STOVES, A SORT OF LIVING

I feel slightly guilty, as though while writing about other things that interest me I’ve been neglecting my job. After all, making stoves has given me a sort of living for most of my life, so here goes, a short history:

I came to Scotland in 1982 with my young family, Veronica and the kids, Clare and William. I was a casualty of Mrs Thatcher’s first recession. Working as a welder, like most jobs in those days was not too secure, and a foreman told me once too often how lucky I was to have a job at all, despite that the downturn meant no bonus, which had until then supplied a third of our wage.  So we arrived in Scotland, and I made a stove, to warm us in a second hand caravan that we lived in for the three years while doing up a couple of old mill cottages near the town of Annan. And I made a few for folk who asked for them.

One thing led to another, and, after a three year break to study Art at Newcastle University, turned what had been a part time job into a wee business, which I still operate 35 years later … hence Dowling Stoves.

So, the stoves themselves:

THE BOX:  I made a few of these, based on the Jotul no.6 woodburner, then turned them round, copying what is still made by most manufacturers:

THE GRAND: front facing, nice big door for loading door, with internal baffle. But because I was only making wood burners to begin with, and not glazing the doors, I messed around with the shape a bit, till I ended up with:

THE AZTEC:  … still just a woodburner, with a solid door … bottom hinged, and the oldest design we still offer. The front and sides are cut right back, and the name is taken from the shape of the Aztec temples (much featured at the time, during the World Cup in Mexico)

one or two other models intervened, depending on what Johnny Walker had in his Annan scrapyard: the GRUNTER, based on 12” tube, the STONKER (16” cubed steel) among others.  And I experimented with a few multi-fuel versions of the Aztec, until coming up with:

THE SUMO …  Remember when they used to show Sumo wrestling on the telly? Well, we made one that looked similar (at least to me); all the angles at 45 degrees, glazed the door, and cut the base back to a reasonable grate size, including what we called the ‘jaw grate’ …. still make this one, and have been doing since about 1992

We moved the work shop down to Bladnoch in 1994, where we still work. Various other models followed: the Firebug (first attempt to simplify the shape), the Hybrid (between the Firebug and Sumo), probably our best seller over the years. Also, the Zigzag, the Devil, the Anvil (a sort of stretched out Devil), the Face, the Elk … och, loads! Rocket stoves, downburners… cutting and welding steel, and working on a small scale…. one man  makes a stove from start to finish … makes for great R&D. I’ve had good men working here over the years, with good fabrication skills.

So we always strive for simplicity, for function and speed to build … about 3 or 4,000 units so far.  We can make a new model in a week; test them out thoroughly on site and in the flat above the showroom … at present trying for greater efficiency, to get a model ‘design ready’ for 2022. We do a lot of one-offs: boiler versions, two siders, incinerators, with ovens … design for a tyre burner also underway at present … I  feel a drawing coming on!

ABOUT …

As with the other essays, I’ll not pass up the chance to muse, this time on what the wee business means to me. Since I’ve been doing them since 1982 – most of my working life – I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe the pro’s and cons of running a small business. Plenty of folk doing that, but not so many people making stuff these days, certainly not that compete directly with mass production. So I’ll talk a bit about this.

PROS

Although it’s not often we have more than a month’s work ahead of us (which can make for a bit of a hairy ride), we pride ourselves on being able to get a new stove made and fitted as fast as most retailers can supply from their stock. …. 3 to 4 weeks turn around, most times of the year; might stretch to 5 or 6 in the autumn/winter months. Ok, so it’s slightly more expensive than if we were cracking out a 100 stoves. a week, but we save in other ways: The only tools we really need are grinders for finishing, oxy-propane for cutting out, and MIG welders to put them together. And skill!

Low overheads, especially on the sales front. We can’t afford to sell through retailers. We’ve tried, but there’s not really enough ‘fat’ – or profit – to be of use to other outlets. How many car showrooms, even now, and in this country, do you see compared to factories? You, the end customer are paying for every well dressed suit and showroom it takes to sell a car or a washing machine. Even in-house sales: we rely mainly on word of mouth, or those of adventurous spirit who might find us on the internet.

Aye, t’internet; it’s paradoxical that such a modern tool should assist an old way of working, but I’m sure there’s plenty of other small businesses that find the same, especially with modern logistics. It costs about £100 per stove to send anywhere in the UK; about £150 to Europe (so far!), and only £300 to ship worldwide (and that’s for a pallet load, up to 6 stoves, carefully packed) … shipping’s cheap!

Another aspect of low overheads: how the stoves are actually made. We can’t afford robots or even CNC machines (and their maintenance) … tried CNC … didn’t last much beyond the first breakdown. I’m sure its probably something we should look at, if volume demands. But it doesn’t, and it means …

We can offer a bespoke service; this is where we (and the customer) gains. It also makes for direct customer feedback. We fit maybe half the stoves we sell, so have developed over the years a good idea of how each stove operates. And, as I’ve said, this makes for excellent R&D. We’re making a stove to last a long time … we get a lot of repeat custom over the years; folk move house more often than a stove lasts. So no ‘built-in obsolescence’ … no need for it, especially as we depend a lot on reputation.

Job satisfaction. Harder to quantify, because this is something that doesn’t show up in the accounts. Even now, as retirement approaches, I probably do half of what I used to (hence the time to write essays and do other stuff I enjoy).  Ok, so I don’t have a fancy car or house, but I still own what I need.

CONS

not having enough profit for a fancy car or house! … might not suit everyone, but I’d still recommend it.

Working for your self means lots of bosses; a bit illusory that you don’t have any boss … each customer becomes your boss. Ask any tradesman. Over the years I worked out  a ratio of about 50:1 good over bad… and quite a few of those I’d have to blame myself for. But even on a small scale (which we are), making 100 stoves a year = 2 awkward customers a year. It does mean a lot of my time is dealing with problems. The way I look at it is, the rough with the smooth; if you’re working for yourself you’re solving problems all the time .. whether it’s keeping folk warm or whatever. Always problems: either work in (orders, sales) or work out (how you make them, so includes personnel, cashflow, getting product right for the market). Work in is generally the harder part, because its something you have less control over … for example, I went bust just after the big depression of 2008 … thought it wouldn’t affect me; had about 10 men on at the time, and started banking with the taxman to keep them on. Who understandably eventually lost patience! … then a bit of a hiccup when I had to go for a triple by-pass. … Work out: shows up my personal failings; I know the business could do better, and its down to me that it doesn’t; too easily distracted!

… So doesn’t suit everyone. I’d like to pass the business on, but it has perhaps become too dependent on myself. A friend, David Canham (since passed on, having moved back to Australia) once said ‘the problem with yer business Steve, it’s all in yer head … got to get it down on paper mate!’ … which he then helped me to do. Since then, I’ve become dependent on others, currently Lou Martin, who does most of the paperwork for me.

So currently, work force is just Lou part time, two full time fabricators, two part time fitters and ancillary, plus self… about as small as  a business can get! … maybe a wee bit bigger, for comfort.

To be honest, if orders suddenly trebled, or by a factor of ten, I’d find a way. But why?

Small business: aye, the fortunes of said business have a direct bearing on yourself. If successful, there’s no better feeling; if in difficulty, you take it personally. We all prefer to be liked. There’s nowt like being ignored by customers to dent one’s self esteem! … reminds me, it’s about time for a visit to a friends’ house; they might need a stove. Hoveh!