In December 2020, I got an email from the Belgian government; first, I was worried it might be some tax-related issue :D, but I quickly realized it was for information and a price request for handmade boxes. The upcoming seven months were a rollercoaster of both highs and lows that pushed me to the absolute limits, but since July 2021, I can officially call Wooden Gifts And More a supplier of the Flemish government!
But here, I would like to tell you more about the actual boxes, the whole process behind them, and why they are so special. To start, just a short summary of what they ordered and what their application is. We were fortunate enough to get the opportunity to create 200 unique personalized boxes out of sustainable mahogany wood. These special boxes will be used as business gifts for ambassadors, politicians, and prominent figures worldwide. The boxes have a lovely warm red color, have space for two to three pens, and are personalized with the government’s logo. To say that we are honored that Wooden Gifts And More was chosen as their supplier is quite an understatement!
After the initial conversations in December 2020, we tried to design a truly unique case that was special for them and unlike anything on the market. This to set Wooden Gifts And More apart from possible competitors and also create the best boxes possible. After a few initial digital designs, back and forward with minor improvements. The approval was there to start two demo models. One case is made in light maple wood, and another in warm mahogany wood to create two contrasting boxes made of beautiful hardwood. In January, the boxes reached the government, and we had to wait weeks for a reply if these were the boxes expected and desired. Sadly enough, the department could not agree on the initial boxes and wanted to receive more options, detailed pricing. Another two months went by, and honestly, we gave up and were convinced they had chosen another party!
But then, out of nowhere in March, we got more questions and a confirmation that we would be the supplier of these 200 boxes. The final decision fell on a fully mahogany case with an off-white velvet pen pouch internally. Directly we started with ordering all necessary items and creating detailed planning of when the caddies would be ready. Normally it should be finished middle of May, but it turned out to be a lot more challenging!
After months of delays from the wood supplier, CNC troubles, and hold-ups in July, it was finally time to get started on this mammoth of a job, creating over 200 pen boxes out of mahogany wood. And if we knew beforehand how much work and extra steps were necessary, we probably never would have jumped on the order as we did. But we sure learned a lot throughout the whole operation.
To start with the boxes, we began with sawing all the wood to exact dimensions and rounding over all edges so the CNC company could start with the routing out of the inside. While this was the easy part and straightforward, for 200 boxes, it still takes a lot of time!
The next step we still remember distinctly is sanding the inside of all cases manually! Although this sounds like an easy step and quite a relaxing time, it was boring and heavy. Because the CNC left rough marks, it had to be sanded, but no machine fitted or did the job correctly, so it ended up with doing it all manually. Four hundred times, with rough and fine sandpaper. The nightmares are still there, haha.
But from there on, it got a lot better; gluing and assembling the cases went faster because we spent a lot of time creating clever solutions and jigs to hold everything in place and make our life easier. But as with everything when making these boxes, it takes a lot of time because you have to do each action at least 200 times, and many steps are involved in coming to the end process.
The next step was to sand all the cases to a silky smooth surface, consisting of numerous repetitive actions. I’m delighted I have hearing protection with Bluetooth speakers. Here we finished forming the boxes, and the final product was coming along!
And the boxes are now almost finished, only oiling them and engraving was left, probably my most favorite steps because the beautiful color of the wood really pops, and the engraving creates a lovely accent on the case that makes it look much more unique and luxurious.
Although the production took a lot of time, and at times it was very frustrating, we still love how the cases came out and are honored we could create such exceptional caddies for a unique occasion! A fun fact, while producing the boxes, I read six books and watched 15 movies to entertain myself and make the process maybe more productive, haha!
Special thanks to the talented young engineer Tim Polak; without him, I would have still been struggling with the boxes!
I hope the pictures speak for themselves, but I would love to tell a bit more details about the cases; the dimensions are 17cm x 7cm x 3,8cm making it a large chest where you can fit two to three pens easily in. It has a lovely off-white velvet pen cushion which contrasts nicely with the red mahogany case. The case closes with magnets to make it shut very smoothly and give it that extra touch!
Although the cases were an honor to make and a significant boost for our business, we learned a lot of lessons throughout the process, and hopefully some small businesses can learn from it and make a better deal than we did.
Time is money
When making an order of this size, every small step takes time, and preparation is key. I made the mistake of thinking the process would go a lot faster than in reality. Secondly, the work defined with suppliers should be crystal clear to avoid double work like we had to do throughout the project. Although this is understandable and happens for almost all starting small businesses, for the next time, I will be a lot more pessimistic in my time calculation and value it at a realistic rate.
Get approval on paper and signed
The biggest mistake I made throughout the process was to be too enthusiastic and proud to deliver special boxes to the Belgian government. This made me want to please them too much throughout the deal and ensure I finished the boxes as fast as possible. I made the stupid blunder to order all materials when I received “approval “of the order; only the responsible on the other side had not yet finally decided which color of cases they wanted. So in that process, I already ordered maple boxes, and two weeks later, they decided to go for the mahogany. Due to I had nothing on paper which boxes they wanted and official confirmation and approval, I just had to order everything again and live with the loss. So for next time, I will never purchase anything again without authorization and the first payment made, lesson learned for sure :D.
Choose suppliers wisely
Although I researched suppliers and possibilities thoroughly to make the job easier for me and more streamlined, both the wood supplier and CNC supplier let me down on numerous occasions and for various reasons. The wood supplier had covid related delays, and in the middle of my order, they moved locations, resulting in the wood arriving 1.5 months later than expected at the CNC company. Although the CNC company is highly proficient in what they do, the planning and communication was an absolute nightmare in the beginning, which resulted in another month’s delay.
For the next project, I will look more closely to do more activities in-house, not to be dependent on suppliers, and look for possibly larger suppliers that can be relied on more than local businesses that are overloaded. So for sure, do your due diligence and calculations if you ever land in the same position as I did!
Simplify, batching, and organize
This is probably the part I’m most proud of throughout the process; I spent days preparing before the production started, simplifying and creating small jigs that made the most minor task easier and without having to readjust anything. Overall this saved a lot of time and made the process also much more enjoyable. This varied from a mold to glue 4 cases simultaneously or a small guide for drilling to holes to a mold to effortlessly engrave the cases always correct. It was not only an interesting experience coming up with these jigs, but it’s also a good mindset that can be used for many future jobs and projects!
Hopefully, you enjoyed reading about our most special order to date. As you might have already understood, we definitely didn’t hit the jackpot financially, but educationally and reputation-wise, it was a huge project for us.