By Jamison Cocklin
On a stretch of road just off U.S. Route 224 in Canfield sits a 23-acre facility on what was once a sprawling family farm.
For many in the Mahoning Valley, Baird Brothers Sawmill Inc. needs little explanation. In short, they manufacture high-quality hardwood products. For 52 years, they’ve served tradesmen and homeowners carrying out countless projects throughout the Valley and in markets stretching from Pittsburgh to Cleveland.
Just two years ago, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Over the years, a quiet transformation in American craftsmanship, manufacturing and the construction industry has pushed Baird Brothers to the fringes of something rare: They measure their products not by the time needed to produce them, but by the quality of what is produced in the end.
In all, Baird Brothers boasts “seven acres under roof,” as Michael Knoedler, director of technology and accounts receivable, put it during a tour of the facility.
With its showroom, finishing operations, rough mill, dry kilns and self-sustaining electricity, the company takes an assortment of raw wood from cherry, hickory and maple, to oak, cedar and ash off the truck and turns it into interior finished lumber.
They custom-make doors, staircase mouldings, cabinets and counter tops just to name a few things. Their services are rare not only in the Valley but across the country as well, and the company has grown to fill a niche and product orders in all 50 states and Canada.
“You’re not going to find a lot of the products or services we carry at big box stores,” Knoedler said. “If you do, we have a larger selection and a higher quality. We provide more than the product — we provide the knowledge and skills to help you use that product.”
But behind the Baird Brothers story, which began in 1960 when two brothers and a sister founded the family company, is a broad lament, voiced silently in academic papers, on blogs and at bars and coffee shops nationwide. Though no hard statistics exist to support it, the argument maintains a precipitous decline in American craftsmanship, and some evidence exists to support it.
First, consider the world’s largest home-improvement specialty retailer, Home Depot. Started in 1979, Home Depot evolved to change the perspective of how consumers could care for their homes. Today, its online workshops and do-it-yourself concepts have aligned to make work easier and faster.
Along with Lowe’s, first started in 1946 as a small hardware store that grew into more than 1,745 stores, the retailers offer precut flooring that glues in place, prefab windows, help desks and installers.
Both stores undoubtedly make life easier for many, and they carry some quality products as well, but when their market share is viewed with other trends, it suggests that craftsmanship and the knowledge that comes with it are no longer the cultural resource they once were in the U.S.
A hemorrhaging in manufacturing jobs during the past two decades, advances in technology of all kinds and a drop in vocational training at public schools over the past two decades that has only recently turned around, makes it easy to see why Baird Brothers has managed to grow its business.
“There has been a lot of offshoring, and a lot of that American-made quality has gone away,” Knoedler said. “But people still pride themselves on purchasing the products.”
Paul Baird, president of Baird Brothers, agrees but doesn’t believe his customers would rather take the hands-off approach.
“I still think you have those young married couples who need new doors, or floors, whatever it is,” he said. “I’ve personally never seen a big drop-off in that activity or interest in doing it yourself.”
Unlike the big box stores, Baird Brothers products are not mass produced. Customers can visit the warehouse to see what they’re getting into. Flooring is made with deep, custom-cut grooves, and lumber of all kinds can be cut to specification depending on a customer’s request.
From there, it makes its way to a finish mill, where skilled craftsmen put the product together. Cherry doors are glued tight and pounded together carefully, historical restorations are conducted on sight, and replicas with intricate patterns, such as staircase and crown mouldings, are made to fit within historic homes.
On Saturday, Baird Brothers will open its doors to the public to celebrate these traditions. It will have its first “Red, White and True” fall festival to both celebrate American craftsmanship and expose the public to its tradesmen and facilities.
“We wanted a chance to open our doors, not just the front doors, but beyond,” Knoedler said. “We wanted to let people see the backside of our mill because there’s a lot of interest in it.”
The festival will be an opportunity to see demonstrations, attend how-to seminars and get educated on the mills processes, among other things.
If it’s met with success and a strong turnout, Knoedler and Baird said they would consider an annual event.
“We’d like to think people want to learn about these things,” Knoedler said.