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Featured Member Story: Catskill Craftsmen

A Makers’ Tale

The story of Delaware County-based Catskill Craftsmen is one of invention, evolution and environmental stewardship.

Catskill Craftsmen manufactures domestic hardwood ready-to-assemble kitchen carts, islands, butcher block carts and work centers in Stamford, N.Y. The company each year also makes thousands of wood cutting boards, which are often must-haves on bridal registries.

Its current owners, two long-time employees, are striving to keep the Catskill/Delaware watershed pristine while providing high-quality products made from local hardwoods, primarily yellow birch.

“We’re using locally harvested wood, manufacturing a product, and shipping it nationwide and worldwide,” says current co-owner and Vice President, Ken Smith. “We have a fantastic story. We have great products, and great people.”

Catskill Craftsmen was founded in 1948 by Fred Murphy of Grolier Inc., a reference book publisher best known for Encyclopedia Americana. Murphy grew up on a farm in Stamford and wanted to bring jobs to his local community.

“He started Catskill Craftsmen to make shipping crates for the encyclopedias,” Ken says. “But then someone invented corrugated cardboard so Catskill Craftsmen shifted to a bookcase maker. If you bought a set of encyclopedias, you got this nice wooden bookcase to store them in.”

By the mid-1970s, the shrinking encyclopedia market meant the business needed to expand its product line beyond bookcases. Catskill Craftsmen shifted focus to butcher blocks, kitchen islands and cutting boards.

When overseas manufacturers began replicating the smaller-sized, lower-priced microwave carts from Catskill Craftsmen’s product line and mass produced them, the Stamford business abandoned those items to focus on higher-quality, larger-sized pieces, Ken says.

With 53 full-time employees and a handful of part-timers – “no one ever retires here, they just go part-time” – Ken and co-owner Duncan Axtell, who serves as company president, realize the important role their business plays as an economic engine for the area. Last year, more than 95% of their sales were to customers outside of New York State.

“In addition to local lumber and materials purchased, Catskill Craftsmen spends more than $2 million annually in wages and benefits for employees,” Ken says. “This money turns over multiple times in the local economy.”

Supporting efforts to keep the water supply clean is an important part of the business plan for this Catskills-based manufacturer. Located at the headwaters of the Schoharie Creek and Delaware River, Catskill Craftsmen sources lumber from local family forest owners who use trained professionals to guide harvesting decisions and management of wood as a renewable resource.

Grants, resources and educational opportunities from the Watershed Agricultural Council, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S Department of Agriculture help make Catskill Craftsmen’s environmental stewardship possible, its owners say. But stewardship has longtime been a part of the culture of Catskill Craftsmen.

Their second business, Hearthside Wood Pellet, is an on-site mill used to process all wood waste from the manufacturing plant, and convert it to wood pellet fuel (a low-ash, low-emission alternative to heating oil.) The mill can produce up to ten tons of pellets per day, reducing wood waste from the plant to nearly zero and supplies the community with a local and renewable heating alternative.

“We only take away about a half a wheelbarrow of waste daily,” Ken says.

Catskill Craftsmen’s commitment to protecting the region’s natural resources while making a quality product is the driving force behind the locally-minded business.

“We use sustainably harvested local woods, employ local people, ship our products all over the nation (and world), bringing outside dollars into the region,” Ken says.

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