MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — When Tim Hatlestad began woodworking, he was the same age as the third-grade students he teaches at Bridges Community School in North Mankato.
His first project was assembling a birdhouse kit. Now he makes entire furniture sets. A lesson that he often tells his students is this: If you want to get better at something, start small and work your way up.
Every Saturday morning, he loads up a trailer full of handcrafted furniture and heads to the Mankato Farmers’ Market. Over the past 15 years, his woodworking has blossomed into a lucrative side business, initially to help fund his children’s college education.
“A lot of times when I’m talking to people, they go, ‘I could never do that,’” Hatlestad told the Mankato Free Press. “And I tell them there was a time when I couldn’t do it either. I’ve made lots of firewood over the years trying to learn how to do this.”
After making that initial birdhouse, Hatlestad took woodworking classes in high school, building benches and storage chests. But he really delved into it when he had extra time on his hands between college graduation and his first job.
“When I met my wife, she grew up on a dairy farm by Detroit Lakes,” Hatlestad said. “We were up there, and her dad had a bunch of oak sawed to make hay wagons.”
That led him to begin experimenting with furniture for his own family. Soon their house had bunk beds, dressers and other furniture, made by Hatlestad in the garage, which doubles as a studio space for his woodworking.
“I noticed once we moved in eight years ago that he was always in his garage doing woodwork,” said neighbor Kent Holzer, who sometimes helps Hatlestad set up at the farmers market.
Soon he was selling planter boxes and outdoor benches at Edenvale Nursery in Mankato.
“Eventually I landed at the farmers market and that’s my main location,” Hatlestad said. “People sell plants and I could sell a planter box to go with it or an outdoor bench, so I’ve been at the Farmers’ Market for 15 years in the summertime.”
After a couple of years at the Farmers’ Market, he began making Adirondack chairs, and they’ve since become his best seller. Holzer bought a set about a year after he moved to the neighborhood.
“We have a patio in the backyard,” Holzer said. “We had lawn chairs, but it was nice to have something that was homemade instead of from plastic. That’s what drew us to the Adirondacks that he was making. We love them. We sit in them almost every day.”
Cedar was Hatlestad’s preferred medium, but then prices skyrocketed, so he switched to red oak initially, but red oak wood isn’t weatherproof the way cedar is. Then he connected with an Amish farmer near Detroit Lakes, who sold him 5,000 boards of white oak.
Unlike other softwoods, cedar has a chemical composition that makes it waterproof, ideal for outdoor furniture. The less expensive white oak doesn’t have that same chemical makeup, but it’s a hardwood with a physical structure that keeps water out.
“It’s closed-cell wood, so the water doesn’t penetrate into it,” Hatlestad said. “That’s why they use it for wine and whiskey barrels, for railroad ties, and a lot of semi-trailer beds are made from white oak. It’s really hard so everything I make you have to pre-drill everything, but it’s pretty.”
He said the key to building furniture is to separate the components that make up the final product.
“When I build Adirondacks, I’ll build 10 at a time, I won’t just build one,” Hatlestad said. “So, I’ll cut out 20 arms and 20 legs and all the back slats that I need and then move onto the next part, so it’s a little bit more efficient that way.”
Creativity, flexibility and simplicity are key, and that often includes a method of trial and error when he’s designing chairs and tables.
“Basically, I come up with my own plans off of plans of other chairs that I look at,” he said. “Now I’m kind of at the point where I’m getting close to retiring, and thinking, this could be a retirement hobby to make a little extra money,” he said.
Looking to the future, Hatlestad would like to spend more time on building indoor furniture as well. He just needs to find a venue to sell it at during the winter months. But in the meantime, he’ll keep building on his own terms.
“That’s the nice thing about it,” Hatlestad said. “I can work as hard as I want to or as little as I want to. I’ve just been able to keep busy enough to be satisfied. It’s a creative process, and it feels good to create something new.”