Woodcraft: Ancient art shapes livelihood for Silverton man

June 2011 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, Business

By Brenna WiegandJason Wood of Silverton is the only cooper making hot tubs west of the Mississippi

The phrase “Everything old is new again” is truly apropos of Jason Wood.

Casting about for a new profession, Wood stumbled upon a niche market where he could apply his existing skills, talents and passions in a new way.

Until about three years ago, Wood was building custom homes and commercial buildings, first in the high-end resort town of McCall, Idaho.

“I took a lodge there from framing to finish – log siding; tongue and groove ceiling and hardwood floors throughout.

“After about three years the housing market went upside down and progressively downhill with all the foreclosures,” he said.

He chased his market to Lanai, Hawaii.

CJ & K Cedar Works

“I was told there was a lot of work in Hawaii; I called the contact a coworker gave me and was in Hawaii about three days later,” he said. There, he worked on a $30 million mansion that called for cedar throughout, from soffits to outbuildings encased in cedar.

“That’s when I started working with cedar primarily,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, the last stand crumbled, or, as Wood says, “went bust.”

Wood returned to this area, where he had family. For a year and a half, he tried purchasing antiques and other collectibles at auction for resale. Though that venture did not pan out, it was how he met Gail Little-Frassenei. She owned a shop in Silverton; they hit it off right away.

They were looking at plants at one auction and could not believe the $500 price tag they saw on a pot of black bamboo. Gail encouraged him to get into it since he enjoyed growing things.

“I got on craigslist and there were tons of people who were wanting it removed for free, so I started digging it,” said Wood, who became one of the first and foremost people in the Portland and Salem areas who’d dig up unwanted bamboo and sell it at wholesale prices as XXL Bamboo. His primary focus is black bamboo, that starts out green its first year, when it also grows to its full height of 40 feet. The canes turn brown the second year and are a striking black by year three.

What he did not dig was the extreme physical labor the job entailed, even with a couple employees to help him meet a consistent customer base of 20 people a week. Fortunately, around the same time Wood started building planter boxes and arbors.

“One day I someone asked me if I could build him a cedar hot tub,” he said. “I told him I was sure I could.”

Wood watched a couple of videos on YouTube and bought a large machine to create the interlocking joints that do away with the need for glue and fasteners such as screws.

Wood, doing business as J&K Cedar Works, had become a cooper, an occupation more common to the age of wooden staved vessels including casks, barrels and butter churns. Cooperage is time-intensive work that involves the creation of interlocking wooden staved vessels bound together solely by hoops of metal.
Most of today’s coopers primarily make wine casks, although these barrels are trending toward aluminum, stainless steel and various types of plastic.

Working out of his Silverton shop, Wood made one of his first hot tubs for a lumber supplier in trade for a unit of cedar, and his tool collection increased little by little. It was a different story for his client list.

“After I built my first hot tub, I put it on eBay and had a response of 10 more people within six weeks,” he said. “I had to hire another person for the season because I couldn’t keep up.”

“There were so many different aspects I had to learn through trial and error,” he said. “Getting the hot tubs to seal was the easy part. Getting them to look like a finished product has been an ongoing process and I am pretty much at its finality. My first series of tubs didn’t look as good but they all held water and sealed perfectly.”

Now, two-and-a-half years later, Wood is turning out perfectly contoured, router-edged custom red and yellow cedar tubs with amenities that include shelves, benches – even wine bars. In addition, he has been able to narrow the scope of XXL Bamboo, still in business.

“I use as much detail as I can,” he said. “I want to build every tub like I want to own it myself.”

Talk about a niche market. Wood is the only active cooper that builds cedar hot tubs west of the Mississippi.

The only other one in the U.S. is in Maryland.

“My biggest competitor is Northern Lights out of Canada that only sells kits,” he said.
Ironically, the last tub Wood shipped went to Maryland.

“My lumber prices are cheaper because I’m closer to Canada and Alaska and here in the Northwest where they harvest timber,” he said. “My prices are probably $800 to $1,000 cheaper due to the wood costs here.”

The tubs range from about $1,800 to around $5,000, depending upon its size, accessories, vinyl or wood cover and if it is a soaking tub or one with jets.

“Most people don’t want the noise from the blower motor,” he said. “But you can put the unit in your garage for perfect silence. We also have a weatherproof shell so the unit can be set outside.”

The filtration system J&K Cedar Works sells allows the tub owner to go chemical free after the first two weeks. The water passes through an ionizer while an ozonater pumps ozone into the water. Together, Wood said, they do away with 99.99 percent of all pathogens, algae – and just plain “funk.”

“Because of the chemicals and the materials of which they’re made, the typical acrylic spa will crack and the jets will go faulty within the first year and a half to two years and then you’re stuck with a piece of junk that you can’t even sell or recover. A yellow cedar tub will last 30 years and a red cedar tub about 18.”

The process of “reinventing” himself has not been easy, but it is in keeping with the way he rolls.

“I’ve never been on unemployment in my life,” he said. “I’d rather be self-sufficient and find my own way to make my own funds from my labor … no matter what it is – digging bamboo or building hot tubs.”

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