A Former Art Teacher Starts a New Life Building Furniture
A twist in fortune prompted this maker to create the quality furniture company of her dreams.
Erin True needed a job. She had recently moved from Detroit to Chicago with her husband, Jason, and was striking out on finding a position as an art teacher. Fortunately, this down-on-her-luck moment led Erin to discover her real passion and start an unlikely business: Urban Wood Goods. Though she was an inexperienced woodworker at the time (and didn’t even own a table saw), she was dedicated to learning about her newfound love for reclaimed wood and all its possibilities. Now, Erin’s hard work has paid off in spades—she’s a successful entrepreneur who’s managed to carve out her own niche in the custom furniture market.
Today, Urban Wood Goods employs a host of dedicated makers and fulfills orders throughout the country, for corporate clients and homeowners alike. We spoke with Erin to learn a bit more about her story.
How did you make the transition from art teacher to full-time maker?
I moved from the Detroit area to the Chicago area. I was trying to find a teaching job, though in my heart I had hoped to start my own business—after all, I was already using my idea for a bench and Etsy shop as part of my portfolio in an attempt to land an art teaching job. When I didn’t get the job I thought I would get, I decided to pursue my reclaimed wood furniture experiment on Etsy.
After a few sales, I started to think I could maybe make a real business out of Urban Wood Goods. Thankfully, I had the support of my husband, who finally kicked me out of the garage and told me to find a new workshop—after I took a Shop-Vac to the sawdust-covered walls of our garage.
What was your background in woodworking when you got started?
Funny enough, I didn’t have a woodworking background. I took one class in high school, and that was it. The only thing I remember making was a CD rack. I didn’t even own a saw when I started selling benches online! I once had to take the slab of wood I purchased to a local home improvement store and convince them to cut it down from five feet to four feet long to fill an order.
Being new to woodworking, have you found any surprises along the way?
I have learned that reclaimed lumber has a mind of its own. Nails, warping, and movement common to dimensional lumber all make it a material that takes some adjustment when working with it. We have managed to figure it out and make beautiful furniture with the help of our kiln, state-of-the-art woodworking equipment, and a team of individuals who care about every table and desk they create.
Do you have a favorite tool?
My favorite tools are our JLT clamp racks. They allow us to get better glue-ups on all our pieces. Our lumber kiln is also very important. Having perfectly dried lumber is a beautiful thing. We used to have some warping when the moisture content wasn’t exactly correct; with this kiln, it’s no longer a problem.
What is your favorite thing about reclaimed wood?
My favorite thing is its history and character. I love seeing the wood still in a structure that is standing and then again the next week in our shop being turned into furniture. It’s nice to give it a second life—or third life, you could say.
What kind of response has your work received?
It was a surprise when large companies had us building furniture for them! A few notable ones include HGTV, Google, Kraft, Ralph Lauren, and Lululemon.
What is your favorite piece?
The first bench I made was my all-time favorite. I loved that bench, and it was also the first one I sold. It had amazing character. It was perfectly weathered; I hardly had to sand it. Part of me wishes I could get it back, but Urban Wood Goods wouldn’t exist today if I hadn’t sold it.
What is the most challenging part of what you do?
It changes from year to year. There are many challenges that come with operating a small business. We recently discovered there is a business selling plastic wood furniture on Craigslist using our trademarked logo and warehouse address. That was pretty shocking—we don’t sell on Craigslist and never have. But we tackle the obstacles one at a time. It’s much easier to approach things that way, and we don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.
Find out more and shop the online store at Urban Wood Goods.