Aging Baby Boomers, changing tastes doom Dimes & Co., Northwood furniture maker

  • At the upper end of furniture made in Northwood by D.R. Dimes & Co. is this bonnet-top desk, complete with secret drawers and hidden compartments. It sold for $22,000. Courtesy—D.R. Dimes & Co.

  • This 1992 photo shows company founder Douglas R. Dimes (left) with his son, Douglas, who has worked in the business his entire life. Douglas bought the business in 2010. This lathe was one of Dimes’s earliest woodworking tools. It was initially powered by leather straps. Courtesy of D.R. Dimes & Co.

  • A collection of custom router bits at the D.R. Dimes & Company factory in Northwood on Tuesday, November 14, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Douglas Dimes walks in the empty workspace of D.R. Dimes & Co. in Northwood, which recently ceased operations. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Douglas Dimes uses a specialty Japanese hand saw to cut a piece of Tiger pine at D.R. Dimes American Furniture Company in Northwood on Tuesday, November 13, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Some of the router equipment that is going to be auctioned off at the D.R. Dimes Furniture Company in Northwood. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Douglas Dimes stands in front of a wall of Windsor chair posts at the D.R. Dimes & Co. furniture company in Northwood. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Douglas Dimes reaches for a piece of Windsor Chair backing at the family business in Northwood that has halted production. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • An old D.R. Dimes lathe at the company's factory in Northwood on Tuesday, November 13, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • An auction sign outside the D.R. Dimes Furniture Company in Northwood. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Douglas Dimes help create a computer-controlled drill press where they clamp the seat onto the drill bed, load in the proper computer-aided-design file, program the touchscreen, then stand back and watch the bed swivel and pivot, drill a hole, then pivot to change the angle for the next, and so on until you’ve got a Windsor chair seat ready for the next stage of production. “This is the only machine like it in the world, I think,” said Dimes, sounding both proud and sad. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The D.R. Dimes furniture company in Northwood has long been known for its Windsor chairs. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/24/2018 7:42:52 PM

There is no better demonstration of the approach that D.R. Dimes & Co. took to manufacture high-end early American reproduction furniture than the creation of “the world’s greatest seat-drilling machine.”

Douglas Dimes, who owns the firm that his father started in 1964, designed the machine with the help of many staffers. They wanted to speed up production of the Windsor chairs that have been the company’s mainstay for decades.

“My father said, ‘We like hand techniques but we’re trying to run a business,’ ” said Dimes.

One difficulty in building a Windsor chair, Dimes explained on a recent tour of the Northwood factory, is that a dozen or more holes must be drilled into the seat, each at a slightly different angle, to hold the spindles that make up the chair’s curving back. Adjusting the angle of the drill press by hand between each hole is time-consuming and laborious. So Dimes & Co. created a computer-controlled drill press.

As Dimes demonstrated, you clamp the seat onto the drill bed, load the computer-aided-design file, program dimensions like hole depth and angle into the touchscreen, then stand back and watch the bed swivel and pivot and drill a hole, then pivot to change the angle for the next hole, and so on – until you’ve got a Windsor chair seat ready for the next stage of production. It’s mesmerizing to watch and efficient to operate.

“This is the only machine like it in the world, I think,” said Dimes, sounding both proud and sad.

Why sad? Because the machine is for sale, along with a mind-boggling collection of other woodworking equipment and tools and the company’s entire 26,000-square-foot factory. After 54 years, D.R. Dimes & Co. has gone out of business, a victim of changing demographics and economics.

Bicentennial to the recession

The company, which had 40 employees and annual sales of $3.6 million at its peak, was started by Dimes’ father, also named Douglas. The younger Douglas, born in Epping, said his first job came when he was 10 years old. After school he had to sweep out the tiny “dump” of a shop where his father built the business through hard work and persistence.

Then came the 1976 Bicentennial, which boosted interest in early American furniture, Dimes said. “That was a sea of change.”

D.R. Dimes & Co. grew fast in its Northwood home, building as many as 6,000 Windsor chairs a year at peak. A disastrous fire in 1991 destroyed the business, but the Dimes’ built their current factory, complete with a 62,000-gallon cistern for a state-of-the-art indoor sprinkler system, and just kept growing.

They added lines of early American furniture, such as simple end tables, elegant bed frames strong enough to hold up a full-sized Cadillac (Dimes has the photo to prove it), rocking chairs, dining tables, high boys and big fluted desks.

They sold to museums and stores and companies and also saw some high-profile orders, such as a half-million dollars from Phillips Exeter Academy to build the school’s special Harkness instruction tables, or $350,000 to build replicas of the 101 desks in the U.S. Senate for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston.

But D.R. Dimes & Co. thrived on sales to individual home-owners, first through specialty retails shops like the long-departed Colonial Corner in Concord and later directly to consumers.

They depended upon the decorating tastes of upper-middle-class Baby Boomers, Dimes said, who wanted quality pieces of historic reproduction furniture and were able to spend $150 on a chair or many times that amount on a desk or, very occasionally, as much as $22,000 on a gorgeous bonnet-top secretary with secret drawers and hidden compartments.

The problem is that market just keeps shrinking. “The last 10 years, dealers started to go out of business,” Dimes said. “We started losing money, losing customers.”

Victim of downsizing

First came the 2008 recession, which clobbered pocketbooks and left Baby Boomers in a bind. “They’re worried about their parents, worried about their children still living at home,” Dimes said.

Worse than that, he said, is a “structural problem” with the market: Baby Boomers are getting old and have begun downsizing.

“The people who like our products ... it got so they had too much stuff. I’d talk to a customer and I’d hear ‘We’re selling the house. We have to get rid of half my stuff,’ ” Dimes said.

When furniture gets handed down, the next generation has to buy fewer new pieces. To compound matters, it turns out that Millennials and other post-Boomer generations don’t really want early American reproductions – or much in the way of new furniture at all.

As an example Dimes, 52, tells the story of his company accountant, a younger woman.

“I asked her, how much did you spend on your cellphones? ‘Maybe $1,100, all together.’ How much did you spend on your kitchen cabinets? ‘We bought it at a flea market for 100 bucks.’ And there you go,” he said.

The company tried branching out into mid-century modern and other styles, but couldn’t shake its reputation with earlier styles, Dimes said. “Our branding was too strong.”

He said the company couldn’t thrive on the low-end of the market – “we can’t go cheap enough to compete with the Chinese” – and couldn’t afford to meet the whims of the ultra-rich. Caught in a shrinking middle market, Dimes said he had no choice but to end the firm.

“I was fearful of disaster. I didn’t want it to be a situation where the employees show up one day and the front door is locked. When that happens, employees get screwed, customers get screwed, vendors get screwed. I wanted to at least try to do it with some dignity,” he said. “It was a gut-wrenching decision.”

Strangely quiet factory

A stroll through the manufacturing facility, which has been tidied up in preparation for a huge auction Saturday, Dec. 1, reflects the way D.R. Dimes innovated with computer-controlled machines like the seat driller, and also its sheer size.

“We have more than 100 routers,” noted Dimes, referring to the woodworking tool that shapes the edges of wood or digs out given shapes, as he gave a quick tour of the premises.

Dimes said representatives from Paul McInnis, the New Hampton auctioneer who will handle the sale, told him they rarely see more than half a dozen in similar sales.

“We’ve got shapers, planers. Dust-collection systems – two of them,” said Dimes, gesturing to the left and right as he walked through the factory.

On benches and tables and hanging from walls you see an almost uncountable number of clamps of all shapes and sizes dangling from hooks on virtually every wall; power tools galore; hand tools as simple as hammers and as exotic as Japanese hand saws, which cut on the pull rather than on the push like American saws; a steam system for bending and shaping wood; and throughout the equipment you’ll find a staggering number of very sharp blades to cut and shave wood, not to mention sharpening stones to keep them honed.

The building itself, an open steel-frame structure that, among things, has radiant heat in the flooring, is also for sale along with two wood-frame warehouses nearby on the company’s 15 acres of land.

And then there’s furniture. About 100 pieces of furniture, including Windsor chairs, tables, bookcases, a kitchen island and kitchen cabinets, are being sold in a timed online auction ending Saturday.

After the sale is finished, Dimes isn’t sure what he’s going to do. “This is only job I’ve ever had,” he noted. “I have to make a resume. I’ve never made a resume.”

But he says he’ll be proud of the work the company did for half a century.

“There was an astonishing amount of institutional memory in this place,” he said. “It was unlike anything else.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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