Thinking outside the box
When the apple industry stopped using wooden boxes, Dave Johnson found other things to nail. Now, wooden crates are back in vogue.
“I’m looking for someone who wants to buy some unique and irreplaceable equipment to carry on the business.”
Dave Johnson’s been making wooden boxes for 60 years, undeterred by the fact that the fruit industry long ago stopped using them.
Johnson started his career as a teenager nailing apple boxes together in north central Washington orchards. As the apple industry switched to cartons and then the cherry and pear industries followed suit, Johnson kept thinking each year might be his last as a boxmaker.
From fruit boxes, he switched to making wooden crates for vegetables and grapes. When the grape industry switched from wood, he diversified into gift boxes and other wooden items.
He now makes small gift boxes to hold sausage and cheese, flat boxes for smoked salmon, tall boxes for wine bottles, and miniature apple boxes big enough to hold 16 apples. Some boxes have names or logos branded onto the wood. The apple gift boxes have reproduction fruit labels on the end.
He also mounts fruit labels on wooden plaques for a gift store, and supplies pieces of cedar veneer and cedar grilling planks for cooking fish. It’s become fashionable again for supermarkets to display apples and other produce in wooden boxes or crates, to create a farmers’ market ambiance at their stores.
Johnson recently submitted a quote for making 50,000 special wooden display crates for one of the largest U.S. retail chains. However, though he may be one of the last people making apple boxes in the United States, that doesn’t mean he’s the only source. Boxes are now available from China, too.
“That’s my nemesis,” Johnson said.
When the retail chain held an on-line bid for the job, Johnson declined to take part. “I gave them a very good price, where I could make a reasonable profit,” he related. “I said, ‘That’s it. I’m not bidding against China.’”
Johnson said he’s seen some good quality boxes made in China, but also some flimsy ones. Much of the pine China uses is imported as lumber from North America, then cut up, and shipped back again as the final product. Chinese boxes are usually stapled, rather than nailed, and Johnson figures he has the advantage of closer proximity to U.S. customers and lower freight. But China has the advantage of plenty of cheap labor and can ship large-volume orders at competitive prices.
Johnson first picked up a box hatchet when he was 13 years old, at a time when most orchardists and their families assembled their own apple boxes. His family lived in Manson, Washington, and Johnson had unlimited access to a storage building at the neighboring Walter Blessin orchard that contained a box form, hatchet, nails, nail stripper, and box shook. He spent many hours nailing boxes just for fun until he became proficient enough to do it as a job. He said that “Just the smell of the fresh-cut pine was inviting.”
Soon, he was employed at an orchard, making boxes for 2 cents each. Eventually, he became so skilled he could hammer the 24 nails in an apple box in one minute. The nails had needle points so they could be swiftly positioned and then driven into the wood with one stroke, with a repeated tap-bam action.
In 1948, he made 35,000 boxes by himself—at a rate of at least 800 boxes a day, and sometimes 1,000. He made wooden boxes in the orchards during the summer, protected from the sun by a cardboard shelter, and after harvest worked in the packing house, nailing on the lids.
In 1950, after semi-automatic box-nailing machines came into use, he and a friend got an old machine and did contract box nailing. A couple of seasons later, he went to work for H.R. Spinner Company (now Wilbur-Ellis Company) in Wenatchee as a box-nailing machine operator, earning 50 cents per 100 boxes, and making 800 boxes per hour. He figures he made a million boxes per season, starting with cherry boxes, then pear boxes, and finally apple boxes. From December through April, he could take a break.
In 1956, he rented a nailing machine and started his own contract box-nailing business, and in the first season assembled 750,000 apple and pear boxes.
But two years later, the apple industry swiftly made the switch to cartons, though local fruit packers continued to pack cherries and pears in wooden boxes for another decade. In the Yakima district, cherries were packed in wooden boxes until 1977.
Johnson bought cast-off nailing machines that packers no longer needed and resold them, keeping some for himself. After briefly working at other jobs, in 1983, he set up his own box factory in Wenatchee, using those old machines to make specialty boxes. The machines still function well today.
Johnson’s son Greg worked with him at the box factory until three years ago, when he left to become a plumber. At 73, Johnson is ready to retire, but the orders keep flowing in.
“I’m looking for someone who wants to buy some unique and irreplaceable equipment to carry on the business,” he said. “It’s not like there’s another business like this in the United States and Canada.”