Getting to Know Holland Bowl Mill

We chatted with Kory Gier, VP of Holland Bowl Mill, about expanding a 4th generation mill from making wood shoes to contemporary bowls in Holland, Michigan.

Donna: Kory, could you tell me just a little bit about yourself?

My name is Kory Dyer. I'm the Vice President of Holland Bowl Mill. I'm from Holland, Michigan and raised in Holland, where the company was started. I went to college here in Holland at a local college called Hope College. I'm a fourth generation owner of the company. The company was started in 1926. So it's been in the family for a very long time.

We started out by making wooden shoes. So my great grandfather, Chester and Tigran started the original wooden shoe factory here in 1926. And then the Holland Bowl Mills was started in 1986. I grew up around the company. My whole life working in middle school, high school, college. And then after college, my four older brothers and sisters, they kinda went their own way after college. And I was kind of the last chance to stick with the family company. So, I came on board, and that was about 2011 and still my dad remains part of the company. We have 17 employees. We manufacture and make all of our products here in Holland, Michigan. A fun fact about our company—we were featured in The New York Times Holiday Gift Guide in 2013.

That’s a huge accomplishment!

Yeah, it was amazing. It was amazing. It was crazy. It was so much fun. We were featured on the show “How It's Made” in 2007, and they still show that episode about 10 times a year. So, yeah, it's been fun. It's a fun family, family company. Everything's made here in Holland, Michigan—American made, which we kind of hang our hats on. We love having partnerships with companies like East Fork. That's what keeps us going. You guys make beautiful pottery, too, which is awesome. That's by far our favorite partners to have.

Can you walk us through your work, creative process, what takes place in the back of the house, materials and timelines, and generally how your bowls are made?

We work with local tree services and mills all across Michigan where we get our materials. We start with 8 to 14 foot logs of various hardwoods. You currently sell walnut and maple, and in the past, East Fork has also carried cherry—all of which are hardwoods from Michigan. Once the trees get to us, the logs get loaded up onto a log deck. From there, they get power washed and cut into blocks. From there, they're cut into what's called bowl blanks. We do nested turning. You get numerous bowls out of each bowl blank.

East Fork sells the 15”, 12”, and 9” bowls, and there's a series of knives that have a different curvature to cut out each bowl—that way, there's zero waste. We're utilizing every part of that blank, and any excess wood that isn't made into bowls is made into cutting boards, candle holders, grilling planes, candlesticks, rolling pans, wooden utensils. Anything that we can't use after that is sold for firewood.

We have a large conveyor system that runs throughout the whole mill. All the shavings get funneled through the conveyor system to a trailer outside which is sold for horse bedding. So we really have a zero waste process. Not one part of the tree ends up in the landfill, which is a huge aspect of our company. We do what's also called select cuttings, where we plant a new tree for every tree we cut down. The tree services we work with are cutting down very large, mature trees, so this is a huge priority for us, as sustainability is a key aspect of our company.

That's something certainly to be proud of. Your manufacturing process allows for use of all wood pieces that leave the mill as something that helps society in many different ways.

Definitely. After the bowls are turned, they’re put onto a cart where they go into a steam room at 180 degrees for 4 hours to steam out of the sap, and when they come out, they air dry for 2 to 4 weeks. The main thing that the steam room and air drying is doing is preventing cracking and warping after they are fully dry, about 8-10% moisture content. Once the bowls are dry, they go through a lengthy sanding process to ensure all sides are smooth and sit perfectly flat. Their final step is being graded for quality and finished with our mineral and bee oil mixture that we make right in-house.

Another really cool thing is, as you guys have been growing with us, you've been ordering larger quantities at a time, since you kind of understand our process. Now, we start with 14 foot logs, so every bowl is going to be unique and different, which is amazing. No two bowls are going to be alike.

To your point, the uniqueness of the bowl are all different . Now we can explain why there's no seams in the bowl.

Yes, exactly. It's a solid one piece ball. There's no adhesives, no glues. It's not segmented.

Over the years, what manufacturing processes has the company upgraded that help to improve the manufacturing process?

When the company started in 1926, everything was still based on the same methods, meaning nested turning. It's always been kind of our mainstay, but over the years obviously as technology has changed. We've upgraded our equipment when we moved to our current location, since 2001, where we customized and rebuilt everything.

That's terrific. You know, I was talking to a neighbor on Sunday and she expressed the naysayers sentiment that anything made with a machine is not handmade. What’s your thoughts about this?

I would say yes the lathe, any turning of a bowl or anything is always going to be done on a lathe. So our bowls throughout our process, they are touched. We have 17 employees. They're probably touched over 200 times each bowl with the process they go through. The gentleman who's running the lathe is dictating the speed, cutting the bowl out, shaping the bowl. He's doing everything. The lathe is just helping him to create that final product.

Now, I need to ask about how the HMB bowls should be cared for by the customer. Can you break it down into a couple easy steps for us?

After each use, wash the bowl with warm water and soap, then after washing it, just let it air dry. After you wash your bowl 5 to 6 times eventually, the wood will start to dry out a little bit. We highly recommend retreating your bowl—we use a product we've been making for over 40 years called Bees Oil. It's a mixture of food safe mineral oil and beeswax, but you can also use food safe mineral oil, walnut oil, or coconut oil, too.

Treat the bowl with a lint free cloth, the entire bowl inside and outside. Let it sit for a few minutes and then wipe off any excess oil. That's really the only care that you should have!

So with that said, tell us about the HBM Lifetime Warranty.

With all of our partners, including East Fork, if a customer takes proper care of their bowl, meaning hand washing it with warm water and soap, never putting in the dishwasher, and periodically treating it, and it randomly cracks, send a photo to East Fork’s customer care team. They can forward the photo to us, and we will replace it for free. We have that lifetime guarantee because it's an heirloom piece. It's going to be a piece that you can pass down from generation to generation.

This brings me to my last question about the intersection of business, culture, and environment. HBM’s environmental model of zero waste is so well-crafted and thought-out. What other core values of HBM is extended into your involvement in your community?

Holland, Michigan is a great city to own a small business, and we're very blessed to be part of this community. We’re very involved with the visitors bureau right here in Holland, The West Coast Chambers, and we do a lot of sponsorships with them. We do donations probably close to 50 to 75 donations a year throughout Michigan. The different events that are helping people, children, children advocacy children with cancer and different things. We have our doors opened year-round for free tours of our bowl making process.

We do classrooms all the time. It's nice for kids to see that products can still be handcrafted these days. It's good that they can see more of the old-world style of making a product, that you can still make a career from doing something like this. A lot of people think that college is the only choice, but we need more makers in this world, and you can still have a great career doing so. Showing kids and the younger generation is something we really love to do. I would say those are some of the main things that we do with the community.

That's fantastic! Thank you for sharing it's important for young people to see how things are made. There’s magic in something being handmade—it is so important to see. I have to tell you, Kory, thank you for all the information you’ve shared with us today.

It’s been great talking to you, I thoroughly enjoyed it. We've loved our partnership with East Fork, and we hope that it continues to grow over the years.

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