Made in the Northwest: Plywerk

The Pacific Northwest is home to a surprising number of photo-industry businesses who design, build, code, and engineer some of the industry’s best products right here in our own backyard. We thought it would be interesting to profile some of these companies and find out what makes them tick, to tell their stories and reveal the people behind their success. First up is a small company with a very big heart: Plywerk.

My GPS tells me I have arrived at my destination, but I don’t see anything that looks like the high-end boutique I had expected for Plywerk. Instead, I am greeted by a fairly large, fairly plain warehouse building. I decide to give my GPS the benefit of the doubt, and park my car. A cursory walk-around reveals the building to contain a couple of loading docks and a few wood and metal shops. Workers from several different businesses are busy making things by hand, and few pay any attention to me. I eventually step through an unmarked door, up some steps, and through a small waiting room where I discover the entrance to Plywerk. Its office contains more of the fancy, upscale feel I had predicted, yet is notably casual and down-to-earth. But then I realize, of course it would be. This is Portland.

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This is where I meet Kjell van Zoen, who founded and owns Plywerk with his wife, Kim Oahn Nguyen-van Zoen. Kjell is wearing a cycling cap and Plywerk t-shirt. He takes me on a tour that reveals how Plywerk is made and the people who make it. A row of parked bicycles and the occasional head of pink or blue hair remind me again that this is Portland. We may do things a little bit differently, but we still know how to get things done. There is very little, if any, chitchat happening behind the scenes. Everybody is focused. Thankfully, Kjell and Kim have no problem shutting down production for a while in order to allow me to set up in the wood shop and prepare for their interview.

The husband and wife team started Plywerk in 2006 as a way to help Kim sell her photography at Saturday Market. “I wanted something different,” Kim explains. “So I tried taking a photograph and gluing it on different mediums and finally the plywood piece looked good to me. I brought it to Kjell and said, ‘What do you think?'” Kjell took the idea to a friend of his who had a wood shop, and the friend cut the first pieces of what would eventually become known as Plywerk. Kjell routed out the unique keyholes in the back of the panel, which allow for easy wall mounting, and Kim did the sanding.

“We started selling [Kim's Pywerk-mounted photographs] at Saturday Market, and people started asking us if we could do it for them,” says Kjell. “That’s when we came up with the idea of turning this into a company to do it for other people. That was never the intention to start with.” While the idea began entirely as Kim’s, it was Kjell who came up with the name. “My goal was to find something that sounded a little European from my Dutch background, and ‘werk’ means ‘work’ in Dutch. The URL was available, so I was like, great!”

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The entire manufacturing process, from cutting the panel to mounting the image, is done completely by hand in Plywerk’s Portland shop. The panels get their “baby-smooth” finish by going through a unique, two-stage sanding procedure. There are a couple of secret ingredients that help ensure consistency, but the real reason for the quality of Plywerk’s products and success of its brand is no secret at all: its employees. “The thing I’m most proud of at Plywerk is that I get to work with incredible people. Everyone who works here is so dedicated to our cause, not just to putting out an incredible product, but also as far as making sure every customer feels like they’re treated with the utmost respect,” says Kjell. Plywerk employs between 15 and 20 people, depending on the time of year, and they are fittingly self-described as “bike-riding, tofu-eating Portlanders.”

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Finding a local solution was a key component and challenge of Plywerk’s business plan. “I think the biggest challenge in creating a business out of Plywerk is really the limitations we put on ourselves,” Kjell informs me. “We have a triple bottom line business policy: people, planet, profit. When it comes to the planet and profit side of things, being eco-conscious and doing it locally are two things that have been really challenging.” Manufacturing the panels in Portland meant charging a higher price for Plywerk; it had to be a premium product. “I’m employing people locally, and people locally can’t work for $4 an hour. Even if I paid minimum wage, [Plywerk] would still have to be a high-end product, and we try to pay at least a living wage, which is way higher than minimum wage.”

Being eco-conscious was the second big challenge for Plywerk. “We take it really seriously,” says Kjell. “We didn’t want to be another company that is greenwashing.” Some eco-conscious solutions have also been local ones. “We looked for a different freezer paper, tested four others, posted all the results on our blog and said, ‘Hey, we tried, but we couldn’t find anything better so we’re stuck with this, which we realize isn’t eco-conscious.’ And then a company contacted us from Vancouver, saying, ‘Hey, we have a solution for you, do you want to test it?’ We tested it, it worked great, and we began using it this month.”

Kjell also has a unique perspective on operating a business in Portland, having previously started a company in the Netherlands and two in England. In Portland, “the taxes are much less, the red tape is much less, there are much more opportunities to be able to kickstart a business, and the support from the community is much higher. In Holland, a lot of businesses have been around for hundreds of years—before America even existed—so you’re competing with companies that have been around for so long and are so embedded in society, that when you start a business, A, people think you’re crazy, or B, they don’t trust you. America is built on small business, and people starting cool things, and Portland is just a hotbed for that.”

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Despite being a high-end product, Kjell tells me that Plywerk is now primarily marketed toward consumers. Plywerk still offers its impressive “Pro Deal,” which grants professional photographers and artists 10-30% off each order, but pros already know how to find Plywerk for themselves. The consumer marketing strategy is based around one key message. “I like to think of it like the question, why Plywerk?” says Kjell. The answer? “Because your memories matter.” Our photos, our memories, are not meant to be lost, hidden away on a hard drive or online in a virtual album. We should cherish them, display them, and warm our homes with them.

Plywerk, with its clean lines, smooth finish, and professional print quality, is a great option for chic coffee shop galleries, but the casual warmth of bamboo or maple plywood makes it equally comfortable mounted on your living room wall. For those of you who already print but have yet to discover Plywerk, I strongly urge you to give it a try. For the rest of you who rarely or never print your photos, perhaps now is a good time to start. Pro Photo Supply is happy to be able to support Plywerk by handling most of their printing needs through our photo lab. (You can even order Plywerk online from our lab by clicking here.) We encourage you to come in and ask about mounting your next print on Plywerk or, at the very least, check the company out online at www.plywerk.com.

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