What hasn’t been revolutionized since the creation of the Internet? Need a recipe? Go out and search for it. Wanna buy a new car? Search for the best deal. Is your love life in the toilet? There are sites that can connect you with your future spouse.
One area that has really benefited from the Internet is purchasing lumber. Now, no matter where you call home, finding exotic lumber or common hardwoods from anywhere across the country is just a mouse click away.
I recently had an opportunity to interview Eric Poirier of Bell Forest Products, who shared some interesting observations about how the Internet has affected the company’s business. “We are located in the city of Ishpeming, Michigan with a population of only 6000-7000 people, so, as you can imagine, we are very grateful for the Internet. The business was formed by Dennis Bell and his son Boone, who are both woodworkers. Dennis was tired of not having a local hardwood supplier, so he decided to do something about it. In 2002 he purchased a portable Woodmizer sawmill and built a dry kiln on his property. He and Boone began purchasing Birdseye/Curly maple logs from local loggers and producing lumber.”
From those humble beginnings, Bell Forest Products has grown to a 37,000 square foot warehouse and full production sawmill. While the majority of the wood they sell is locally grown bird’s eye and tiger maple boards, they have branched out to carry a tremendous variety of exotics. At any one time, they have about 50-60,000 board feet in inventory. They buy logs and saw them at the mill then closely supervise the kiln drying of the stock to ensure the highest quality possible.
And, it’s not just project boards that Bell deals in. The site has offered turning stock for years, and recently started offering blanks for pool cue builders.
While all of this sounds impressive, convincing woodworkers that they can trust the online wood buying experience was one of the most difficult issues that Bell Forest Products had to overcome. “Oh, buying wood online can be a huge leap for some woodworkers. A drawback to buying wood online is that they can’t fulfill that desire to pick up a piece of wood, to smell it, drool on it, taste it… you know. Some folks just need that close connection with the wood before they decide to buy it.”
While Bell Forest Products – or any other online hardwood merchant – can’t let you taste the wood before you buy, there are certain things you do get instead. First, Bell Forest Products has a neat feature where you can actually look – board by board – at the stock if you need a particular piece to make your next project shine. “By finding the choice high-quality boards, we can make selecting the wood a much more pleasant process than digging through piles at some lumberyard.”
Another thing that Bell Forest Products prides itself on is how carefully the boards are packaged before shipping. “We wrap each piece in cardboard to offer the best protection possible during shipping. And, since hardwood is pretty hard stuff, and we have protected it very well, there’s a good chance that the board will damage OTHER items in the tractor trailer before it would even see a ding or a scratch.”
One other concern that shoppers might have is the cost of shipping. With the cost of diesel fuel, shipping has become a concern. “First of all, we don’t charge a handling fee – we just add the shipping cost we are quoted to the order. We recently added a shipping cost estimator to the site so shoppers can see what shipping will probably cost before even placing the order. And, finally, we are always offering specials in our electronic newsletter that will certainly help defray the shipping costs.”
Having ordered two tiger maple boards from them recently, the quality of the woods Bell sells is very high. Both pieces were wrapped securely and were better than advertised. Those boards will make some interesting boxes when I get around to building with them.
While you might believe that running an online business might feel cold and distant, Eric was very excited when it came to describing his favorite part of working there. “I really enjoy finding that perfect piece of wood for a customer. When someone calls or emails and tells me they have this special project – I can ask them a few questions and usually find the perfect board.” While helping the customer is fun, Eric added, “it is even more gratifying to get a photograph of the final project!”