WARREN, Maine — For generations, Mainers have watched as the state’s manufacturing base has moved to places where the cost of business is cheaper, and shoppers can be hard-pressed to find certain objects that don’t carry the label “Made in China.”
But Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren is bucking that trend. The company’s top-quality hand tools and workbenches are proudly made in America, according to owner Tom Lie-Nielsen. Local craftsmen and women use metal casings that come from New England foundries and Maine wood to make tools that are intended to last for generations. They are also now being exported to China, with the first shipment delivered earlier this winter and more to come.
“We’re very excited about this,” Lie-Nielsen, who started the company in 1981, said last week in the showroom of his new relationship with a Chinese importer. “China could be very big, but we are not a volume manufacturer. We cannot compete on price. We’ve never been able to.”
A very different kind of strategy has worked for his company, which now employs 75 people in the workshop, which will have a 7,500 square foot addition built this summer. They make between 30,000 and 40,000 tools a year, most of which sell for between $100 and $400. That adds up, with an annual income between $8 and $9 million, he said, with the company now rebounded from the Great Recession.
“Starting this year, we’ve been very busy,” Lie-Nielsen said.
Overseas exports to places like Europe, Australia, Japan and Southeast Asia account for about 20 percent of the company’s business, which began humbly when Lie-Nielsen heard people complaining that they couldn’t find the tools they used to love to use. He had grown up spending lots of time in his father’s Rockland boatyard, watching old-timers making beautiful things with wood, and after college, he got to wondering why improved technology seemed to lead to poor-quality tools.
“I thought, I don’t understand why we can’t make better quality than the old tools,” he said.
So he gave it a shot, with his first product being a specialized edge trimming plane which hadn’t been manufactured in some time. It was a success, and for 10 years, he focused on making other tools that had gone by the wayside but still had a customer base. Then he branched out, always with the then-novel idea of making tools that could be used straight out of the box.
“Traditionally, people buying woodworking tools assumed they had to do work to them,” he said.
They’d spend time honing blades to a mirror finish and making planes flat.
“That’s crazy,” Lie-Nielsen said. “If the plane is made really well, it works beautifully. If it’s not made well, you’ll notice.”
The tools don’t just work beautifully, but are meant to look good, too, with shining metal blades and polished wooden handles that fit comfortably in the hand.
“I feel strongly that beautiful tools that work great inspire you to do better work, and make it easier to do better work,” Lie-Nielsen said. “It adds to the pleasure of using them.”
The midcoast company’s business model places great importance on educating customers, with a series of weekend workshops offered to give people hands-on experience with their hand tools. Lie-Nielsen said he also likes to go to trade shows and really show people how to use the tools, with demonstrations on carving, furniture making and sharpening. That’s what Lie-Nielsen toolworks would like to do in China starting next year. Earlier this month, the Maine-made tools were introduced to that country at a trade show in Shanghai, where interest was solid, he said, and an importer will also be selling them directly to the customers.
“We want to bring our friends who are experienced woodworkers to show how the tools are used,” he said.
Having the beginnings of a relationship with China is particularly sweet for Lie-Nielsen, who discovered a few years ago that his largest customer was having Chinese craftsmen essentially copy his tools to sell more of them more cheaply. He made a lot of noise about it, he said, and came to an agreement where the company changed certain details that he felt were proprietary.
“We’ve stopped selling tools to that customer,” he said, declining to share more details.
But the new relationship the company has in the far East is more promising, according to Peter Dodge, the chief customer officer for Lie-Nielsen.
“We’re fostering a good relationship with the people we’ve engaged with in China as our dealer,” he said. “We think that these people share our values, and selling cheaper tools that don’t work as well is not the way to succeed.”