“All I’ve ever been and all I am still is just a machinist,” says Craig Jackson.
Craig, owner of Machine Time, which provides custom machining services using 3-, 4- and 5-axis CNC machining, manufactures elements of several Crucible tools, including the Crucible Sliding Bevel (which he also co-designed); Crucible Dovetail Template; Crucible Dividers, Type 2; Lump Hammer; Crucible Pinch Rods; and Crucible Card Scraper.
Craig grew up with his mom, dad and three older sisters on a 200-acre cattle farm just south of Owensboro, Kentucky, in Utica. They lived on his Grandpa Gus’s farm, who, semi-retired, was down to 40 head of cattle and a bull. There was a lot to experience, Craig says.
“We cut hay with the tractor and I could remember being so small, driving that Massey Ferguson 135 tractor that when I had to push in on the clutch I had to get both feet on the left side of the tractor to stand on that clutch so I could either do clutch or brake,” he says. “So it helped me make good decisions when I was young, that old survival of the fittest thing. And it was all on a hill. You know the old fold-down sickle bar mowers, these things that hang off the side of the tractor that are great at cutting legs off deer (I mean, I never did that). Just, from a really young age, I remember understanding the physics of things. If you didn’t, you got hurt.”
Craig was always the skinniest kid, so when lifting up bales of hay onto the trailer he would have to figure out ways to leverage his body to his advantage.
“Growing up in all that, and all the conveyer belts and things that want to chop you up and spit you out in smaller pieces, it just gave me an attention to that, to looking at the mechanisms of the old equipment and the new equipment,” he says. “And then I always had a go-cart, four-wheeler, three-wheeler and motorcycle, so I was always riding those things. I didn’t like the feeling of crashing so I learned how to ride safely. But I was just around a lot of mechanical things.”
Craig’s dad, a welder, and brother-in-law, a tool and die maker, started a machine shop in the backyard when Craig was 14.
“I started working out in the machine shop begrudgingly, you know when you’re 14,” he says. “My first job was sharpening jack hammer bits. A jack hammer bit gets blunted on the end so I stood at our shop-built belt sander and put a four-facet point on it, kind of a four-facet pyramid point on it, and I heated them up in the torch and dunked them in oil. I did that for probably a whole summer.”
They soon got into building weight-lifting equipment. By now it was 1983. Customers would bring in pictures from weight-lifting magazines and ask for four-station machines with pulldowns, bench presses etc.
“And I would just look at the picture and I would measure from my elbow to my shoulder and just build the machine,” Craig says. “I would drill all the holes in weight stack plates, make the benches, I’d do all the spray painting, I’d do all the upholstery, make all the pulleys – I learned to work from minimal information.”
By the time Craig was 18, he bought his dad out and moved J & L Welding and Machine just north to Owensboro, Kentucky. There he made all sorts of things, such as fixtures for furniture companies to glue up chair frames and fixtures to rotate an entire couch while it was being upholstered.
“It was just so awesome to have the trust of customers and to build and deliver what they needed,” he says.
He was working 60 hours a week but he liked the work and he liked working. When Craig was 22, he sold his part of the machine shop and went to work as a machinist for America’s Best Chew tobacco factory in Owensboro (back then it was known as The Pinkerton Tobacco Company; the name changed in January 2022). The 10-acre factory produced about 25,000 pounds of chewing tobacco and about 600,000 cans of snuff a day on three miles worth of conveyor belts.
“I was in heaven,” he says. “All this stuff, cutting and chopping and conveying tobacco, kind of like what I grew up with.”
He found himself remaking the same stuff over and over. “So, I set out to fixing the problems that caused the never-ending use of all these spare parts,” he said. “I would re-engineer and remake the part. I would make a proper shaft once, instead of 15 shafts a year. And that really increased throughput in the factory.”
For about seven years during this time, Craig held several other jobs too. He would work at the tobacco factory from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., then he’d work his side business, Jackson Contracting, grading and seeding new yards until 6 p.m. Then he’d teach machine tool technology at the local vocational school from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Jackson credits his mom and grandpa for his strong work ethic.
“They didn’t just sit around,” he says. “And they seemed to be the happiest people I knew. My favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastics, by King Solomon, maybe the richest, most successful person in the history of the world. All he concluded was, nothing beats a hard day’s work. He had all the gold, all the women, all the power, and he just said, it ain’t doing it for me.”
After about a decade at the tobacco company, Craig was promoted into a management role as continuous improvement manager over the entire factory. Although he was being groomed for Factory Manager, he ended up leaving in 2010 to grow Easy Wood Tools.
A Better Woodturning Tool
Craig stumbled into woodturning in 2007 while shopping with his wife, Donna, in Evansville, Indiana. Donna needed a pair of shoes so while she went into a Shoe Carnival, Craig went next door into a Woodcraft.
“I had never heard of a Woodcraft,” he says. “I went in there and saw a book by Malcolm Tibbetts, on segmented woodturning. I opened that up and I was just amazed. I had no idea anything in woodworking could be this complicated.”
Craig got into making segmented bowls.
“I bought a little Jet mini lathe, put it in my garage, and kept making bigger and bigger bowls, got a big Powermatic lathe, and a trailer, and a 30” chainsaw and it kind of got out of hand,” he says. “But the whole time I was like, what is up with these bowl gouges? This makes no sense! If I had set out to make the most complicated and dangerous cut known to man, I would end up with a bowl gouge.”
So Craig started playing around with carbide inserts. Unable to find anything he liked, he engineered his own replaceable carbide inserts (eliminating the need to constantly resharpen) with crazy angles. He then designed tools with stainless steel to hold the carbide inserts and wooden (mostly maple) handles.
“I was just making the heck out of these bowls with my carbide tools and I thought, maybe I need to show somebody,” he says.
“Nick Cook has probably done more woodturning than maybe anybody on the earth,” Craig says. “So I handed him the tool and I said, ‘Nick, I made this tool. I got $125 I’ll pay you to just try this tool out.’ He said, ‘Let me see that thing.’ He took a few cuts with it and said, ‘You don’t owe me nothing. You need to get this on the market.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll do that.’ And then I said, ‘Hang on. How do you take a product to market?’”
Nick told Craig that he’d connect him with some folks at Craft Supplies USA. Craig sent Darrel Nish a sample.
“They were like, ‘Yeah, you need to start making these,’” Craig says.
Craig knew he needed to go into mass production, but he had no idea how to go into mass production. He simply had to figure it out. Craig sold his tool with Craft Supplies USA exclusively for a year. Then Woodcraft called him up. He sent them some tools.
“A week later, they sent me a $75,000 purchase order,” Craig says. “So I called them back and said, ‘Hang on now. This is just me, my wife, and my two sons – they’re 8 and 10 years old – and the baseball coach. So I mean – we’re just – this is not what you think!”
Craig says a couple things set them apart – aside from the product – that likely made them noticeable to a company such as Woodcraft.
“We did pretty good at marketing and presenting of the product,” he says. “No. 1, we loved the customer. Whatever the customer wanted. I didn’t care how ridiculous it was. If you wanted a purple handle, I made you a purple handle.”
Craig told Woodcraft he didn’t have the capital to buy the raw materials to fulfill the purchase order.
“So they said, ‘We’ll send you a check,’” Craig says. “About three days later I got a $75,000 check in my mailbox. They hadn’t met me, they hadn’t shook my hand, they hadn’t seen my face. No contract. I sat there in the driveway and cried. This is, this is, OK.”
Craig then laughs thinking back at this poignant time in his life, when Easy Wood Tools was officially in business.
“All I’ve ever been and all I am still is just a machinist,” he says. “That’s all I’ve ever claimed to be. So we had to figure out packaging, logistics, shipping, mass production, all in the backyard.”
At one point they ordered all the packaging for the tools and it arrived on a pallet. The delivery person left the pallet in the street, and Craig and his family crew were left figuring out how they were going to muscle the pallet and all its contents up a slope to his garage. At one point, everything fell off the pallet, into the street.
“Everything you can imagine going wrong went wrong,” he says. “But we shipped that order, on time, in full, with no rejects,” he says. “I don’t know how we did it.”
At first it was a family affair. In the evenings, Craig, Donna and their two sons, Noah and Sam, would package up products Saturday and Sunday nights while watching “America’s Funniest Home Videos” while sitting on the living room floor. Sam would get a cutter and drop it in a bag. Noah would add a screw and Ziploc the bag shut. Donna would fold it and staple it. Craig would box it up.
“It was a little Jackson assembly line and they thought it was just as normal as could be,” Craig says.
There are two things Jackson is really proud of when it comes to Easy Wood Tools. First, it was the company’s ability to capture the essence of the power of possibility.
Something Jackson has always found interesting: At woodturning shows, during the auctions at the end of shows, wood blanks would often go for more money than turned pieces of art.
“And what that told me is the value of possibility is much greater than the value of possession,” he says. “I think that’s what I was able to do with Easy Wood Tools. I would give the customer the path to the possibility of making a great bowl because the tools are so simple. We could hand them to 8-year-olds and they would turn pens.”
Second, in the beginning, traditional tool companies would chastise Craig for taking away business. At first, this stung. But in his heart he knew he was not taking away anybody’s income. So he simply asked competing companies to simply give him a chance. He told them he would increase their sales by growing the number of woodturners. And sure enough, he did. Easy Wood Tools produced more woodturners who not only bought Easy Wood Tools, but woodturning tools from every other woodturning tool company as well.
“And then, by 2013, everybody and their brother was knocking me off and I was about done with it,” Craig says. “I mean, it was like 20 companies. I’d go to a trade show and on each side of me there were companies selling knockoffs, and they weren’t as good.”
This hurt, Craig says. “I built that company best I could not taking nothing from nobody and I just, I don’t know.”
In 2015 Craig sold Easy Wood Tools to Chicago-based Pony Tools Inc., of Jorgensen clamp fame. Within six months Pony Tools went bankrupt, and Craig didn’t get all his money. So he turned to what he knew best – machine work.
(Note, Craig has not had any affiliation, whatsoever, with Easy Wood Tools since 2015.)
But first, he had to sell everything.
Look for Part 2 Sunday, July 3.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl