Nearly 50 years ago, Randy and Gary White surfed in the morning and crafted wooden bracelets and rings in the afternoons in the backyard of their Southern California home, starting a lifelong passion for woodworking.
In 1970 they founded Bentwood Furniture, so named because Randy had learned how to bend wood in engineering class in college.
They moved to Grants Pass from Huntington Beach, Calif., in 1979, and by the early 1990s their Bentwood Furniture plant employed over 200 people at their factory on Northwest Morgan Lane. Those were the salad days.
Now the brothers are back making furniture after a transition period that included a market collapse, selling out, leasing most of their 44,000 square feet manufacturing area to another company and waiting out a non-compete clause for five years.
They've turned out their first set of 50 wooden chairs, for sale in the Rogue Valley Furniture showroom on Morgan Lane that has continued the retail end of the business through ups and downs.
"We've had a presence here since 1980. We want to keep the continuity going," said Randy, 65. "That's important to us."
"It's in my blood to build things," added Gary, 63.
Upstream 21 of Portland bought Bentwood in 2009, and occupies three-fourths of the building making Roguewood furniture, using Bentwood's equipment, employees and designs. Under the terms of the sale, the Whites can't use the Bentwood name anymore.
Upstream also owns Jefferson State Forest Products, which makes high-end wooden produce bins and display tables, in the same plant. Upstream's two companies have over 25 employees.
The Whites still own the entire 8-acre property, which includes the furniture showroom and the Rogue Fly Shop operated by Randy's son Josh. Years ago it housed Caveman Camper, then Rogue Valley Sash and Door (now Rogue Valley Door), before Bentwood.
The Whites say manufacturing again is like a business startup.
Before the non-compete clause ended in January, they refitted 10,000 square feet of the shop with new routers and other equipment to make the complex pieces of a wooden chair. The various mortises and tenon joints on curved pieces have to fit perfectly.
"There's a big gap in the market for good, quality chairs made in America," Randy said. "That's the niche we're starting into."
"The chair is the most difficult thing you can make in furniture," Gary said.
In another six months they hope to be cranking out 10 styles of chairs, with a handful of employees.
They're not cheap at $369 apiece, but they are a comparatively good deal if you value hand-crafted furniture. Gary said a similar company in Portland sells them for $1,200.
"This is a very labor-intensive process," he said. "We can replace some labor by putting in really good equipment, but it still needs to be assembled and sanded."
Cheap labor overseas and trade practices sank the furniture business more than 20 years ago. Before that, the Whites and their Bentwood plant made a name with their 13 Oak Merchant stores, including one in downtown Grants Pass.
"China was selling furniture cheaper than I could buy the wood, and I was buying a boxcar of lumber every four days," Gary said.
Some of that overseas labor isn't as cheap now, he said. The brothers will also save with no office or sales staff.
"We can now be competitive again, especially without a huge overhead," Gary said. "We have to be really good at what we do or it won't happen."
Sit into one of their chairs and you see the Whites' attention to detail. Gary said he spent a month programming the router machines, entering computer codes, to make that saddle style.
"As soon as I can get somebody's rump in them, they're sold," said Linda Long, manager for Rogue Valley Furniture. "All the years they designed furniture went into the comfort and look of these chairs."
"The poetry of all of that is, it's reproduceable," Gary said. "This is going to be our signature."
They're doing business with a mill in Corvallis for oak, walnut, cherry and birch.
Randy White said the entrepreneurial spirit, and the high cost of personal health insurance in retirement were incentives to get back into manufacturing.
And the lack of quality, solid wood furniture.
"You can't find furniture made of solid wood anymore," Gary said. "And you can't find a store like this even in Oregon. And it's right in our backyard."
Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or email@example.com