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LittleMachineShop.com founder Chris Wood

When Chris Wood started LittleMachineShop.com, it was only supposed to be a test.

Wood and a partner were writing manuals for a Japanese printer company and he realized he should learn to build e-commerce sites for the clients he worked with.  Wood had his own mini lathe at home but found he had few choices when it came to buying parts, so he decided to set up an online shop to sell them himself.

The timing couldn’t have been better.  It was the beginning of the dot com crash, and as his other work fell off, the site Wood had conceived as a backup became his main business.

LittleMachineshop.com Logo“A year or so before, I started working on mini lathes and had to go around to different places to find them,” Wood says.  “In the beginning we never sold complete machines, only parts.  Now we’re selling CNC milling machines and are looking into other new areas.”

Littlemachineshop.com is big now.  They sell nationwide and the weak American dollar has helped push international sales, which now make up 7 percent of the company’s total sales.  Wood says most customers are hobbyists, but he also has several large clients who purchase parts for the machines in their prototype shops.

Lockheed Martin is a client.  So is NASA.

“They’re not building aircraft with our parts, but they’re trying some things in their shops,” Wood says.

The company has six employees, and other than a few down months at the beginning of the current recession it has grown in low double digits each year.  Wood says he’s also negotiating with a large international company to be the exclusive provider of new and more powerful equipment (but he’s still a bit uneasy about giving too many details until the ink is on the paper for the deal).

Wood is a mechanical engineer by training, and earlier in his career worked more directly in the field.  He designed cargo loaders for airlines and served as an engineer for a garlic distribution plant.  When it came to machining, the only formal training he had was a shop class in college and his home shop.

From his perspective as an entrepreneur and a hobbyist, Wood says machining is anything but exploding.

“I’m not going to tell you this is a fast-growing hobby,” he says.  “There are always people getting into it but then there are some falling by the wayside.  It’s a real small niche hobby, especially compared to woodworking. You probably have three neighbors that are woodworking, but you probably don’t have any neighbors that have a machine shop in their garage.”

But that’s not all bad from a business standpoint.  There are fewer opportunities for growth but also less competitors, and Wood says he commands a significant share of the market.  The difficulty is in finding the customers, who can tend to skew older and are less connected to the Internet.

“We have a large percentage of retired customers and it’s not surprising if I ask a guy for his e-mail address he’ll say he doesn’t have a home computer,” Wood says.

The hobbyists also tend to be less concentrated.  There are still only a handful of clubs people identify with, Wood says, while woodworking or car repair clubs are found in every medium sized city.  LittleMachineShop.com’s offices are in Pasadena, but Wood says the nearest club is a day-long drive across the Los Angeles basin.

Even though machining magazines report proportionally more subscriptions in Southern California than most other areas, Wood says machining has remained a largely solitary venture there as it does in the rest of the country.

This is driving most machinists to the Internet, to congregate on blogs and message boards and share their designs, he says.  His own site, aside from being one of the largest on the Internet devoted to machining, also serves as a jumping-off point that sends users to a number of specialty sites for mini lathes, mini mills and home machine shops.

“That’s been growing exponentially on the web over the last few years” he says.  “People have machine shops for all different reasons.  Some of them do it because machining is their hobby, but some just like to fix motorcycles and that’s their hobby.  The Internet is where they all meet, and it’s only going to grow.”

4 comments to LittleMachineShop.com founder Chris Wood

  • C B "Buzz" Matthews
    December 17, 2009 at 1:41 PM | Reply

    I hve purchased quite a few items from the LittleMachineshop and have enjpyed them. I am a 91 year old Civil Engineer and am very active in computers, wood working and metal working as hobbies. Chris Wood has always been helpful when I run up against a problem in metal working.

  • AES
    February 16, 2010 at 1:09 PM | Reply

    Rob,

    I have just stumbled across your site and this was/is my 1st visit. Reaction so far? EXCELLENT site Sir, thanks very much.

    One of the first things I found on your site (pity I missed the deadline on the Essay contest though, I would have liked to have a go at that) was your article on Chris Woods and LMS.

    I’ve really only just started “playing” with my Chinese Mini Lathe (I really only wanted it to make special bits for my “main” hobby of model aircraft – Yeah, right!), but being based here in Switzerland I had found it difficult to find support for my Mini Lathe effortsb at first, not to mention buy tooling etc for it ….

    …. until I found Chris Woods’ LMS site. I’ve found several others since but must say that for nearly every question I’ve had, and for every item I’ve needed, LMS have provided the answer. All my orders have been correctly and promptly delivered and I have been thoroughly satisfied – LMS is EXCELLENT, and anyone who has any doubts about buying stuff on line can deal here with complete confidence. May he and LMS go from strength to strength.

    Usual disclaimers.

    Krgds
    AES

    • admin
      February 17, 2010 at 9:17 PM | Reply

      Thank you sir! Compliments like yours really help keep me motivated.

      I feel exactly the same way about LMS. They’ve promptly replied each time I’ve asked them a question and they always seem to do more than they have to to keep their customers happy. It’s no wonder they have an excellent reputation.

      I would have liked to have read your entry for the essay contest. I was very surprised when only one person entered it. Luckily, Mikey’s essay was excellent and it was a pleasure to send him a check for the first place prize.

      I’m not rich but I’d like to do another contest someday, but probably not until my readership has grown more and I can maybe expect more entries. It probably won’t be an essay contest though. Instead, I have a couple of ideas for a simple design contest that I hope will be fun.

      You can still have a go at writing an essay if you would like to try being a guest blogger. I can’t pay you for it, but it will get a lot of exposure. You’ll also be helping me out. I try to add new content regularly (without spending too much of my life in front of a computer monitor) and there’s going to be a few weeks next month when I’m not going to be able to do that.

      Thank you again for your compliment.

      Rob

      • AES
        February 19, 2010 at 2:15 PM | Reply

        Rob,

        Thanks for your comments. I’ll think carefully about the “essay”. If I do it I’ll be breaking a rule of my own here (I think it comes originally from George Bernard Shaw but I’d better check that – AND the actual wording to (!), but roughly it goes “Anyone who writes without being paid for it is an idiot”).

        So if I do write something it will have 2 purposes – 1. To keep you and your readers amused” (hopefully); 2. To enable me to fish for some very generalised advice on model engineering (in particular about choice of model to make).

        In short then, “Don’t hold your breath” but I’m thinking about it.

        Krgds
        AES

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