We chatted with Kory Gier, VP of Holland Bowl Mill, on her journey of expanding a 4th generation, 94-year-old mill from making wood shoes to contemporary bowls in Holland, Michigan.
Kory, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name is Kory Gier. I'm the Vice President of Holland Bowl Mill. I'm from Holland, Michigan and raised in Holland, where the company was started. I went to college here in Holland at a local college called Hope College. I'm a fourth generation owner of the company. The company was started in 1926. So it's been in the family for a very long time.
We started out by making wooden shoes. So my great grandfather, Chester VanTongeren started the original wooden shoe factory here in 1926, and then the Holland Bowl Mills was started in 1984. I grew up around the company. My whole life working in middle school, high school, college. And then after college, my four older brothers and sisters, they kinda went their own way after college. And I was kind of the last chance to stick with the family company. So, I came on board, and that was about 2011 and still my dad remains part of the company. We have 17 employees. We manufacture and make all of our products here in Holland, Michigan. A fun fact about our company—we were featured in The New York Times Holiday Gift Guide in 2013.
That’s a huge accomplishment!
Yeah, it was amazing. It was so much fun. We were featured on the show “How It's Made” in 2007, and they still show that episode about 10 times a year. So, yeah, it's a fun family, family company. Everything's made here in Holland, Michigan—American made, which we kind of hang our hats on. We love having partnerships with companies like East Fork. That's what keeps us going. You guys make beautiful pottery, too, which is awesome. That's by far our favorite partners to have.
Can you walk us through the creative process, what takes place in the back of the house, materials and timelines, and generally how your bowls are made?
We work with local tree services and mills all across Michigan where we get our materials. We start with 8 to 14 foot logs of various hardwoods. You currently sell walnut and maple, all of which are hardwoods from Michigan. Once the trees get to us, the logs get loaded up onto a log deck. From there, they get power washed and cut into blocks. From there, they're cut into what's called bowl blanks. We do nested turning. You get numerous bowls out of each bowl blank.
East Fork sells the 15”, 12”, and 9” bowls, and there's a series of knives that have a different curvature to cut out each bowl—that way, there's zero waste. We're utilizing every part of that blank, and any excess wood that isn't made into bowls is made into cutting boards, candle holders, grilling planes, candlesticks, rolling pans, wooden utensils. Anything that we can't use after that is sold for firewood.
We have a large conveyor system that runs throughout the whole mill. All the shavings get funneled through the conveyor system to a trailer outside which is sold for horse bedding. So we really have a zero waste process. Not one part of the tree ends up in the landfill, which is a huge aspect of our company. We do what's also called select cuttings, where we plant a new tree for every tree we cut down. The tree services we work with are cutting down very large, mature trees, so this is a huge priority for us, as sustainability is a key aspect of our company.
Wow! Your zero waste manufacturing process is comprehensive sustainability ecosystem.
Definitely. After the bowls are turned, they’re put onto a cart where they go into a steam room at 180 degrees for 4 hours to steam out the sap, and when they come out, they air dry for 2 to 4 weeks. The main thing that the steam room and air-drying is doing is preventing cracking and warping after they are fully dry. At the end of this process the bowls are left with about 8-10% moisture content. Once the bowls are dry, they go through a lengthy sanding process to ensure all sides are smooth and sit perfectly flat. Their final step is being graded for quality and finished with our mineral and bee oil mixture that we make right in-house.
Another really cool thing is, you guys have been growing with us, you've been ordering larger quantities each time, so it’s kind of nice for you to understand our process. Now, we start with 14ft logs, so every bowl is going to be unique and different, which is amazing. No two bowls are going to be alike.
To your point, each bowl is so uniquely beautiful and here is a bonus - we can now explain why there are no seams in any of the bowls?
Yes, exactly. It's a solid one piece bowl. There's no adhesives, no glues. It's not segmented.
What manufacturing processes has the company upgraded over the years?
When the company started in 1926, everything was still based on the same methods, meaning nested turning. It's always been kind of our mainstay, but over the years obviously as technology has changed. We upgraded our equipment when we moved to our current location in 2001, where we customized and rebuilt everything.
I was talking to my neighbor on Sunday and she expressed the naysayer sentiment that anything made with a machine is not handmade. What’s your thought about this?
Any turning of a bowl is always going to be done on a lathe. The gentleman who's running the lathe is dictating the speed, cutting the bowl out and shaping the bowl. He's doing everything. The lathe is just helping him to create that final product. In fact, each bowl is probably touched over 200 times by one of our 17 employees during the entire manufacturing process.
Now, I need to ask about how the HMB bowls should be cared for by the customer. Can you break it down into a couple easy steps for us?
After each use, wash the bowl with warm water and soap then let it air dry. After you wash your bowl 5 to 6 times eventually, the wood will start to dry out a little bit. We highly recommend retreating your bowl—we use a product we've been making for over 40 years called Bees Oil. It's a mixture of food safe mineral oil and beeswax, but you can also use food safe mineral oil, walnut oil, or coconut oil, too.
Treat the bowl with a lint free cloth, the entire bowl inside and outside. Let it sit for a few minutes and then wipe off any excess oil. That's really the only care that you should have!
So with that said, tell us about the HBM Lifetime Warranty.
With all of our partners, including East Fork, if a customer takes proper care of their bowl, meaning hand washing it with warm water and soap, never putting it in the dishwasher, and periodically treating it, and if the bowl randomly cracks, send a photo to East Fork’s customer care team. They can forward the photo to us, and we will replace it for free. We have that lifetime guarantee because it's an heirloom piece. It's going to be a piece that you can pass down from generation to generation.
What other core values does HBM have that enhances your relationship with your surrounding community?
Holland, Michigan is a great city to own a small business in, and we're very blessed to be part of this community. We’re very involved with the visitor’s bureau right here in Holland, The Michigan West Coast Chambers of Commerce, and we do a lot of sponsorships with them. We donate 50 - 75 times a year throughout Michigan to different events that are helping people, children advocacy, and children with cancer.
We do classrooms all the time. It's nice for kids to see that products can still be handcrafted these days. They can see more of the old-world style of making a wood bowl and that you can still make a career from doing something like this. A lot of people think that college is the only choice, but we need more makers in this world. Showing the younger generation how to be a maker is something we really love to do. I would say those are some of the main things that we do with our community.
I agree. There’s magic in something being handcrafted—it is so important for everyone to see. Kory, thank you so much for all the information you’ve shared with us today.
It’s been great talking to you, I thoroughly enjoyed it. We've loved our partnership with East Fork, and we hope that it continues to grow over the years.