Popular Woodworking 2005-06 № 148, страница 62

Popular Woodworking 2005-06 № 148, страница 62

Terry Saunders, the chief plane designer at Lee Valley Tools, shows off the CAD drawings that led to the prototype low-angle jack plane he's holding.

Listening to Customers Is a Family Tradition

Somehow, Robin Lee violates the laws of time and space. Visit almost any woodworking discussion forum on the internet, and you're sure to run into him there. He monitors and chimes in almost daily on these forums - though he's never trying to directly sell product. Mostly he's reading about woodworkers' experiences, answering questions asked directly to him and occasionally tantalizing others on the forum with images of the tools that are coming from Veritas, the manufacturing arm of Lee Valley Tools.

Competing tool manufacturers are often bewildered by the energy Lee pours into this endeavor, but Lee sees it as the same thing he has done his entire life while growing up under the wing of Lee Valley Tools: He's listening and responding to the needs of customers.

Lee was 15 when his father, Leonard Lee, started Lee Valley Tools from his house in 1978. The company's first catalog was laid out on the family's kitchen table with the assistance of Garry Chinn, the founder of the Garrett Wade catalog (and the person who also gave Lie-Nielsen his first job in the tool industry).

"We do share roots," Lee says of Lie-Nielsen, Chinn and Lee Valley. Lee Valley's first taste of man-

ufacturing tools was actually the result of a partnership with Garrett Wade to produce a line of tools under the name "Paragon." That short-lived venture led Lee Valley to become a tool manufacturer, though planes were not at the top of the company's list then. "Stanley and Record were still pretty good at the time," Lee says.

From those humble beginnings at the Lee home, the company has grown to more than 900 employees that run the catalog operation and 11 retail stores in Canada. With more than 5,200 woodworking products in the catalog - 550 of which they make - Lee Valley is likely the largest hand tool catalog in the world.

Part of that success is the result

of offering good tools at a fair price. And part of that success is the result of the company's legendary customer service. Lee learned that lesson well as he worked fulltime hours after school and during summers for Lee Valley.

"I enjoyed every minute of what was virtually slave labor," Lee says with a laugh. "That's typical for a family business. But I really found that I enjoyed not only the tools, but the industry and the people we serve."

When he was home between sessions at the University of Waterloo (where he studied engineering, specializing in management sciences and ergonomics) he sifted through the comment cards and letters from customers. He estimates he has personally read tens of thousands of these.

"My real education came from customers," he says. "The formal schooling will teach you how to think. In dealing with the customers, I learn something every day."

In fact, Lee points to customer comments as the starting point for designing a tool. About a third of the company's tools sprout from customers. "We read every comment card," he says. "We file them and keep them as a reference so we can go back and see trends."

Lee Valley employs 12 people in research and development (R&D), including five product designers. Tucked under the eaves of the company's headquarters in Ottawa, the designers work in sleek office cubicles with high-powered computers. But their shelves are packed with prototype, vintage and new tools.

Though Veritas planes have modern lines, it would be a mistake to say they are a rej ection of past forms. Many of the details and features on Veritas planes have appeared on tools, if however briefly, some time in the last 200 years. Yet some of the features on the tools are truly original - the company holds a number of patents on its line of hand tools.

Through a doorway from R&D is a large storage room with a woodworking bench where these ideas are put to the test.

Though Lee isn't part of the R&D department, he spends a fair amount of time guiding their efforts. Today the product designers and Lee are working with three tools: a concave-sole spokeshave, a low-angle jack plane and the company's spokeshave kit.

Lee takes a couple swipes on a board with the jack plane and offers some comments about the tool's balance. Then he shows off one of the features of the plane he's proud of. It's a small, adjustable stop in front of the blade that prevents the adjustable mouth from striking the iron and damaging it. It also allows you to rapidly clear the mouth of shavings should it clog. He demonstrates this feature by quickly clicking the mouth open and shut. If you want you can even slam the mouth open and shut without striking the iron.

The knob is simple and ingenious. Innovations like this get Lee very excited.

It's fair to say Lee's passion for product development comes natu-

One of the big challenges for Lie-Nielsen and Lee Valley is to produce handles that are comfortable but that can be made with a minimum of hand work. Here a Lie-Nielsen saw handle is machined to shape.

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Popular Woodworking June 2005

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