The Great Alaskan Bowl Co.: More Than Just Wooden Bowls

More Than Just a Bowl
More Than Just a Bowl

As a teenager in the 1960s, Lewis Bratcher would devour stories in Life magazine about Alaska and dream of visiting America's last frontier.

By the time he graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1969, he was ready to do more than visit. So he bought a one-way plane ticket to Anchorage, hoping to land a job on the new 1,000-mile pipeline that would transport crude oil from northern Alaska to Valdez in the south.

He stepped off the plane in January 1970 wearing his father's military coat against the cold, with his mother's fruitcake tucked into his luggage. But the pipeline job didn't materialize; legal disputes over land claims delayed the project for several years.

Still hoping to make it in Alaska, Bratcher worked odd jobs around Anchorage until he landed a position as a purchasing agent at a concrete supply company that fall. But a year later, the company filed for bankruptcy and Bratcher was once again out of a job.

Over the next 20 years, Bratcher would shift careers several more times. In the end, the struggles would lead him to found a traditional yet forward-thinking company -- The Great Alaskan Bowl Co.

Chapter 1: Lumber Yard to Wooden Bowls

A year after moving north to Fairbanks for yet another job, Bratcher and a friend partnered to buy a small lumberyard there. Their company pulled in a decent profit over the next decade. Then, the economic recession that had gripped the lower 48 states following the 1970s global oil crisis eventually crept up to Alaska. By 1987, the lumberyard was struggling and Bratcher's partner wanted out of the business.

Bratcher bought out his partner's interest two days after the massive stock market crash on Monday, Oct. 19. Still hoping to keep the business going, he deposited all the company's cash at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday to cover payroll the next day. Thirty minutes later, the FDIC seized the bank and its assets, including Bratcher's money. "It had been a full week," he wryly recalls.

<b class="credit">Credit: Micah Fairchild</b>The Alaskan Wooden Bowl Co. founder Lewis Bratcher
Credit: Micah FairchildThe Alaskan Wooden Bowl Co. founder Lewis Bratcher

Vendors started calling in their debts on Monday. Bratcher refused to declare bankruptcy and instead spent the next year selling his inventory to pay back unsecured creditors. He even convinced some vendors to take payment in lumber. He spent several more years trying to get his money back from the FDIC, and eventually received just cents on the dollar for the deposit he made on that fateful day.

Bratcher wasn't beaten, however. He began to think about a new business, but one that was sustainable through good times and bad.

In passing, an acquaintance had mentioned he'd like to start a wooden bowl company, but Bratcher had dismissed it at the time as impractical. Now he began to reconsider. By the 1980s, wooden bowls were increasingly associated with quality craftsmanship. Alaska was a prime vacation spot, too, and bowls made of native trees could attract tourists as well as locals, Bratcher thought. The wholesale market also might prove lucrative.

In the end, he decided a bowl company would provide him with a niche market. "I wanted to make something the guy down the street couldn't duplicate or buy overseas cheaper," he says.

Wood had once been a common material for bowls; it was cheap, durable and relatively light once dried, a plus when following caribou across Alaska or traversing the Atlantic in search of the New World. As America grew, so did the demand for woodenware and bowl mills sprang up across the country.

Industrialization changed that. Once rare and expensive products like glass and glazed ceramic now became common and cheap due to mass production. Plastic's invention and its use in kitchenware in the very early 20th century made it even harder for bowl companies to compete. By the time Bratcher was thinking about starting a bowl company, there were only a handful of wooden bowl mills still left in the United States.

Chapter 2: Building a Bowl Mill

Bratcher first needed machinery to both carve and sand his wooden bowls. He reached out to many former bowl mill owners, including John Coley in New York, who had sold his own company in the 1970s. Coley loved the idea of a new bowl company, but no longer had any machinery. He did, however, know a man who could make the machines.

Coley sent Bratcher to Ed McCormick in Vermont, an inventor who had built bowl-cutting machinery in the 1950s. McCormick unearthed a set of bowl machine blueprints from a filing cabinet and Bratcher paid him to build it.

In the past, wooden bowls had been milled on the shallow side, but Bratcher wanted his bowls deeper to set them apart. It would take McCormick a full year to finish the specialized cutting machine.

Then Bratcher had to find a way to dry the bowls to keep their shape. Bowl mills typically would lose a significant portion of their carved bowls while air drying them, since wood is notorious for cracking during the drying process. Bratcher thought a kiln might allow him to inexpensively control the drying process and retain most of his dried bowls for finishing.

<b class="credit">Credit: Micah Fairchild</b>
Credit: Micah Fairchild

While in Georgia for a woodworking conference, he watched a man in a video talk about drying lumber. He tracked the man down and unknowingly made contact with one of the world's foremost experts on wood drying -- Lee Fisk.

Fisk told him no one had ever built a kiln to dry bowls before. But over the next year, he helped Bratcher build a kiln to control air movement, humidity and temperature. They were elated when the carved bowls finally came out round and without cracks.

Now Bratcher could cut and dry the bowls, but he still needed a plentiful source of wood. He carved test bowls from several different trees before deciding on birch, a species native to Alaska that tends to spring up in fire-scorched areas. Dried birch produces a bowl with just the right heft, Bratcher says. And once oiled, it becomes more opalescent over time, unlike other hardwoods that lose their sheen.

"When you pull a bowl out of the oil at the end of our process, that's when you really see the character of the wood show up," he says. The wood's uniqueness is most pronounced in the company's "family tree" bowls, when vibrant color patterns flow through a set of three to five nesting bowls.

Finding the best trees is always risky, says Randy Mickowski, the company's production manager, who still traipses through the woods to find prize birch trees. Birch lives only for about 80 years before it begins to die from the inside out. So you can't tell if a tree is healthy until it's felled, Mickowski says. Sometimes decaying heartwood will clear up after a few feet; other times, it penetrates the whole log.

The company only uses trees from land that's slated to be cleared anyway for roads or farmland. Once logs arrive at the Great Alaskan Bowl Co., they go through a 22-step process of carving, sanding and oiling to become wooden bowls, says cutter and sander Klaus Reeck. "The kind of bowl and how many we get really depends on the tree size and where the heartwood is," he says. Birch's heartwood, which is slightly darker than the surrounding wood, can be off-center, so a carver must work with the log to create the perfect bowl.

At 65, Reeck could retire, but says, "I like taking what nature started and finishing it too much to quit."

Chapter 3: The Giving Tree

Whether a carver can get 100 bowls out of a birch or none, every bit of the log gets used, says Malen Bratcher, who is now the marketing and wholesale manager for his father's company. Lower-quality wood not usable for bowls is instead sold as firewood to local Alaskans who use it to make it through the 40-below-zero winters. Shavings are used for packing material and sawdust is free for mulching and animal bedding. Bowls with minor imperfections become bird feeders.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-People have a positive psychological connection to wood that they'll tap into when they pick up a bowl.%"We've never had to 'go green,' because we've always had sustainable policies," Malen says.

Customers like the company's conservationist practices, but the real attraction remains the wood itself, says retail manager Elaine Williams. The best way to educate customers, she says, is to let them handle the bowls. "People have a positive psychological connection to wood that they'll tap into when they pick up a bowl," she says.

The company's biggest solid bowl, aptly named "Mr. Perfect," sits prominently on a top shelf at its retail store in Fairbanks. The bowl was carved from the only 24-inch, fully sound birch tree the Great Alaskan Bowl Co. has ever harvested. The beach ball sized bowl showcases nature's artistry, as wide swaths of rich browns and reds flow across its vast interior, broken up by a single pale blonde streak.

Williams sees people go from "just looking" to spending hours picking through hundreds of bowls, laying them out in rows in their quest to find "the one" that speaks to them. In fact, physical contact with the wood is so important that the company will sometimes ship bowls to prospective wholesale clients in the lower 48 states to help them appreciate their quality.

In the past, the company produced mostly elegant and functional wooden bowls, but to grow the business, the Bratchers have added laser engraving and even painted scenes by Alaskan artists. In July, Bratcher signed an agreement with the U.S. Mint to reproduce the "America the Beautiful" series of coin artwork onto the company's bowls. Vendors in Denali National Park sell the bowls, but Malen plans to offer wholesale agreements to other prominent sites in the lower 48 states, such as Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park.

"We hope to convince folks that we can take the coin images and capture America's history in a new way -- on a wooden canvas," he says.

Marketing the company's product comes naturally to Malen because he loves the bowls, so much that he once hid a set he was oiling from employees and his father. They were so striking he came in early the next day to buy the bowls for his personal use.

"These bowls put food on the table when we were kids," he says, remembering his family's personal set of wooden bowls they used for meals. "Dad fought hard for this company and I don't take it for granted that I get to work here with him. Everything, from how he built the business to how we make the bowls ... I feel like this is what is means to be 'made in America.' "

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