Thursday, January 10, 2013

Allegheny Treenware

Below is my article on Allegheny Treenware that I produced for Savor! WV Magazine.

Growing love one spoon at a time

[Treenware (n): Old Saxon word that means “small wooden objects from the tree.” It’s usually associated with the kitchen, diary or pantry.]

By Candace Nelson

One couple is determined to share their love, in the shape of butter dishes, ladles and spatulas, with the rest of the state and beyond.

Stan and Sue Jennings carved, shaped and molded their love into Allegheny Treenware, a small business that creates handmade wooden products.


These spooners, based in Thornton, W.Va., first met working in the coalmines in 1984. When the mines were shut down in 1985, they dabbled in a few other professions until their ultimate passion took over and led to them starting their woodworking business in 1990.

"When we first started dating, we had a conversation about dreaming. We both shared a similar dream - that we'd both like to be woodworkers," Sue said.

Sue is the daughter of a carpenter, while Stan's father worked at a sawmill in the timber industry. Working with their hands runs through their blood – they even built their own house.

"We just wanted to sell what we made - not even making a living. Just having people want to buy our work is great," Sue said. "But it became a complete and total focus. Because we realized we could actually do this."

While they had previously created wooden pieces to give away at Christmas time and enjoyed woodworking as a hobby during time off from the coalmines, when they focused on their dream, they saw immediate success at shows in fairs and festivals.

The business started out selling three utensils: a flipper, paddle and straight-handled spoon. In 1990, they sold more than $1,000 worth of merchandise at a festival in Morgantown. That’s when they realized they could make a living from this once hobby.

“From there, we continued to do more shows and do more research and travel all over West Virginia exhibiting and demonstrating at fairs and festivals,” Stan said.

Since then, the business has doubled almost every year. Now, they also act as charter members for Tamarack, belong to the Southern Highland Guild and offer public tours of their workshop and giftshop.

“We don’t have a private life anymore; the public drops in at all hours and all days. And before they leave, we absolutely love them. That’s the best part of our business – the people aspect,” Sue said. “And that makes it worth it.”

The Jennings continue to produce more than over 170 different types of utensils, selling about 45,000 to 50,000 per year.

“Coming up with new ideas is getting hard at this point,” Sue continued. “We have little ideas, but nothing major – like seasonal spoons. We look for inspiration in gourmet shops, magazines, chefs catalogs, antiques.”

Some of their personal favorite items are the smaller gadgets, including the “Yin-Yang with Spoon,” which Sue uses to stir up lime into her water. Many of these spoons are gathered in cups on the kitchen counter, while other spatulas hang from shelves on the wall. But orders for the Coffee Spoon are always at the top.

“It’s an $8 item that can fit in your pocket. Think of how many people in the world drink coffee; and it’s the perfect gift, especially as a stocking stuffer,” Sue said.

Susan Tichnell, 48, a former employee, owns a large amount of Sue and Stan’s work.

“It’s all remarkable and it’s personal. It’s amazing to see what comes from a piece of wood - from start to finish - from them,” Tichnell said.

Each piece that leaves the shop passes through their hands. “We’re in the actual making in every single piece. Each is shaped by one of us,” Stan said. “They’re traditional, and they’re all a little bit different. No two are computerized.”

The Jennings saw logs, then dry them for a year before use. From there, their 8-employee team marks patterns on the board and traces them, where flaws or knots are worked around. Then, the utensils-to-be are cut on the bandsaw, then they head off to a milling machine, which routes the cups out of the spoon. From there, hand gouges are used to clean out the bowl, make it round and symmetrical, and take out the tears. After some more shaping, trimming, sanding, and buffing, each piece receives a mark identifying which kind of wood and the year it was produced.

Eighty percent of the utensils are cherry, 10 percent are maple, and the rest of beech, birch, walnut, apple, dogwood, osage, and holly. Sue even made a decorative spoon out of poison ivy once.

“But I’d rather make a $10 spoon that they can use and have them come back to buy five more for their friends than sell one $50 decorative spoon,” Sue laughed.

The spoons are highly functional and can withstand abuse, which is why they’ve become such a popular seller. During the second half of the year, the Jennings are so busy, they and all their staff are working full time. But that’s the way they like it.

“If you break down your day, you gotta see how many days are you actually doing your craft? There’s a lot of other stuff that goes into it, and you have to try to keep a balance, but we’re fortunate to have employees, as well as each other,” Sue said.

“Stan is the one with the work ethic, and he passed that to me. He’s great at juggling all the people and delegating. He can keep all these plates spinning,” Sue said. “I have the drive. I love a challenge – like getting into better shows and getting better at self-promotion.

Stan echoed his wife’s sentiment, “Stuff that’s too hard for me to do, it’s easy for Sue.”

But one thing’s for sure. They couldn’t do it without each other.

“It’s kind of a love story. We laugh all the time. I’m so damn lucky,” Sue said. “We’re both pretty lucky, getting to enjoy life and my wife. We complement each other pretty good, I think,” Stan said.

For more information, visit http://alleghenytreenware.com/.