Northerly Customs

quality comfort for you and yours

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Our story

For 20+ years I have been a career mechanical engineer and product designer, with passions for woodworking and boatbuilding.  Now I am passionately engineering wooden products for your home, inspired by the practical furnishings in boats.

Here is the story of how, after decades of designing subway ticket gates and solar panels and hydroelectric turbines and RF devices and bicycle parts, I now find myself making furniture for you.

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In the months following my daughter Heron's birth in 2017, I spent most of a Northwest maritime winter soaking up the joys of parenting a newborn.  Table saws and routers don't mix well with sleeping infants so my workshop sat patiently idle and I turned my creativity inward.  

My wife and I had always envisioned booth seating in our sunny southeast kitchen nook.  For six years we had eaten every meal in hard, straight-backed chairs.  Through our hobbitish tendencies, we lingered long at our table,  constantly fidgety in those chairs meant for sitting with an efficient purpose.  What we really wanted was to stretch out and get cozy while slowly digesting dinner, or while milking a mug of coffee, a pastry, and a book of poetry.

Our house is 110 years old.  Our kitchen is a wonderful all-wood cigar box with 10' ceilings... and very few cabinets.  So whatever we added to our nook needed to double as extra storage space for all those awkward things that the people of 1910 were not burdened by... The dehydrator, the blender, the coffee mugs, the oat milk, the slow cooker.

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Growing up, I had a decade-long obsession with Legos.  I can't help but think that biased my still-forming cerebral hardware, for better or for worse, for a future in mechanical engineering.  At the very least, it must have integrated deep into my subconscious the thrill and brilliance of well-wrought press-fit connectivity.

In a late-night sleep-deprived flash of semi-lucid inspiration, I figured out a way I could build us our booth without disturbing the peace or leaving the home.  At work I had access to a CNC table router, which is essentially a robot that will precisely cut any shape you want from a sheet of plywood.  I decided I would build my booth entirely from a router-cut set of interlocking press-fit pieces.  If I got the geometry right, I would be able to assemble it all without power tools, and not need to spend hours out in the cold shop when I could be cuddling with my family.

In the frequent timeless interims that Heron and Wendy spent nursing, napping, and bonding, I schemed and dreamed with a 3D design program called SolidWorks.  I mapped out an L-shaped booth kit made to fit together with mating slots and mortise-and-tenon joinery.  And since I already suspected this would be something I wanted to share with others, I set up my model such that I could very easily resize the whole thing by varying just a few parameters.

I visited every plywood booth I could find in restaurants around town and experienced how terribly uncomfortable they could be if the seat backs weren't angled just so and if the wall behind your calves didn't offer relief for your fidgety heels.   From these studies I extracted what I believe to be the ideal geometry for comfort.

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In my 20s I spent two years cruising on a small sailboat in Central America.  To be self-sufficient on a long voyage, a sailor needs to carry food, water, tools, fuel, raw materials, charts, books, and first aid, guitars, fishing and snorkeling gear, cameras, and kitchenware, not to mention all the needs of the boat itself, like anchors, line, sails, battery, and hardware.  We probably carried more individual items in that 24' boat than I currently keep in a house 100 times the volume.

Joseph Conrad found sailing ships to be self-contained universes in which the thousand social facets of a human drama can neatly unfold.  I find sailboats (among so much more) to be self-contained wandering warehouses where the ingenuity of the designer can play out into a thousand compartments, cubbies, and cabinets.  I have come to appreciate this creative storage philosophy so intrinsically that I can't help designing a bench for my home without providing hatches for access to all its hidden spaces.

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When I returned to work after my parental leave, I poured my lunch breaks into that drafty room with the router table.  I went deep on feed rates, tool speeds, G-code, and dust collection.  I found a 3/4" plywood that was in my opinion the best combination of price, appearance, and core quality.  Barely able to control the machine, I ran test parts with that material until I found the perfect fits and clearances (down to 1/1000th of an inch) I needed to have my parts come together easily but without being sloppy.  I cut my fingers, ingested sawdust, threw out my back, cursed like a sailor, and crashed the machine 2 out of 3 times I set it to cutting.  

But by the end of that crazy obsessive ordeal, I had my degree in haphazard CNC, and a set of 37 flat parts that I shuttled back home in the Honda and coated with polyurethane.  Then one afternoon while Heron was napping I knocked it all together in an hour.  So much for not disturbing the peace... though somehow she slept entirely through all that brief flurry of racket!  And then it was as if Scotty had suddenly beamed a settee right into our nook.

My mother, who is a sewing wizard, sent us cushion covers.  I cut out some foam with a 1980s battery-powered turkey carver I found at a thrift store.  And our cozy was complete.

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As a family we spend sooooooo many hours around the kitchen table.  We log far more hours there than in the living room, in a thousand different modes of playing, eating, working, creating, conversing, daydreaming, storytelling, napping.  It is our true hearth.  Having a comfortable booth makes this a place to linger, savor and absorb.  When Heron gave up on her high chair, the padded benches were so easy for her to climb into.  She felt the pride of being able to sit around the table all cozied up with her family, something that would have been impossible in normal chairs.

And the extra storage space, of course, has been ever so helpful.

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From the beginning I've wanted to help others experience this fundamental joy.  Every house should have a comfy boothy storage nook, but not everyone has the skills or time to make it happen, or the budget to hire a craftsperson to do it for them.  Or they just don't want a stranger tearing up their kitchen for a week.  (Or during a pandemic they just don't want a stranger in their house, period.)  And many people live in places that they are not at liberty to modify in the first place.  I think I've discovered a gateway to something that is otherwise an inaccessible luxury.

 So when work was slow during the pandemic, I decided it was time to birth my product into existence.  

I found a local carpenter with a CNC router table and an interest in my methods.  I started building benches and booths for friends, for the cost of materials only.  Over the course of a few months I built half a dozen projects, and went through the design process for another few that never got built.  Each iteration gave me new ideas for the next one, and as such each build was better than the next.  I refined my 3D model and worked out its bugs.  I found the ideal hinges (thanks, Eli) and got the opportunity to work with some really high-quality plywood (thanks, Jeffrey).  I am so grateful to these friends who believed in my ideas enough to essentially fund my prototyping for me.

Bellingham has a tight-knit community and a thriving marine economy, and I reached out through my network to a marine upholsterer who is now making fabulously luxurious cushions and covers for us.  Each one is a work of art and a study in comfort.

The world has long been ready for this product.  And now, after months of development, this product is truly ready for the world.

Thanks for reading!  Reach out to me at the number or email below if you want to learn more.

-Simon Graves

Dreamer, schemer & ice cream eater