PNWBushcraft combines heirloom outdoor gear with digital marketing savvy
April 26, 2023 at 4:50 a.m.
Plus, Death Bunny. If you’re looking for heirloom-quality, handmade waxed canvas outdoor products, you don’t need to scour estate sales or antique shops. You may only need to look as far as Deming.
Or, technically, Whatcom County’s Deming as represented through the online PNWBushcraft storefront.
The nearly decade-old business located close to Acme fills the top level of a two-story, green-sided shop at the end of a long, winding dirt driveway beyond a creek-spanning bridge — no railings — wide enough to accommodate one car. The setting seems rustically appropriate for a business its founder said began because her husband couldn’t find the durable gear he needed for going into the Pacific Northwest mountains. Instead, he designed his own.
“He also shared it online and people started to inquire if it was for sale,” said Heather Saulsbury, CEO, owner and co-founder. “I was creating and selling my mixed media and digital artwork on Etsy, so I asked him to give me a few items to list and we would see how it went. Well, people loved it, so I asked for him to make more and it started growing.”
That was in 2014. Now, Saulsbury said PNWBushcraft (which she prefers in all-caps lettering because “I think it looks better”) has four people on payroll and revenue “in the six figures. Which was a very cool achievement for our handcrafted waxed canvas gear company.”
The other staff are Todd Saulsbury, Heather’s husband and co-founder (handling research and development), mother Linda Dunkley (in charge of the sewing) and sister-in-law Amanda Dunkley (shop manager).
Browse the company’s website and you’ll see dozens of products, ranging from the new tan and orange waxed canvas Tool Tote to what Saulsbury said is her favorite, a waxed canvas Foraging Pouch that evolved from one of the company’s original products.
“Everyone can use it,” she said. “We put it out in a variety of colors. When we get bored with it, we make it in a new color, and it's just handy.”
Prices for the waxed canvas products range from under $20 to more than $200. Saulsbury said the base product line is about 30 items but they are augmented with new ideas when either she or Todd see a need.
“We get a ton of inspiration from vintage gear and like to think we are creating products with a vintage vibe and a modern twist,” she said.
What most of the products have in common is waxed canvas, which the PNWBushcraft e-commerce listings describe as using a specialized process created in the 1800s and having a lifelong resistance to weather, eventually developing a “beautifully worn look.”
From the beginning, Saulsbury said, they wanted to create heirloom gear.
“We wanted people to be able to depend on what we are making and to create memories that would last a lifetime,” she said. “Waxed canvas just takes people back to camping with their parents and time around the campfire with friends.”
Other companies have waxed canvas products. For example Filson, long based in Seattle, makes luggage, clothing and accessories, some with waxed canvas. PNWBushcraft, however, is focused solely on handcrafted outdoor gear.
But not every product has a robust run. Take the Grub Bag, modeled after the kits found in vintage Boy Scouts books to hold plates and silverware. Saulsbury said she made one for herself, posted a photo of it online and there appeared to be lots of interest.
“I want to say probably for four or five months, it was a big seller and then it just stopped like that, just crickets,” she said. Why? “I think we have some really amazing customers that buy whatever we make,” she said, “but what’s great about manufacturing our own stuff is that as soon as it stops being needed, we just don’t make it.”
That experience highlights a comfortable dichotomy: PNWBushcraft is both a classic handcrafted product and fully digital business. Product concept testing is as close as a social media post. Sales are primarily online through its website as well as in small shops “all over the U.S.'” and in Japan and Australia, Saulsbury said.
“Forty percent of our traffic on the website is from Instagram,” she said. “The great folks we have met online are wonderful about commenting on our posts, sharing our reels and giving feedback.” The company had nearly 24,000 followers on Instagram and 17,000 on Facebook as of early April.
The customer base has also supported two somewhat different PNWBushcraft product mascots: Adventure Gnomes (as cute as you’d expect, adorning T-shirts, stickers and patches) and, well, Death Bunny.
“My husband was busy carving leather patches of a smoking rabbit and decided it would be really cool to design a rabbit skull with ears,” Saulsbury said of the latter’s origin story. “When he showed it to me, I just laughed and said it looked like a Death Bunny. Well, the name stuck and the design was a hit.” It, too, is on shirts, patches and stickers.
PNWBushcraft is considering further expansion: not a physical storefront, but a larger shop to expand manufacturing and staff. Saulsbury said the building would go nearby, on the other side of the section of the lot where the existing shop sits, and be double or triple the size of the current space. She said they’re hoping to be in it by the end of 2024.
“We just want to be able to have more room for products and have everything in a centralized location. Because right now, we make all the stuff up here,” she said, “and then we take it down and it's in an office in our house.”
The plans appear to reflect what Saulsbury said PNWBushcraft has always wanted, to grow “organically and authentically.” And ultimately stay true to its early vision to create durable outdoor gear that, she said, “wouldn’t end up in a landfill after a couple of uses.”
Places & Things
Homer, Alaska-based Wild Alaskan Company has acquired Bellingham’s Home Port Seafoods. The e-commerce seafood retailer said in an announcement that Home Port, a custom processor with food service and retail customers, will continue to operate as a standalone business under the new owners. Home Port was founded in 1992 and is located at 2875 Roeder Ave., #11 on Bellingham’s waterfront.
Wild Alaskan said the acquisition will allow it “to better meet the growing demand for its products, expand its product offerings and develop new sales channels beyond its current direct-to-consumer model.”
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Frank Catalano’s column appears Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @FrankCatalano.