By Lex Treinen
Chilkat Valley News Haines 

Haines business soaks in success of building custom-made wood bathtubs

 

August 2, 2023 | View PDF

Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News

Tully Devine stands with a nearly finished ofuro soaking tub, built of Port Orford Cedar.

Actress Jennifer Aniston knows something about Haines that even some longtime residents don't: The town is home to some of the finest wooden bathtubs that money can buy.

Aniston is one of the celebrity customers of the small operation that's been slowly growing and carving a name for itself in the luxury wood bathtub world for the past two decades. Buyers include Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of the software giant Oracle, as well as hundreds of less affluent customers enticed by the potential health benefits of aromatic cedar and a warm soak.

Out of a small workshop tucked into the trees near the laundromat and a trailer park, carpenters at Zen Bathworks use precise table saws and curing equipment to fashion tubs that can cost more than $20,000.

The company currently employs eight workers, and its tubs are shipped around the world - or just down the street in Haines to customers looking for a locals' discount.

"It was a combination of good luck and hard work," said Bill Finlay, who founded the company as Sea Otter Woodworks in the late 1990s. "Sometimes the harder you work the better the luck."

Finlay built his first wooden tub for himself. It's built the same way wood barrels are, with planks of wood stacked vertically bound by a steel ring. When filled with water, the wood swells, sealing in the water. The spark for the business started when a friend from Gustavus ordered a tub. Finlay stacked the wood as compactly as he could and hand-wrote pages of instructions.

"I never heard back from him for several weeks, so I was a little scared to hear what he had to say, and he said, 'I love it, we use it every night,'" said Finlay.

The former boatbuilder and construction worker decided to make a go of it professionally. His timing was serendipitous, and he was able to cash in on the e-commerce boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He started hiring workers and moved out of his garage into his current workshop around 2004.

He also stumbled on a new niche after a friend who had traveled to Japan mentioned a style of soaking tub made from cedar planks that is commonly used in the bathing-obsessed country.

"He called me and asked if I could build an ofuro. I said 'Probably, but I don't know what it is,'" he said.

It turned out the process was much more complicated than building a hot tub. In Japan, the tubs are often set up in hot springs with water cycling through them at all times. His clients in the U.S. wanted to use them like a bathtub, filling them up for an occasional soak. That led to serious warping of the wood.

Finlay adapted using his background as a boatbuilder and developed a design that uses a special blend of marine-grade plywood sandwiched between the anti-microbial Port Orford cedar, aka Hinoki. The plywood keeps the tub from warping while the cedar lends its therapeutic benefits and lemony-ginger fragrance.

"When it gets the hot water on it, it's amplified," said Kent Larson, who took over the company around 2017. "It's not the same as Alaska yellow cedar. It looks similar but smells way better."

Aside from the therapeutic value, the ofuros are customizable to fit buyers' bodies or spaces.

"Most regular bathtubs are made out of acrylic or fiberglass and they're made on molds," said Larson. "You can't get them customized. We can make them much deeper and customize sizes to the customer's request."

The ofuros were a hit, and added a new specialty market to the growing business. Finlay expanded the shop several times and invested in new machinery to make more precise cuts in wood.

When he decided to step back from the business, he found the ideal owner in Larson, who had a background working as a mining equipment engineer for large multinational corporations. Larson visited Haines a few times to vacation and visit with some in-laws. During one of the visits, his brother-in-law organized a look around the company, which was for sale.

"I thought he was kidding when he said 'wooden tubs.' Not only had I never heard of them, but I didn't even think they existed, and I don't think I'm alone in that," he said.

Still, the time was right for Larson for a change. He decided to move with kids and wife with about four months notice.

During his tenure, Larson has continued to innovate. He's experimenting with new wood paneling on ofuros and buying new machinery. Currently, most of the wood is cut by hand. Larson said the company is looking into buying what's known as a computer numerical controlled machine that can make wood cuts based on designs on a computer program. It's no small investment, with machines retailing for more than $80,000, but could make more precise cuts and save on human labor.

Larson and his staff have also advanced their online site to keep up with digitalization.

That effort was led by Michael Ford, a 29-year-old former airplane mechanic who didn't even know Zen Bathworks was in Haines until he was looking for a new job in 2018, despite growing up in the town.

Ford started out cutting wood in the shop, but showed a knack for writing construction manuals. That led him to 3-D computer modeling. One of his recent projects was uploading the computer models to the website so that customers can imagine - and even select custom sizes and wood types - from anywhere in the world.

"It's pretty cool - what a great time to be alive," he said.

Ford's unorthodox path into the job reflects many of the workers at the company. Past and present employees include a photographer, tow truck driver, radio DJ, and a young Tlingit carver who is learning to cut wood with table saws.

"We have a cross section of different types of people," said Ford.

The workers are attracted by generous benefits like sick leave, vacation time, and matching retirement funding. Plus, it's one of the few employers in Haines that offer year-round work.

For his part, Larson said he hopes he can continue to grow the brand and eventually pass it on to a new owner.

"As corny as it sounds, my true goal is to continue to promote a brand that outlasts me, that is more than just how much work and talent I bring to the table," he said.

 

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