back to index

Charles and Anne Gee live in Masset. They produce bent wood boxes, art magnets, and other small handmade wood products from red alder. Charles started out in the box business with Kun Kyungaas (Agnes Adams) of Old Massett, together they formed the Old Massett Box Works. Agnes died in 1994. Since that time Charles has remarried and is continuing to pursue the original idea of producing carefully made products from local wood.

Charles and Anne practice a simple way of making a living­p;they take a small volume of alder wood, mill it into planks, dry it, and produce fine decorated products for sale.

The interview that follows was conducted in the living room of Charles & Anne Gee.



design / Leon Ridley

SpruceRoots
What inspired you to start this type of business, the bent wood boxes and the variety of other wood products that you produce?
Charles Gee
I grew up in a wooded part of England and there was work being done with green wood. We had osiers (a species of willow) being made into baskets and coppices (areas set aside for periodic cutting) were being used for making hurdles. All sorts of things were being made out of green wood and as a kid I was inevitably curious. I was always watching what was going on. There were still old ways being practiced. I was always fascinated with wood and the uses of wood.
I got away from working with wood until I came to the Islands. I spent a number of years in the janitorial business, making a living and feeding a family. When I had time on my hands, I started to look around. I knew that I had to make a living for myself. I thought, I've got a few more years left, I might as well do something that is interesting at least, enough to get by, that will do. It started with the idea of doing Norwegian style boxes.
Agnes was really keen on economic development in the village of Massett. She thought that was incredibly important. I adapted the bent wood box idea and that was how it started. The box took a lot of development and it still hasn't totally succeeded, but it is a product that has some promise. When I developed red cedar asthma, I had to look for another wood to use that was not as allergenic as cedar and I settled on red alder. Now almost everything we make is out of red alder. Literally we do everything now from taking the tree out of the woods to retail. It stays in our hands.

SR
How do you process the alder and what type of equipment do you use?
CG
I've got a small powersaw to take the tree down, then I remove the bar and the body fits on to a tiny bandsaw mill. With the band-saw I mill the log into planks.
At home I bought a Sears dehumidifier and set up a dehumidifier kiln, we are using one room in the house for this. It's not fast but I only process two thousand board feet a year so if it takes a month to dry a board, it takes a month to dry a board. We dry enough wood to keep us three or four months ahead and then we go out and take down some more trees and keep the process rolling.

design / Vernon Williams
SR
In terms of utilizing the tree, I see some of your products use branches.
CG
Yes, if they are a suitable size and shape. We expect and want to be able to use the whole tree. All of the off-cuts go in the wood stove for heat. All of the logs that are too small to mill get bucked up for firewood. The sawdust and the shavings are being saved to go into the garden and the small stuff at the top of the tree goes in to making the line of magnets. It is total utilization. It's like the old people­p;use everything but the squeak.

SR
You say that you use only about two thousand board feet a year?
CG
Maximum.
SR
How have you been getting wood? I understand you have an agreement with the Department of National Defense.
CG
Up until this point, I've been finding it. The BC Forest Service has not got any way to figure out how to let a person get a few cords of wood a year.
SR
That's a familiar story on the Islands.
CG
I have been called the midnight logger around here. In order to try and be a little more legal, I have been able to arrange with the Canada Forest Service, for a hundred cubic metres of wood a year for a modest fee.

SR
That is for alder?
CG
Yes, I go into an area where the conifers are trying to work their way through the alder, I drop the alder that is the right size for me and the conifers can take off. I'm happy, they're happy, everybody is happy.

SR
How much work do you have from the wood you acquired with this arrangement?
CG
If I was to turn a hundred cubic metres into planks, it works out to about twenty thousand board feet. It's about ten years worth of wood. I probably take about ten or twelve cubic metres out a year and keep on renewing the permit and taking the wood out until I make the wooden box to put me in. That will be about the last thing I will do.

SR
When you take the wood and mill it and produce a box, you are employing yourself, are there other people that you employ?
CG
We provide full-time work for Anne and myself and on top of that we probably create the equivalent of another couple of positions in the stores around here.

design / Ron Russ
SR
What is your relationship with the artists. Do you contract out the artwork? (The bent wood boxes and magnets are decorated with Haida artwork and others with work by Anne Gee.)
Anne Gee
We have purchased designs and reproduction rights from Ron Russ, Vernon Williams, Leon Ridley and George Ridley. Under no circumstances will we use a design we have not bought. We turn over to the artists 5% of our production of their designs at the close of our financial year, somewhat analogous to a royalty. The designs as we often receive them are pencil drawings suitable for a carving project. I have to translate the design into another medium.
We take the drawing and develop it for a silkscreen design. That's my job. I do a lot of scrupulous pen and ink work so I can send the finished drawings to Vancouver for the cutting of the screen. In the case of the nature designs, I make the original drawings and then make an ink drawing.
SR
So, artists like Leon Ridley will provide you with a pattern and then you work the pattern with him into a final design?
AG
This is the original drawing of Raven. We make photocopies and study the details and in this case work to make the form lines a little more flowing. Here is a frog that Leon drew. We worked up the distinguishing characteristics, the eyes, the ribs and the webbed feet and when it is finished the design is approved by the artist.
It is quite an undertaking. Even a design that is almost perfectly ready, like Ron's wolf I have to work hard and carefully on it, mostly to keep it as it was except for making very subtle changes in the thickness of lines and spaces so that they would print small with a silkscreen.

Charles & Anne Gee
SR
When you are printing what sort of run do you print?
AG
Charles can do fifty boxes which is 200 impressions. I prefer smaller runs, although I am getting better and more confident . I have had trouble with my ink drying but it gets easier all the time. It depends on the day and the temperature.
When we print here, we have a humidifier right on the table, right over the screen because we print with water soluble ink. We don't use any solvent so humidity is really important. We have developed a technique of wiping and even washing the screen while printing.
CG
We had some problems when we started out. Nobody told us anything except "It's not going to work." I remember the first box I did when I was in Old Massett. We printed a raven design and everything was right as far as I could see and I lifted the screen and had the ink literally dripping off. I almost cried. By that time we had put two or three thousand dollars into the process, I thought, "Oh, oh." In the end I will not admit to how many boxes I wrecked, I got the hang of printing, it seems like it is a matter of touch and ink consistency.

SR
How is business today? How are the products being received?
CG
Like any real business, it takes a lot of time to catch on. We have to be able to produce sufficient quantities. It has certainly caught on here on the Islands and we are making some sort of living out of it, not a good living as yet.
When I started the janitorial business, the first three or four years, we were buying machinery and everything else. It was a tough haul but then you have got all the equipment. We have got all of our designs. The product is working and I think this year and next year we should be able to see clearly. I think that this year we will probably just about break even.

SR
How do you go about marketing? You've got a store- front now but before that you were selling out of your car trunk.
CG
We do a lot of consignment on the Islands and we have products in most galleries and stores around here. We did one promo show in Vancouver and from that a few galleries that have been buying since.
We are working on the possibility of getting in to gift shops off-island. I am intending to go down to the fall gift show in Vancouver this year. The last time we did the gift show, we pulled in 14-15 thousand dollars worth of orders. That keeps you going through the winter.
It is better to sell retail than it is to sell wholesale. The more we sell through our own store the better. We just bought a van which I intend to set up as a mobile sales unit. I will have a couple of displays that hang over the back door and a table top with tarp over it all. We are thinking of setting up in parking lot at the ferry landing in Skidegate. Everyone is waiting. They are there for an hour and a half sometimes two hours. Then of course there are the craft fairs, the Tlell Fall Fair, and the Festival of the Arts.

SR
How long have you had the store-front down in the area of the Masset harbour front area?
AG
About ten days. I have stage fright. I have worked in a store before and I found it hard going. With our own store there are fewer drawbacks and all of the advantages, and sure enough I am enjoying it very much now that I am in charge.
We are in the process of building our own house and we were going to put a retail store in the front of the house but with the realities of production and everything else, we just haven't got that far ahead this year. We wanted to have it open this year. We were thinking that we have got to get a store-front this year and we suddenly remembered that Jenny Nelson had a place and I called her and asked if she was going to open up this year. She said no but had decided to rent it. The universe does marvellous things.

SR
What about off-island markets? I understand you went out to Vanderhoof for a trade show?
CG
It was Vanderhoofs' first year and it was not entirely satisfactory as far as we were concerned. It was more of an exhibition than a sale so we didn't make as many sales as we would have liked to and they didn't bring in the wholesale buyers that we had hoped would be there. But as far as comparing our product with others on the market, we still hold a unique niche that nobody else does.
Our prices are in line, in fact well under what others charge. Pricing is a fascinating business. We got all the catalogues that were offering handmade products and discovered they were mostly made offshore. We were able to look at the prices and figure the mark-ups. We decided to come in just under the offshore prices.
We continue to revise designs in order to reduce material costs, and even more importantly reduce labour costs. We have found we can produce a handmade item and make a reasonable living. We are not going to get rich at it but then we don't intend to.
If you take the retail price of a gift type item and divide by 2 then that's the wholesale price. To illustrate that an item that retails for $10 is wholesaled for $5, but there are costs of selling, and all sorts of overhead so the cost to produce that item must not exceed $2.50 for materials and labour. Thus the task is to give the customers good value for money and cut costs to the bone. That is the reason that we are trying out our own retail outlet because there are some items that we cannot charge the full cost of production to and still provide perceived value. It is possible but you have to work like crazy to do it.

SR
In your letter to SpruceRoots you mentioned being a runesmith and also a philosophy of sustainable forest practices are these ideas connected?
CG
The runes were a basic form of script, a written communication developed in northern Europe, which didn't have papyrus or paper or pen but they had wood and the knife. The rune are incised into a wood surface with a pointed knife and the runesmith is inevitably deeply associated with wood and trees. The central idea with the runesmith is the dragon and the tree of life. I love the forest and I hate what is being done to it. It is insatiable commercial greed to cut everything down.
If I am going to take a tree out, it is because it needs to come out or makes space for other trees to grow, or it has reached the end of its life and it is time that it came down. If we need to use them we should use them in a way that is respectful of the tree and of our needs. We shouldn't just ship them out by the 2 million cubic meters on the barge. There is no reverence for the tree. That to my mind is something that our society lacks. We have to look after what we have got. We can no longer mine the prairies and mine the forests, we have got to farm the prairies and farm the forests. We can do it but we have to lose a little bit of arrogance and gain a little bit of respect of natural systems that we are privileged to be part of.
back to index