come along. I had no experience with home repair or improvement but undertook projects and enjoyed the process. Usually the results were better than satisfactory. My tool inventory started with a Sears radial arm saw and a Black& Decker ¼” drill. Then Betty bought me a Black& Decker router, 1 HP, ¼ “ collet, edge guide and carrying case. $39.00 for the package. That router kept going until about 3 years ago when the bearings seized. It was an entry level tool but a bargain that gave me lots of pleasure and experience.
1976 was a repeat performance with another baby and another house. This house had a breakfast area that needed the right table; but we just could not find one to buy. It seemed every table was the wrong size, wrong style, wrong color or wrong something. Then Betty came up with the magic words, “Why don’t you build us one?”
My First Piece of Furniture
We searched the books and found a likeable design that I thought I could build. The table came out fine, and as folks visited us they always commented on the table. A little positive feed back and I was hooked on building things. While the table was a fine project it was made using construction lumber. I thought it was time to use better materials.
While I had no idea what hardwood was, I announced my desire to build a hardwood project. Betty and I designed a jewelry box…about 7”x12”x16” with two drawers and a lift up glass top. When I was in the seventh grade, Boys Shop was 6 weeks each of woodworking, metal work and plastics. The woodworking project was a note pad holder, a simple project made from a board about 4x6, beveled edges and 2 posts with a leather strap – all done using hand tools, which must be why it took 6 weeks. I used a hand saw and a hand plane to cut the board, make it smooth and square, and bevel all 4 edges. But before doing any of that we had to make a bill of materials. With this training I sketched the jewelry box and developed a bill of materials. Now off to the lumber yard.
I went to the yard where I usually bought materials and asked for some hardwood. The conversation went like this:
“Sorry, Keith, we do not sell hardwoods.”
“Where do I get some?” I asked.
“We do not know” they replied.
Disappointed, I went to another lumber yard and received the same information. I went home baffled. Here I was an aspiring woodworker with a plan and a bill of materials but could not find any hardwood lumber. I continued to ask friends and relatives and ultimately got directed to the local hardwood outlet.
This hardwood dealer was in a particularly seedy part of town and I was a bit uneasy about going there. On the wall were 9 or 12 samples of different woods. I asked the questions most folks are concerned about: How hard is it? Can I cut and drill it? Will I need to sharpen my blades? Unfortunately the counter person was not very helpful. His responses to my inquires were short and curt. Finally, based just on the look of it, I selected Ash from the wall of samples and said I would like some. What happened next is etched in my memory for all time. This step in my woodworking education was absolutely shocking. I was directed to a pile of random width, random length, rough lumber. Up to this point in my life every board I had ever seen was S4S dimensioned stock. I grew up in the Arizona desert so I had no real frame of reference for trees or lumber. To the best of my knowledge boards came out of a tree, ready for use, just like I saw them in the other lumber store. After fumbling with a few boards and having no idea what to do I returned to the sales counter and asked for more help.
I pulled out my bill of materials and explained about my jewelry box and the wood I needed. Help was not forthcoming. The counter person held my bill of materials high in the air and pronounced to everyone “Look at this! Look at this! This guy has a list.” Embarrassed, shocked and confused I left the lumberyard wondering how I was going to get hardwood to build my jewelry box.
Driving home I passed a cabinet shop and stopped. Fortunately the person I spoke with was quite helpful and I left with some Ash surfaced to ½" and straight edged. The jewelry box was a success – but there were several shop mishaps in the process – and I began a relationship with hardwoods.
Starting the business
Several years earlier I abandoned public accounting to start a data processing service company and then developed a chain of early childhood learning centers. In 1978, and for several unrelated reasons, I wanted to start another company. My woodworking knowledge continued to grow and I was a subscriber with the first issue of Fine Woodworking. Woodworking seemed to be gaining in popularity and, as I recalled my difficulties buying hardwoods, it seemed to me there might be a business opportunity. Then I stumbled onto an ad for a hardwood lumber franchise. Austin Hardwoods had a location in Tucson, AZ and wanted to sell it.
The store needed basic business procedures but it had the most important factor to success—customers. Also the manager was a good asset and I could operate the business from Scottsdale as a sideline to my primary business. This seemed like an easy entry into the hardwood lumber business During the first few months I moved the franchise to a better location, expanded the inventory, and installed a marketing program and basic business practices. The business started to grow nicely. In 1980 I opened a second facility in Phoenix and expanded into hand tools. With two facilities more supervision was needed and Betty joined the team to manage inventory.
I was fascinated with imported woods and enjoyed experimenting with them in my projects. One day in a craft store in San Diego, CA I saw a fancy box made from Tulipwood. Red streaks on a cream background. Spectacular! We expanded our inventory of imported woods and I began searching the world for wood for our customers.
In 1984 I sold the early childhood learning centers to Gerber. This provided the capital to move both the Tucson and Phoenix stores to bigger, better facilities and we opened a new facility to test a revised concept for a retail woodworking speciality center. This concept did not succeed. During the next couple of years I had a general manager in charge and I tried to be semi-retired; this did not work for me, or the business, so in 1986 I was back to working full time.
Growing the business
Sales continued to grow each year and in a few years we opened another, larger facility in the northwest section of Phoenix about thirty miles from the existing location. In the 80’s we were a dealer for Inca machinery, a high quality brand of Swiss equipment. Unfortunately Inca, due to dollar/franc relationship, withdrew from the USA market. Then in 1996 we became a dealer for JET. Later, JET acquired Powermatic and Today Woodworkers Source is one of the largest JET/Powermatic dealers in the US.
In the mid nineties we placed small ads in several magazines offering hardwood by mail order, and orders started to come in. At first, these were handled by the office staff but over time the volume grew and a full time customer service representative was added and in 1998 our first web site was launched.
Mark, our youngest son, worked part time at Woodworkers nearly all of his life. After graduating from Arizona State University he took over the mail order business and directed its growth. Today mail order sales represent nearly 15% of the company’s sales, and the company foresees internet sales as an area of significant growth.
Each of the company’s facilities were upgraded again from 2004 to 2006. The northwest Phoenix location moved to a new, larger, and more modern facility that integrated the mail order customer service and fulfillment department. The other Phoenix facility that opened in 1984 was moved to a better location in Tempe, AZ with a new and larger building. We remodeled the Tucson store, expanding it and matching the other facilities as close as possible.
Today, Woodworkers Source serves a growing customer base from 3 top-quality facilities and a state-of-the-art web site. Hardwood lumber is still our core product but we also offer a complete line of woodworking materials, equipment and supplies.