Saunders Mill looks to the future
The Saunders Brothers wood products mill in Locke’s Mills, which has been undergoing renovations since July, is expected to resume production by March at the latest, according to owner Louise Jonaitis.
Jonaitis, who has a background in social work, bought the mill three years ago at auction. She also bought furniture components, machines and the intellectual property of Moosehead Furniture of Monson.
Jonaitis wanted to help resurrect the ailing wood products business in Maine.
Saunders reopened at that time with a focus on making rolling pins (with a 21-foot one on display outside the mill) and on assembling Moosehead furniture components previously manufactured in Monson.
"We have used this assembly work as training grounds for future production of our own designs," she said last week.
The mill has most recently employed 15 people.
Early this year problems with the old boiler that heated the Locke's Mills mill initially prompted a temporary shutdown for repairs.
But, said Jonaitis, she then took a step that she describes as “the brainchild of a dilemma and an adjacent opportunity,” the dilemma being the boiler troubles.
She established a new parent company for her wood-related businesses and called it “Skyzwood.”
In June she bought the furniture designs, some machines and the intellectual property of the Vermont Tubbs furniture company of Whitefield, N.H. at an auction.
That company had been eligible for a $ 1.2 million federal grant from a program designed to aid furniture manufacturers. With the purchase, said Jonaitis, she could apply for it.
That is in the works as Jonaitis is moving forward with retooling Saunders to handle the entire Moosehead furniture production process.
Equipment from Tubbs is also being moved to Locke’s Mills.
While the renovations take place, the mill's production is being subcontracted to other mills, Jonaitis said.
With the changeover here the Moosehead line of furniture will be redesigned in different styles and, instead of hardwood, the pieces will be made of pine, Jonaitis said.
She said there had been strong competition from other businesses to obtain hardwood, and pine will be more readily available.
“The new design and process will be better,” she said. “People will embrace it because it’s pine. It’s all in the design.’
She plans to name different Moosehead collections “after places in Maine that I like,” she said.
An example of an expected mill specialty is foyer furniture, “what people see when they first come into a house,” said Jonaitis.
She said customers will be able to choose a finish to match their existing furniture.
The furniture will be sold to selected retailers in New England.
“We want to be craftsmen,” she said.
In keeping with that, she is working with the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America and other consultants to adopt standards and a manual of skill levels for the Saunders furniture makers.
Going away is the rolling pin production.
“I sold the rolling pin business to Maine Wood Turning in New Vineyard,” she said, because the company is better-equipped for such production.
But production of other hardwood items will continue, particularly the dowels used by other companies to make wooden products.
Jonaitis said while cheaper dowels are produced by China, she has received feedback from companies that there have been quality issues.
“We’ll compete with quality,” she said.
Overall production from the mill will be about 60 percent furniture and 40 percent dowels, she said.
Jonaitis said she is also working to make the mill more energy-efficient. The old boiler is being replaced with a modern wood one, and production will be consolidated into a smaller area in the mill to save on heating.
She said her overall mission "was and is to preserve assets that will now or in the future serve the manufacturing industry."
And the long-term goal of Skyzwood, she said, is to "ride out the recession, position for a flutter of pent-up demand in the wood products industry, and stay true to the original mission which is: Progress is preservation; Preservation is progress; Both require change.”