Maine Wood Heat: Invested in 04976 | December 2016
By Maria Landry
At Skowhegan’s Maine Wood Heat Company, Scott Barden and his parents, Albie Barden and Cheryl Barden Kemper, have developed a business that focuses not only on quality and craftsmanship but also on community and family.
“For 34-plus years, my dad’s place in Norridgewock was our home base,” Scott Barden, owner-vice president, said from the company’s current facility in Northgate Industrial Park off North Avenue. “We worked out of two barns. It’s where I grew up as well. It was an awesome place in terms of energy, but it just became logistically impossible to pull off what we’re pulling off now.”
What Maine Wood Heat is pulling off now is not only building masonry heaters, which were the cornerstone of the company for two decades, but selling wood-fired ovens, including mobile ovens, to clients nationwide ranging from commercial restaurants to individuals.
“Until 2005 my dad had been selling ovens primarily in just the core format, which is basically the masonry innards as a kit for do-it-your-selfers and contractors,” Barden said. “In 2005 I joined Maine Wood Heat as a partner, and it coincided with [metal artist] Barry Norling building the first-ever copper dome for a client we had out in Los Angeles. That kind of spawned the thought that we could make a value-added product in a way that allowed us to be more based in the shop rather than on the road as itinerant traveling masons.“
While building the masonry heaters often requires being on the road for a week or more at a time for installation, turnkey ovens can be crafted in house, allowing for a less nomadic lifestyle that Barden says is important to him.
“When I rejoined the company [in 2005] my family was still pretty young and I was looking for a way to be more home-based, so we started trying to promote and market the metal turnkey concept more and more,” he said. “From that we started building mobile ovens on trailers. We outsourced the trailer fab early on, and we outsourced the copper fabrication—but I always had an interest in having that under one roof, so in 2010 we bought this building and in 2011 we moved in.”
One of the first things Barden and his parents did after moving into their new space in the industrial park was to bring the trailer production in house, which allowed them to do much more customization. They’ve continued to make capital investments in the building infrastructure and tooling, furthering their ability to up the ante on what they can offer.
“We’ve departed from just doing copper domes,” Barden said. “We do stainless domes, Cor-Ten steel domes. We do a cylindrical design. With having this building, with wanting to have more and more of a stake in the custom wood-fired oven market, we’ve continually shifted up our designs and tried to appeal to a broader cross-section of oven connoisseurs.”
In addition to the ovens, there is a continued demand for masonry heater work, which Albie Barden mostly fulfills.
“I’m not quite sure where that’s going to go, given that my dad’s 71,” Scott Barden mused. “He wants to slow down, and yet he likes the work and we still have a demand for it.”
Barden doesn’t intend to take over the masonry heater work himself given the time away from home that would entail.
“I made a pretty clear decision that I wanted to develop something that was based in Skowhegan, that utilized the community, that allowed me to stay here more consistently, and at the same time played with my design interests to kind of keep things exciting,” Barden said.
Looking ahead to a time when masonry heaters are a less dominant or potentially nonexistent part of the company’s portfolio has spurred Barden to make the wood-fired ovens an element that can carry the company. Maine Wood Heat also recently added a much more comprehensive wood shop that Barden hopes to use to incorporate wood into some of the oven facades or even to branch out into furniture.
While Barden says business hasn’t yet hit the point where it’s unyielding all the time, Maine Wood Heat is currently booking projects into the spring.
“At certain times of the year I feel like we’re on the cusp of exploding, and then there are real questions in my mind about what kind of growth we want to experience,” he said. “We have six employees, so there’s nine of us right now. We have a really strong emphasis on community and family. My hope is that we can continue down that road no matter where we go size-wise or product-wise. It’s important that it’s not just a business, that there’s connection happening with clients, there’s connection happening with people you work with every day.”
As Barden considers the future, he is curious to find out whether any of his three children, ages 15, 12, and 4, wants to be involved in the company. “It’s been a cool thing to be carrying on the legacy and at the same time having been enabled by [my parents] to push it in the direction of my interests,” Barden said, adding that that’s something he would want to make happen for his kids as well.
Whatever the future brings for Maine Wood Heat, Barden is passionate about being part of the Skowhegan community. “We’re fully invested in 04976,” he said, noting that he and his wife recently built a house in neighboring Cornville, which shares Skowhegan’s zip code. “I’m really excited to see the shifts that have come with being in this building, being in town, seeing the direct day-to-day community involvement.”