The wood is wet
and warm as Bill Kiel pulls it from a stainless steel tank in his workshop.
Working quickly, before the board can cool and stiffen, he wraps the
thin strip of maple around an oval-shaped oak block. Once the ends of
the band overlap Bill taps a few brass tacks in place.
bends a wooden strip around an oak form to create the body of
a Shaker box. The boxes are sold through folk art galleries and
museum gift shops across the nation.
Although many steps
into the process, only now does the form of Bill’s project become
apparent. He is making a Shaker box. Originally created by members of
the Shaker religious sect as kitchen canisters, today these oval boxes
are popular with collectors and others who admire their simple style.
Once a bottom is
glued and nailed in place and a top constructed the canister will receive
an oil finish. The plain container, suitable for stashing a few keepsakes,
will bring about $60 in a museum gift shop or folk art gallery.
These boxes, in
a dozen sizes and as many configurations, are the stock in trade of
Wooden Dreams. For 16 years the business has allowed Bill and his wife,
Marilyn, to live and work from their southeast Missouri home near Marquand.
Like the originals,
Bill’s boxes can be nested inside one another or stacked. But
unlike those made by Shakers, few are used to store flour or sugar.
In fact, many of Bill’s creations, while similar to the originals,
are adapted to modern uses.
often buy sets of Shaker boxes. Bill and Marilyn offer an entire
range, from 00 size, suitable for storing pills or sewing needles,
up to a size 10 box, which are often purchased to hold photographs
or other mementos.
Tiny No. 00 size
boxes receive a bent wooden handle and are sold as Christmas tree ornaments.
A medium No. 6 box is modified with dowels to hold spools of thread.
One box becomes a purse while another is lined with velvet to hold jewelry.
“We say they
are Shaker inspired,” Bill says. “The shakers didn’t
believe in jewelry so I doubt they made too many jewelry boxes.”
Raised in south
St. Louis, the Kiels moved ever outward in search of a quiet life and
a safe place to raise their kids. They lived in south St. Louis County,
then Jefferson County. When their 40 acres there became surrounded by
urban sprawl they moved to their current home on a remote piece of ground
in Bollinger County.
Along the way Bill
worked odd jobs, first building swimming pools and later houses. The
couple boarded horses for a time and for six years Bill taught building
trades at Perryville High School.
At some point Marilyn’s
mother gave them a magazine that contained an article about Shaker boxes.
Bill decided to make one. “I just wanted to see if I could do
it,” he says.
cuts the "fingers" of a swallowtail joint, one of the
characteristic features of a Shaker box.
box took as long as the first box we’d have been out of business
a long time ago,” the Black River Electric Cooperative member
says. “I had no idea how thick the bands should be. That first
box must have weighed about 20 pounds.”
In time, Bill perfected
his craft. He learned to saw birds-eye maple, cherry and other hardwoods
into stock less than an eighth of an inch thick and to bend the wood
into boxes that rivaled the originals for quality and workmanship.
“Some of the
people we’ve sold to who were truly into Shaker collecting have
commented that ours have a quality that wasn’t in the mass-produced
boxes,” Bill says. “They’ll use plywood for the top.
Now it’s veneered plywood but ours are solid wood. It gives the
box a different feel.”
boxes ready to sell, Marilyn took on the task of marketing them. Today
the couple’s products are sold through a handful of specialty
shops scattered from California to Michigan to Kentucky. Originally,
though, Marilyn sold Shaker boxes practically door to door.
“He made a
bunch of stuff and I put it in the back of my little red truck and drove
all over the country selling it,” Marilyn says. “I would
walk into a shop and say, ‘Hey, you want to buy a box?’”
and Marilyn pose in front of their home near Marquand. The Shaker
box business has allowed the couple to work from their home for
the past 16 years.
While Marilyn made
a few sales in Missouri, business really picked up after the Kiels joined
a Shaker study group and were welcomed into a community of Shaker enthusiasts
The couple learned
that Shakers, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s
Second Appearing, were a religious group that formed communal societies
in the Northeast and Midwest during the 18th and 19th centuries. The
group practiced celibacy — men and women lived separately —
and shared all property. They earned the moniker “Shaking Quakers”
by trembling violently to rid themselves of evil.
“I think some
of their attitudes about work are a good thing. I find that appealing,”
Bill says while explaining that his and Marilyn’s fascination
with the Shakers only goes so far.
“That I shouldn’t
be married does not appeal to me. That I shouldn’t have kids does
not appeal to me,” he says. “We don’t carry it too
Though they once
numbered about 5,000, only a small colony of Shakers remains today in
Maine. The Shaker’s influence is still felt, however, primarily
through a style of architecture, furniture and design characterized
by simplicity and utility.
One design closely
associated with Shakers is the oval-shaped canisters that fascinated
“I call them
the original Tupperware because they nest inside each other and they
were made to carry and hold things,” says Diana Van Kolken, who
sells the Kiel’s products at her Holland, Mich., store The Shaker
Messenger and Folk Art Gallery.
squeezes drying blocks into a just-bent band of maple. Each box
wonderful gifts,” Van Kolken says. “A lot of people who
sew use them. You could store photographs in them, love letters, a number
of things. We’ve had a number of people buy them for memory boxes.”
oval Shaker boxes the Kiels sell a number of other woodworking products.
A new item is a recipe box with dovetailed joinery that retails for
about $60. They also make lap desks, tables and an adjustable candle
holder. The simple lines and functional designs the Shakers were known
for inspire all of these products.
According to Van
Kolken, who for 18 years published The Shaker Messenger, the products
from Wooden Dreams are also true to the craftsmanship of the originals.
“When I get
them and I unpack them I love touching them and looking at them,”
she says. “You get the smell of the new wood and you think this
is something that somebody spent a lot of time making. It’s hand
crafted. It’s American made.
their heart and their soul and love into the product that they make.”
Indeed, producing Shaker boxes and other hand-crafted products one at
a time offers Bill and Marilyn the chance to fulfill a dream of earning
a living from their home in the country.
a band saw, Bill resaws lumber into narrow strips. Each box uses
a slightly different thickness of wood.
was to find a place like this,” Marilyn says. “We were trying
to find something we wanted to do and do it here, away from everybody.
And we were thinking along the lines of woodworking of some type.”
For Bill, the transformation
from laborer to craftsman came easily.
say I spent many long hours at night pondering just how I was going
to get from where I was,” he says. “Good fortune just led
from one customer to another.
Even at prices which
range from $25 for a pill-sized No. 00 Shaker box to $250 for a sewing
case, he’s not getting rich. But it’s work he enjoys, he
easier ways to make a living,” Bill says. “It’s time
consuming. If I figured what I make per hour then I don’t do that
well but since I enjoy doing it, if I work 10 or 12 hours, I don’t
For more information,
contact Wooden Dreams, Rt. 1, Marquand, MO 63655 or call (573) 866-2283.