Desire for hot tub turns into business

Reverence for wood helps to feed Haines company's success

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2002

Bill Finlay's thriving Haines' hot tub-building business has its roots in his own desire for a hot tub 10 years ago.

"My experience as a boatbuilder and my lack of money were incentive to make one from scratch," Finlay said. "I figured it out, and then my neighbors wanted them. It grew from there into a small business."

Finlay, 45, grew up on Long Island. He is a retired computer technology and mathematics teacher who worked for seven years at Haines High, and also taught at a small school in the Aleutians.

He has enjoyed woodworking all his life, but it did not become his sole source of income until three years ago, when he named his hot tub preoccupation SeaOtter WoodWorks and decided to make it a full-time vocation. The business has grown sufficiently that he has hired an employee. His dog doubles as the firm's recreation director.

"The business is still small, but it has grown significantly," he said.

Prior to zeroing in on tubs, he built furniture and cabinets as well as boats. "I had the privilege of working for John Carlson of Haines, one of the best woodworkers in the country," Finlay said.

Finlay primarily uses sturdy, sweetly scented, rot-resistant woods beloved by Tlingit builders and carvers: western red cedar and Alaska yellow cedar.

"I think one of the cool things about the business is using local Southeast material to make a high-value product," he said. "We have reverence for wood and things made from it and for the forests that surround us."

The timber industry in Southeast Alaska is in transition, Finlay said. "With a new emphasis on 'value-added' products, many small businesses are developing high-value products using less material. The result of secondary processing can mean more jobs per tree cut."

The wood used for the hot tubs comes from the communities hardest hit by the decline in logging, Finlay said.

"Small-scale sawmills on Prince of Wales are actively seeking new markets for their wood," he said. "Some are now offering boards that are planed and kiln-dried so that their products can meet construction classifications. Others are finding markets for cedar siding, shingles and shakes."

As news of SeaOtter WoodWorks has grown, Finlay has shipped tubs all over the country, and as far away as Europe and Asia. "Shipping is not necessarily a problem. Shipping by barge from Southeast Alaska to the rest of the world is relatively inexpensive, even for large items," he noted.

Lately he is adding a new dimension to his business: Working more with architects and interior designers to design master bedroom suites or private baths that feature hot tubs, in particular the rectangular ofuro, or Japanese bath.

To research ofuros, he spent two weeks in Japan at the close of December.

"The ritual of washing, rinsing and soaking in hot, clean water is central to the daily routine of Japanese life," Finlay said. "The tradition is thousands of years old. The ofuro was traditionally made of wood. Today it is available in many materials, but the wooden tub is still considered superior."

In Japan, the ofuro is situated indoors but afforded a scenic view of a natural outdoor setting or private garden. In an adjacent washing area, the body is scrubbed clean from head to toe prior to soaking.

"Ofuros differ from American tubs in several ways: They are never used for washing. They are deeper and generally hotter," Finlay said. "The water can be warmed up or reheated, and they usually have a lid to help keep the water hot."

While he traveled in Japan, he visited several traditional tub builders and compared techniques.

"I also soaked in a different, beautiful Japanese bath almost every afternoon," Finlay said. "It was a tough business trip - but I survived."

SeaOtter WoodWorks makes a complete line of circular and elliptical hot tubs, plus rectangular ofuros to custom dimensions.

"We have heating solutions to suit just about any situation," Finlay said. "We offer custom carving and/or handmade tiles to decorate the tubs." The decoration adds to the aesthetic appeal of the tubs, and contributes to the meditative possibilities, he said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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