Exotic Lumber, Inc.
African black wood
for the bagpipe manufacturer? Got it. Mexican cocobola for crafting
bird calls? Got it. Bass wood for the duck carvers on the Eastern
Shore? Yep. What about red ivory for the latch on the exquisite
designer handbag? Got that, too---as well as lignum vita from
Central America for the croquet mallet head maker in Florida (a
If it all sounds quite exotic, it is. Exotic Lumber on Russell
Street in Annapolis (off West Street) boasts more than 100 species
of timber from all over the world and keeps much of it in stock,
right there. The sign behind the counter invites customers to
step into the warehouse and "help yourself"---an invitation worth
accepting, if for no other reason than to experience the smooth,
fragrant aroma of the wood.
The proprietor, Bill West, hails from Durban, South Africa; only
his full name, van der Westhuizen, is from Holland. Seven years
ago, the crime factor in South Africa drove him to the United
States. A former customer had moved here and opened up a cabinet
shop and allowed West to share the premises. About four years
later, West teamed up with two other local businesses to purchase
and remodel the current building, each retaining one-third ownership.
West earned his degree in architecture from Durban Technical College
in 1975. From there he went into the property business. "It was
a surfer's paradise called Jeffrey's Bay, on the east coast of
South Africa," he recalls. Business was good until an economic
downturn sent him overseas to America, Europe and South America
for two years, working odd jobs and traveling about. On his return
to South Africa, West opened a restaurant. "I found that boring
and uninteresting," he says.
Previous exposure to carpentry gave West the idea to start a timber
business during the day while continuing to operate the restaurant
at night. Recognizing an opportunity in importing timbers, he
opened up a business in his parents' garage with an initial investment
of $600. As soon as he saw the business taking off, he sold the
restaurant to one of the waitresses and his original partner.
West did his homework by researching the market and attending
auctions. ("I enjoyed them.") He soon realized that the two major
lumber firms in Durban were not giving good service and he saw
an opportunity to compete. West would buy lumber from them and
sell it to their customers. "And I would do it faster," he says.
"I offered 24-hour service. I grew the whole business on service
In addition to the Annapolis location, Exotic Lumber can be found
in Baltimore and in South Africa. Plans are in progress to open
shops in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia within the next two
years, as well. "Getting the American woodworker to trust a foreigner
has been a challenge," says West. "It's one of the oldest professions,
dealers all over the place. You must show them you can give them
something valuable and well priced."
Customers to the Annapolis store come from all over the United
States and from the local woodworking population, to include repair
people and hobbyists. "Very few buy volume lumber from me because
they have dealt with others for 10 or 15 years," says West. "Here
in Annapolis, we sell to a lot of boat builders, as well as wood
turners, wood carvers and wood collectors. They know that in addition
to a good product at a competitive price, they are getting knowledge."
After 16 years of experience in the timber industry, West is well-traveled,
well-read and well-connected. "You meet a lot of interesting and
good people," he says. "I think that keeps me going. And I do
all the buying for four operations. This year, I was in Africa
for six weeks; last year in New Guinea and Hawaii." West often
combines business trips with family visits back to South Africa,
accompanied by his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 4. "I have
developed relationships over the years so that I need not travel
as much as I used to," he explains, "because they know what I
want. But there are still some species you have to see. The nature
of the environment, the grade of the lumber---the needs of wood
carvers and wood workers is far different from the needs of a
user in the third world countries where most wood comes from."
"We probably have the largest selection of wood under one roof
on the East Coast," says West. Exotic Lumber's 100 species includes
local varieties such as poplar, cherry, maple, red oak and white
oak. "We have lumber from $1 to $300 a board foot," says West.
"The market for the $300 board is a lot smaller and more specific
than the market for the $1 board. You must be there to see the
quality, so I don't have as much faith in wood-buying over the
Internet for the end user as other people do. I want to see, touch
and smell it first."
The purpose in traveling for West is sometimes to physically pick
out the wood, but other times it's to network and build relationships.
"We are dealing with tribesmen and farmers," he explains. "Probably
some of them have very little idea of what the end use can be
or what the end product is going to be used for."
So, how does the traveling man get away from all this? He doesn't.
"My wife and I both love to travel," he says. "That is our hobby."
Of course, when visiting some exotic place on holiday, West always
checks out the local timber scene and usually ends up buying something.
"An hour and a half before I got married, I was looking at wood,"
he says. "To be successful, you really have to be committed. It's
a hobby and a lifestyle to me."
West is quick to admit that, from the standpoint of the timber
business, Annapolis may not be the best place to settle. "But
we like this town," he says. "It is a very safe environment for
kids to grow up and there's plenty to do here."
The locals have been more than accepting. Folks such as the first-time
boat builder---who stops in almost daily, proudly reporting his
progress and inquiring as to the proper materials for his next
steps---have come to depend on the honest advice they know they
will receive. West elaborates, "You can get a degree in forest
technology, know how trees grow...but there's no degree program
that teaches about 106 different woods. Even information in the
books is not always accurate and up to date because species have
changed over the years. There are not enough people around with
[that kind of knowledge]. Here, in a little store that is not
very impressive, I am bold enough to tell people they may be incorrect
in their choice of timber. At the end of the day, that is my success-I
tell the truth. I believe that when you create confidence on the
part of the customer, they will come back to you."