September 30, 2018
In my perfect kitchen I would have all wood utensils. There is something organic and sensual using tools that come from Mother Nature. When shaped by a human artisan to mold into the hand and provide for more optimal cooking, the experience of preparing food becomes pleasurable.
In Red Lodge, Montana, Brad Bernhart of Earlywood Designs makes kitchen implements including spreaders, serving spoons, flat sautees, cutting boards and rolling pins for kitchen work and play. He makes his creations out of four types of hardwood: jatoba, maple, bloodwood and Mexican ebony.
“We have to use these woods because to get the quality we want we must use the best woods we can,” Bernhart shared. The maple comes from northeastern United States while the ebony is from Mexico. Bernhart’s choices of wood originated from his desire for a palette of four colors: black, red, brown and something light. He then examined other characteristics such as strength, hardness, toxicity and oil content.
The ebony is Bernhart’s favorite wood to work with because he said, “It’s the hardest. It’s the darkest. It’s the toughest.” While his ebony comes from Mexico, most originate out of Africa. Securing wood from Mexico meant it was available on the same continent as Red Lodge and did not have to travel the extra distance by boat. To insure sustainability, the wood is grown on a plantation with planned harvesting and replanting. Bernhart contributes $1 of every product sold to The Nature Conservancy. By the end of this year, he estimates they have contributed over $10,000 over the years.
Weather affects the growth of a tree. During the season when water and sunshine are abundant, wood takes on a lighter color with more porosity and thinness described as earlywood. Then as temperatures and moisture decrease, the wood develops a darker, denser and more thick-walled character identified as latewood. The tree derives strength during latewood while receiving its nutrients and water during earlywood. Bernhart named the business in the spirit of growth and renewal.
After receiving a degree from Montana State University Bozeman, Bernhart went to work for a foundry in Portland, Oregon for 8 years. During the later years, he was coming up with designs for the eventual opening of Earlywood Designs. “I figured since I couldn’t quit that job and go full time on this without a website, without any products, without any sales I would take my evenings and make my spoons and work on these designs over and over again.”
Bernhart confessed that he always loved going into people’s kitchen to examine their collection of spoons. He hunted, “I was always looking of that old wood spoon, like that 50 year old that got handed down from your grandma or came from a different country from someone’s grandma in that country.” “There’s so much history there,” he added. “Sometimes you can even see where a hand had worn the utensil away. I just always love that.” He aspires to create something that could be passed on from one generation to the next.
Bernhart drew pictures of the spoons he saw, intrigued mostly with the spoons from other countries because of their uniqueness. He filled notebooks with pictures. “ I was an engineer before I started this business and probably took a solid two years just working on designs because I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer my whole life.”
Earlywood Designs began as an online business and these days with the only retail outlet at Kibler and Kirch, an interior design store and studio in downtown Red Lodge. Otherwise, he sells online through his own website and the on Milk Street website.
Milk Street is Christopher Kimball’s website where all cooks can get good information on all things food, including recipes, videos and cooking equipment and tools. Kimball is the cooking guru guy with the bowtie, once at America’s Test Kitchen home of Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines, who now actually operates his own cooking school, and tapes his radio show and television show on Milk Street in downtown Boston.
When Kimball was opening their online store, they contacted Bernhart. Desiring to offer a rolling pin to their customers, Milk Street worked with Earlywood Designs to optimize Bernhart’s French rolling pin. Bernhart now sells a tapered 20-inch long, 1 ½-inch in diameter rolling pin made in three different wood options: jatoba, hard maple and jatoba-ebony-maple woods. The rolling pin is lightweight and easy to handle. Bernhart also sells his mini cutting boards and his Trifecta consisting of a spreader and two different sized scrapers through Milk Street.
Earlywood manufactures and packages its products in a 3200 square foot shop adjacent to the Red Lodge airport, overlooking the town. On the Earlywood Designs’ website, Bernhart provides a romantic and picturesque description of being located at the base of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Red Lodge was a homecoming for Bernhart and his wife. He grew up in Billings and she on a ranch outside Fox.
From Earlywood’s modest beginnings in a 10-foot by 8-foot work shed, the business now fills a space almost 40 times larger. With environment control, the wood maintains its integrity so most of the wood can be used in creating product. At 42 percent humidity, less of the wood splits and deforms so there is less waste. “Everything comes from a rough piece of wood and we just take a big piece of wood and make it smaller at every step of the way.”
Basically the wood is cut from the large pieces. A jig is used for guidance of cutting out consistent pieces. For the contours, machine sanders are used. While a drum sander smooths larger surfaces, a flap sander completes the final finishing. Then the products go into an enclosed room, away from noise and wood dust. Here the utensils are soaked in a mineral oil and then drained before packaging. In this room, all the materials for transporting items to customers are available.
For product bookkeeping Bernhart uses the Kanban system for reordering or replenishing stock. It is a system that provides for restocking only when needed components are low. This lean manufacturing system use the Kanban as a technique to keep inventory levels as low as possible. High levels of inventory tie up company funds and occupy warehouse space.
Bernhart keeps his products in plastic boxes with lids. When items are low, they go into a file box. When workers come in, they pick up a card and proceed to making that specific item. This way Bernhart does not have to constantly be telling people what they need to do and he knows that popular items are being replenished.
So what’s in the future for Earlywood? Bernhart wants to bring his flat spatulas together to make tongs. He is also thinking about creating long cooking chopsticks. “My hope for the tools is that the person who buys them will give them to their grandkids and then grandkids will give them to their grandkids so it will really be a family heirloom.”
My good friend, baker and cookbook author Greg Patent cherishes a rolling pin gifted to him by his son. This James Beard Award winning writer of Baking in America received a rolling pin purchased at a Cambridge art fair from his son David many years ago. “It’s 19 ½-inches long and 2-inches wide and when you look at the ends you’ll just see there’s layers of green and red colored wood and it’s just beautiful. It’s quite heavy and I use it for everything,” Patent said.
In working with rolling pins, his suggestion was “I want something that’s going to do what I want it to do as opposed to it having a mind of its own.
Patent’s other rolling pin is a French Tutove, named for the company that manufactures them. The pin is cannellated or has grooves that run lengthwise and facilitates the layering and incorporation of butter into pastries. Patent’s 15 1/5 inch rolling pin has black handles, “It rolls the butter and dough together so that you get a perfect merging of the dough and the butter.” He continued, “This Tutove, which is absolutely ideal for puff pastry and that would include croissants as well.”
I hope to continue to bring wood utensils into my kitchen to begin a legacy while holding on to and using the wood implements my father used to bring deliciousness and joy to our family meals when I was growing up.