Made in Southeast Missouri: Ortmann Woodcraft

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Patton, Missouri

Take the drive north on State Highway 72, pass acres of farmland and, eventually, Meadow Heights High School, and you’ll run into a business producing custom wood products and shipping around the globe. There’s no sign up on this early October day; the couple, Jon and Debbie Ortmann, have just moved to the new location in Patton, Missouri. It’s a 9,000-square-foot white and green barnhouse where they make custom wood products.

The husband and wife team call their work “functional art,” and their customers are from all across the U.S., ranging from local schools to the President of the United States.

The business was born four years ago, while the couple worked separate jobs but used their time off, typically at night, to work on wood projects.

They call it wood turning. Pens, letter openers, butcher blocks. You name it, and there’s a chance they can make it.

Two years ago, they received an interesting call, one that would expedite their business plan.

While showing products at a Cape Girardeau farmer’s market, a customer picked up their business card and shared it with U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), who served as a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

“We were in our shop, and this lady called me and asked for a thousand pens for the inauguration, and I almost laughed,” Jon says. But as the conversation went on, he realized it wasn’t a joke.

Soon after, they were sending prototypes back and forth. The Ortmanns had to wait to find out whose name would reside on the inaugural gifts until the rest of the world received the election results.

The Ortmanns made this pen and letter opener for the 2016 presidential inauguration.

Ultimately, the committee contracted with them for 500 pens and 500 letter openers. Jon and Debbie couldn’t tell anyone about the project, but on inauguration day, Sen. Blunt took the stage and mentioned the Ortmanns’ work. Sitting on the platform, the Southeast Missouri couple was shocked. Jon’s phone would not stop ringing, and their website received tens of thousands of page views.

“The inauguration gave us the ability … to start seeing that five- or 10-year [plan] down the road,” Jon says.

The presidential gifts were their largest order at the time, but their approach to the business remains fairly simple: provide top-quality products, and be proud of every one that is sold with their name on it.

Each item, even if it’s the same type and wood as another, is unique.

“Even if you order five pens with the same wood, every one is going to be different,” Jon says.

They plan to continue offering a diverse lineup of products, in part because of the nature of their business, and in part because of their interests.

For some customers, it’s about taking a specific piece of wood and having items made from it: a local private school had tablets of the Ten Commandments made from old bleachers.

Their supply of wood comes in part through their network of family and friends around the state who call them when there is a fallen tree. Many times the Ortmanns pick up fallen trees by request and bring them back to their operation to dry and use for a later project.

“We’re able to get our hands on some very desirable wood that is just plentiful,” Debbie says, adding that what’s plentiful in Missouri could be considered exotic elsewhere.

The Ortmanns have watched family members operate their own small businesses; the nuts and bolts of the business side haven’t surprised them, but they’ve been blown away by the professional network developed with other makers.

What’s next? They hope to have a lumber mill by the spring so they can begin doing larger one-off cuts for tables and slabs 40-50 inches wide. A retail operation is also in the works.

Debbie and Jon Ortmann of Ortmann Woodcraft, work in their new shop in Patton, Missouri, where they make custom wood products.