Woodshanti Cooperative

Small Business Awards 2007: Cooperative Award

Woodshanti Cooperative

By Amanda Witherell

Down near the dead end of Palou Avenue, beside the old Hunters Point Shipyard, whose claim to infamy is being the city’s sole Superfund site still rife with toxic waste and radioactive material, there’s a woodworking shop that goes against the grain.

Woodshanti, a worker-owned cooperative of custom-furniture builders, strives to be as peaceful as its Hindi-inspired name suggests – “not a negative but a positive part of the ecology,” cofounder Shawn Berry says. He and Tom Clossey took over the shop in 1997, when it was still run-of-the-sawmill, and transformed it into an expression of their core values: responsibility, trust, and fun. That last one is underscored by the Ping-Pong table in the break room and a print from Where the Wild Things Are hanging behind Berry’s desk.

As members of a cooperative, Berry, Clossey, and their four co-owners – Todd Rowan, Laura King, Dave Dupuis, and Zac Rose – are directly vested in the business, divide profits based on hours worked, and carry equal amounts of responsibility. Becoming an owner requires at least a three-year commitment and an ability to mesh with the group culture.

Environmentalism and sustainability are the key values of this business, making it a rarity in an industry that depends on cutting down trees. Unlike most wood shops, Woodshanti has a thumbs-up from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a certification in the building trade similar to organic certification in the world of agriculture. Requirements are strict, and the shop is regularly inspected to ensure that the entire chain of custody – from the forest to the sawmill to the lumberyard – adheres to specific standards regarding how and where the trees are sawed. Wood must be responsibly harvested or “rediscovered,” meaning it’s salvaged from windfalls, forest fires, or construction sites.

“We wound up doing it because there wasn’t a lot of credibility when we just asked lumberyards if the wood was responsibly harvested,” Berry says. Though he believes that the field needs more improvements and the FSC certification isn’t perfect, it’s still above and beyond the conventional foresting industry, as there aren’t any restrictions on clear-cutting, mono-cropping, and using pesticides on privately owned land.

Health is also a part of the wealth of the work and workers. “This is by far the best-smelling finishing room you’ll ever be in,” Berry says of the partitioned-off area where tables, bookcases, cabinets, and chairs await their departure. “This is what really sets us apart.”

Most woodworkers use a petrochemical base for their finish, a fluid that dries into a slick, impermeable coat and feels more like plastic than wood. Woodshanti uses a linseed-oil-based blend of natural turpentine, rubbed into the wood by hand and designed to penetrate and protect in the way that moisturizer does dry skin. These finishes deepen, rather than stain, the arboreal hues and require additional applications over time. “We’re really up front with the customers,” Berry says of the process. “If you’re not into it, there’s a shop around the corner that will do the standard finish.”

They’re also forthcoming about their prices. As with most custom work, their products aren’t for the lighter purse. A basic furniture piece clocks in around $2,000; a kitchen on the cheap runs $30,000 and as much as $60,000 for more challenging joinery or costlier wood.

“Our clientele is more or less wealthy,” Berry concedes. The co-op’s monetary success, in turn, allows for occasional generous donations of custom furniture to worthy causes and helps the co-op promote and foster its ideals for community outreach through such outlets as the Urban Alliance for Sustainability, an organization founded by Berry that is a clearinghouse of information for the sustainability-driven citizen and raises awareness of locally made goods and services. “What’s important is not to be individually self-sustaining,” Berry says, “but to be part of a community that is.”

Originally published April 25, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian