Featherwood Frames embraces sustainable, environmentally-sound artisanship
By: Tim Anderl
Photo: Seeing eye to eye: [l to r] David Flowers and Brett Nagafuchi of Featherwood Frames talk shop with David Brown, owner of Eye 1 in Oakwood // Photo: Bill Franz
However, several brave individuals over the course of history have also differentiated or sought to define themselves by incorporating eyeglass frames into their persona and personal fashion. For some, eyeglasses became signature pieces of their mystique and character that are near impossible for people to disassociate them from.
For instance, President Theodore Roosevelt was regularly photographed wearing his eyeglasses, as was activist Malcom X. Try to “imagine” John Lennon or Buddy Holly without their signature frames. United States Senator Barry Goldwater and comedian Drew Carey continued to wear nonprescription glasses after being fitted for contacts and getting laser eye surgery, respectively.
Eighteenth century English poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “The greatest magnifying glasses in the world are a man’s own eyes when they look upon his own person.” And in 2013, perhaps even the frames for these “magnifying glasses” become part of the way someone shapes, develops and expresses their worldview and personal identity. The partners behind Yellow Springs-based Feathwood Frames more than embrace this as a possibility – it is the crux of their business model, partnership and modus operandi.
David Flowers arrived in Yellow Springs by way of Cedarville University, where he dropped out in his third year of mechanical engineering studies. A chance meeting at a local coffee emporium sparked a friendship with Fairborn-native and current Yellow Springs resident, Brett Nagafuchi. They quickly realized that Nagafuchi – a Berklee School of music dropout who currently plays drums in local experimental post-rock powerhouse trio Hyrrokkin – shared a passion for sustainability and farming. Ultimately, the idea for the business emerged when Flowers broke a pair of his own eyeglasses and lacked the money necessary to purchase another pair. Thus, the first pair of “Featherwoods” were constructed for his own personal use.
“I’d been doing construction, and it was slow and I just wasn’t that passionate about it,” Flowers explained. “Around that time I began to realize that how something is made is just as important as what’s being made. Minimizing waste and environmental impact is a central driving theme to our craft and our lifestyle. It is why I live on a farm and strive to be a positive force in this community.
“I think it is interesting that people today trend towards ‘indestructible’ materials like titanium, plastic, polymer and acetate for their frames,” Flowers added. “The wood doesn’t last quite as long as other materials, but the wood is a reflection of the environment that it is in. It is as if they want to buy something that will last forever, even though they never, ever intend to use them forever. So, their titanium frames just end up in a landfill somewhere. These ‘indestructible’ things are simply discarded as trash with no thought to the impact on the planet.”
Further, Flowers pointed out that a single transnational corporation, Luxottica, currently makes 70 percent of the eyeglasses in the world and owns Lenscrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical and other retailers. Even as consumers believe that they are differentiating themselves from their peers by buying a particular brand or style, the origin of their frames is anything but unique, and they certainly aren’t made locally.
According to Flowers and Nagafuchi, Featherwood favors rebuilding broken and otherwise discarded items, and using local wood – mostly apple, beech, black walnut, cherry, hickory, oak, maple and osage orange, a favorite of the pair – from trees in Yellow Springs instead of buying exotics. Part of the appeal for these gentlemen is that they retain the unique story of when and where each tool was purchased, and each log was gathered. Truth be told, the men haven’t yet felled a single tree for their frames. They’ve found that the Earth’s natural cycle has provided more than enough downed trees, logs and limbs to provide them with materials. They’ve also been given wood by friends and found some discarded as trash.
In addition, Flowers recently began experimenting with bicycle spokes as a source of material for a metal frame. “We’d like to give people a metal option. There are plenty of discarded bicycles out there rusting with metal spokes on them,” Flowers explained. “They are durable and made from hypoallergenic stainless steel too, which is appealing.”
Every square inch of the modest garage workshop is a testament to the Featherwood philosophy of diminishing the impact of their business on the environment. Flowers began renting the space with the first month’s rent provided by his father and is located amidst corn fields and farms off of Yellow Springs Fairfield Road in Yellow Springs. Piles of hardwoods rest outside the workshop, the desk workstations tucked inside the building likely saw years of usefulness before finding a home here, and a wood-fired furnace, not electricity, heats the building during chilly winter months.
Further, a self-proclaimed tinkerer, Flowers has converted a used scroll saw, bought at a local flea market, to run on pedal power, generated by pedaling the tool like a bicycle. He expressed the desire that all his tools, where possible, someday follow suit and be removed from reliance on electricity.
“Right now we are doubling the size of our workshop to accommodate making all of our machines someday being pedal powered,” Flowers said. “The aim is to minimize dependence on systems that provide only the illusion of renewability, but in fact are creating imbalance in our world.”
Continued experimentation with alternatives to electrical woodworking equipment, traditional techniques that are safer, simpler to learn and less expensive than specialized tools, and ages-old processes for preparing, treating and colorizing natural woods, enhances the “green” nature of the woodworking tradition Featherwood embraces.
“Each pair of eyeglasses is entirely unique,” Flowers said proudly. “And as unique as the end product is, we can tell someone the exact location and circumstances as to how we came about the wood that made their frames, and the story behind the techniques we used to get them to have the subtle characteristics these frames have.”
According to Nagafuchi, it takes between 15 and 20 hours to make a pair of glasses. They are handmade using a variety of traditional and creative woodworking techniques. Using steam to bend wood helps minimize end grain, allowing curves to be stronger and look more natural than otherwise. Multiple layers of wood are adhered together when laminating veneer, a process where wood grain is emulated, thereby significantly improving strength.
Featherwood also realized early on that the adhesive many of their peers use is a tight bond adhesive with toxic ingredients like formaldehyde, Nagafuchi confessed. Because of the close proximity of eyeglasses to openings on the human face (eyes, nose, mouth), the business quickly swapped the glue for one with nontoxic ingredients used in food grade products like cutting boards and wood bowls. Further lessening the environmental impact of their craft, Featherwood’s eyeglasses hinges are recycled from discarded frames.
Woodcarving tools are used at different phases in the creation process to shape wood with extreme precision. Nagafuchi said there are two colorization methods the team employs in creating a color that is complimentary to the natural texture and color of the wood they use.
“We color the frames using one of two traditional processes: fuming or ebonization,” Nagafuchi explained. “Fuming involves subjecting woods with tannins to the fumes of ammonia which darkens the wood to a smoky brown. Ebonization is essentially the reaction of tannins to iron acetate (rust and vinegar), which turns wood black. You often see this occurring naturally around nails in old boards that have been weathered.”
“We also use black tea during our ebonization process,” Flowers added. “And the logos are actually burned into the wood.”
In addition, various innovative joineries ensure a delicate balance between comfort, durability, uniqueness and style.
Featherwood produces around 15 pairs of frames per month and have sold around 40 pairs to date. Many of the orders have been special orders by individuals who heard of the frames through word of mouth or through the Featherwood website.
“Some of our customers are interested in these glasses because they are made of wood, but others are people who can’t find glasses that fit them well,” Flowers explained. “One of our customers is 6-feet-8-inches-tall and he has a large head. He’d never been able to find glasses that fit him and hated contacts. So, he appreciated the custom side of this business rather than the material side.
“We also have glasses that people have accidentally broken and instead of throwing them away, we take them back and fix them. It adds to the story of that pair of glasses,” Flowers said with pride. “Each pair of glasses we make is one of a kind.”
The glasses have also been sold through Madison Avenue boutique 10/10 Optics in New York City.
“Brett was recording in Brooklyn with Hyrrokkin,” Flowers explained. “I went to visit him and to see some wooden glasses a German guy was making. I struck up a conversation with the store owner at 10/10 and by the time we left, she said she wanted to sell our glasses as well. The quality was comparable to what [our competitor’s] were, so we were excited about that.”
In addition to sales at 10/10 Optics, Nagafuchi and Flowers recently began discussions with David Brown from Eye 1 on Far Hills Avenue in Oakwood about the possibility of selling their frames at the business’ locations. Appropriately, Eye 1 was founded more than 25 years ago in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with the goal of opening a high-end unique eyewear store. In 2000, Eye 1 opened their Hyde Park location in Cincinnati, and in 2005 they closed the Yellow Springs storefront and opened the store on Far Hills.
Ironically, as Eye 1 now offers Featherwood’s frames, the products made in that modest garage workshop in Yellow Springs will be sharing shop floor real estate with products from Bugatti, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Juicy Couture, Oakley, Porsche Design, Ray Ban and other industry heavyweights. While Featherwood products flirt with the giants of the industry, Flowers and Nagafuchi express no interest in someday having an international manufacturing operation or production facility, or scaling up their current business model.
“A big part of this for both of us has been trying to figure out how to manufacture something ethically,” Nagafuchi said. “This is almost more about the ethics of ecology than it is glasses. Our process is a lot more work than other ways of doing things to get to the same end product, but it would be hypocritical to do things other ways.”
“This is allowing us to learn about the ecosystem and community we are a part of,” Flowers added. “And we want this business to be a part of our lives rather than having our lives totally inundated with a top-heavy business that we feel like we’re slaves to. Scale for us is important, and there will be a ceiling for our production based on time.
“I’m not interested in amassing a fortune,” Flowers confessed. “I’m interested in living here in Yellow Springs. If that means that in a couple years I’m not doing glasses and that I’m doing something else I love, then glasses were part of what got me there.”
For more information about Featherwood Frames,
please visit featherwoodframes.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaper.com.