“I lost a bet,” Jud Dinsmore quipped when asked how he came to open The Southside Woodshop in Portsmouth, which specializes in custom solid wood countertops, butcher blocks, bar tops and tabletops. The truth is there was some winning and losing involved.
In 2002, after a year in Denver “just for fun” and three years as the director of the intramural sports department at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Dinsmore moved back to the area and into custom home building with his parents. “It was great until 2007 and then it wasn’t.”
Having run trim for all the homes the company built, both custom and spec—adding details to the latter to give them a more custom feel—Dinsmore felt proficient in fine carpentry. The last home he and his parents built featured a wood top in the kitchen. The quote they received to do the work suggested that wood countertops, bar tops and islands might prove to be a cash cow.
Armed with a marketing degree from William & Mary, carpentry skills, and a savings account, Dinsmore launched. For the first two years, his was a solo operation, and for about five, he took any project that walked in the door. Now, though the vast majority of the small company’s business is custom wood tops for a national market, the rest includes projects that are interesting in terms of personal challenges and skill-enhancing opportunities.
With most of their business out of the area, Southside works through kitchen and bath dealers by partnering with independent sales reps. “We mutually seek each other out,” says Dinsmore, as wood tops naturally piggyback on factory cabinetry.
Today, six employees do the lion’s share of the physical building. “It’s in no one’s best interest for me to be milling wood,” laughs Dinsmore who concentrates his efforts on sales, marketing, quotes, and coordinating the efforts of the reps. The bulk of the business is residential and affords Dinsmore’s company direct input in design only about 20% of the time. The rest of the time, designers and homeowners work together using the likes of samples and Pinterest boards.
Tops constructed from walnut are by far the top seller, as it is a dark “chocolate brown” wood that sets off light cabinetry well. Only a small percentage of Southside’s projects involve staining, as homeowners select their species based on the natural color of the wood. And there are some 19 other wood species to choose from along with a range of thicknesses and finishes; a trio of construction styles: plan, edge grain, and ingrain or true butcher block construction; and more than 20 stock edges. Though most people choose a 1/8” or 1/4” roundover edge, Southside can do a simulated live edge with any species or construction style.
These wood tops are almost always warm, organic focal points in kitchens, as perimeter counters are usually made of stone or quartz. “Rock is harder than tree and always will be,” notes Dinsmore, but his tops are highly durable. About 70% of customers choose a spray applied acrylic urethane that performs similarly to car paint. Scratch resistant and requiring no maintenance, homeowners can expect this finish to last for 20 years before anything needs to be done. Food safe mineral oil, chosen by the other 30%, does stain and must be reapplied every month or so. But, unlike the acrylic urethane, it is easy to repair.
A two- to three-week turnaround time will get you all this plus juice grooves, borders, inlays, knife blocks, waste cut-outs, drain slots and, of course, cut-outs for sinks and appliances. “We build a lot of rectangles,” says Dinsmore, “but it is the other stuff that gets our toes tapping and is more exciting to build.”
And just whose toes are doing that tapping? “Anyone who comes to me, I try to hire,” asserts Dinsmore, adding, “There’s not a ton of interest in working with your hands these days…it’s not a glamorous wage for anyone, myself included.” Acknowledging that every generation has lamented that “you can’t get good help these days,” he describes hiring as “interesting,” noting that most people who seek out Southside have limited work experience. But that is OK, as he almost prefers to hire the inexperienced due to the unique nature of the product.
Business is robust—Dinsmore’s secret to the work-life balance is to “cheat his family”—but if the team gets a moment, they might get into some other complementary products. As with many businesses of all sizes, time is the biggest issue. “I know I am lying to myself when I say ‘If I just work on Saturday, then life will be back to normal.’”
So, for now, Southside will continue making wood tops, 24/7.
Learn more about The Southside Woodshop at CustomWoodCountertops.com or on social media @southside.woodshop.