#OXFORDPROUD: Ottercreek Woodworks and Getting to Know David Schonberger
“On the morning that I met the owner of Otter Creek Woodworks for the first time, it was a beautiful drive. I headed out of Ingersoll, turning down Salford road and onto Regional Road 13. Some of you may know this drive, or at least you know the area. It’s classic Oxford County: stunning farmland, humble homes, trees upon trees and a commute that commuters will never know. I’m on my way to chat with a young entrepreneur, Dave Schonberger about why he returned to Oxford and how he found success in entrepreneurship. As I make my way to his shop I keep thinking to myself that I almost don’t even need to ask why he returned to this area; it’s beautiful, it’s calm and it’s where happy lives can happen.”
– Lindsay Wilson, Oxford Young Entrepreneurs
I arrive at his shop which is on father-in-law’s farm. We sit down at his workbench (the workbench that he made, by the way) among what must be hundreds of different pieces of wood just waiting to be something else, yet still wonderful in their natural form. There’s a large rack of serving boards which I think were completed, but I guess I really wouldn’t know. It smells like saw dust and a heck of a lot of hard work.
I start with asking the question that I think I already know the answer to: Why did you return to this area to start your business? What is it about Oxford County that drew you back?
Absolutely no pause before Dave tells me, “The quality of life here. I look out my shop window and all I see are forests and fields. That stimulates creativity.” He goes on to tell me he’s a true country boy and spends most of his time outdoors. “No city can offer me that,” he points out. He’s so proud to be from Tillsonburg, something I think other generations might be surprised to hear about young people, that we’re proud of where we’re from. “All around the world you can meet people who’ve heard of Tillsonburg,” he adds and I mentally note that I’m pretty sure he just subtly referenced Stompin’ Tom so yes, he is a true country boy and I respect him immediately.
Dave took courses at the Fanshawe Campus in London where he lived while he completed his apprenticeship in carpentry. “I always knew it was temporary,” he notes, “it’s nice to get the life experience of a larger city and I did build connections while I was there, but I always knew I would come back- my friends and family are here.” Dave is also quick to add that Tillsonburg has everything he needs to grow his business, but especially a great community of established businesses to learn from. There’s no challenge in finding what he needs to grow his business and he respects that he often deals directly with business owners, or the son/daughter of the business owner. “This is a community built on honest business and business comes back by supporting local. Oxford is incredibly supportive” Dave says.
Otter Creek Woodworks recently did a run of custom cheese boards for a chef tour hosted by Tourism Oxford. The best part is that I met a chef who had been on that tour weeks after meeting Dave and I heard how proud the chef was of that board, how excited he was to show his food on it. This almost exactly mirrors Dave’s philosophy about his work; it can foster thinking about what you eat and cooking creatively. It makes you excited about what you’re creating; his boards are a canvas to showcase what you eat. As Dave puts it, “These are more than just a barcode on the shelf of a big chain store.”
I’m not surprised to hear that Dave proudly tells me he thinks that 75% of his business success has been due to local support: “They decided they believed in me and spent their hard earned money on a luxury item that I created.” Some of his first supporters were Shep and Colleen, owners of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. “When people believe in your passion that really makes you feel at home,” Dave says with pride. Out of respect for the community and as a value of his company, he sources whatever he can locally. He uses Weldesign Hardware five minutes from his shop, most of his raw materials come from five minutes the other way, the tags he uses are printed in Woodstock and so on. Even the beeswax he uses comes from local honey bees. “The odd time a tree will fall in the London area and a friend or contact will give me a call to take it away, but other than that all of the wood I use comes from somewhere in Oxford County.”
As a serving board alone (or a bowl or fireplace mantle for that matter), his pieces are stunning and show the craftsmanship of a true carpenter, an art some carpenters would argue is rare. When I think about the fact that all of his pieces come from trees within Oxford, they become more than just functional, or even attractive. Without being too dramatic, these are literally pieces of our community, preserved into items we can treasure, share and gather around at Thanksgiving dinner.
To this end, Dave is currently creating a piece of local history using what Dave has dubbed, “The Royal Oak”. Detailed in an article written by local tree enthusiast Laurel A. Beechey, one of those trees came from a Coronation Tree found near Annandale House in Tillsonburg. Legend and fact both have it that, “When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth [Queen Mom] became the first monarchs to tour Canada in 1939 they brought acorns from the ancient oaks at Windsor Castle to be handed out and planted along their tour route.” A piece of Canadian heritage that doesn’t get much more meaningful than that!
That being said, it’s a good time to mention that Otter Creek Woodworks never cuts a tree down for the purpose of its craft; Dave responsibly harvests trees that have already fallen or removes a tree that is about to fall. He even goes so far as to say he enjoys the challenge of working with creative and natural pieces that others might toss. Nothing is wasted- even the shavings are used for bedding for a few chickens and the odd scraps are used to heat the house. From tree to ground to Dave to chicken to table. From Tree to Table.
“One of my favourite things about talking to entrepreneurs is when they begin to “geek out” about their craft. “Wood is a funny thing. It’s living and moving so I’m always striving to understand it as it moves. There’s so much variety here from black walnut to pine,” (he shows me a piece of each as we talk). “We don’t need to go any further to find beautiful.”
There is so much reverence behind the work Dave puts into his craft. I’m not being superlative; Dave literally took one of his boards on his honeymoon with his wife Michelle whom he also credits for much of his success.
Although Dave mainly focuses on charcuterie boards (shipping to over ten countries around the world), he fills what little extra time he has with custom pieces like reclaimed barn board and barn beams, live edge furniture, mantles and most recently, serving or decorative bowls. Dave also hinted that we should keep an eye out for some wooden pizza peels. Since his time is so limited, he prefers to take on custom jobs that challenge him or offer an opportunity to work with a unique piece of wood furniture. Each item that leaves his shop is handmade by Dave with a level of expertise you will absolutely not find on the shelf at Home Sense.
In order to continue to be challenged and become even more skilled as a woodworker, Dave has some incredible goals to grow his business. Otter Creek Woodworks will eventually offer giant four-foot slab tables made from 100-200 year-old “giants” as a unique way to preserve nature’s stunning past. Dave is also excited to be moving to a new shop in the near future. His business is growing to the point that it needs more space and he is excited about the opportunity to convert and old timber frame barn into his new workshop.
As I left Dave’s shop, I was proud. I don’t’ know Dave personally and we haven’t spoken since chatting a few weeks ago, but the dedication to his success and to being a part of his community at every step is admirable. Business is not easy and I don’t think Dave would ever want to give that impression, but he has certainly shown the reward of committing to something irrevocably.
As I drove back to the office that morning, Buck Martinez was being interviewed on CBC’s Q. Martinez was speaking at length about the baseball community he knew and grew up in, how it was built on camaraderie, communication and bonding with the community. He elaborates to say that there is pride in building a community rather than boasting your independence, there is nothing to be gained by not needing anyone to survive. Buck Martinez was talking about baseball, but all I could hear was Dave speaking about how his business can thrive because of a community that supports him and one that he gives back to honestly and often; that his happiness and success is built by growing together rather than a cut throat rat race. What’s truly rewarding about Oxford and what makes a business like Dave’s so impressive is the integrity of small business and this is something we should all be proud of.