Hot-tub, sauna fabricator gains renown as chairman of the boards

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Mark Gould was born 200 years too late.

He's a throwback to the 1800s, when boys apprenticed themselves for years to master coopers to learn how to make strong barrels and casks for shipping trade goods.

"I'm in it for the lifestyle," Gould said, as he enthusiastically described what goes into making his wares, from hot tubs to room-sized saunas to water tanks.

"Coopering encompasses almost every single facet of old-fashioned life," he said.

Gould, 42, said a good cooper knows by looking at a piece of wood how it will react when wet and uses those qualities to design a reliable vessel. Coopers must gauge each angle to fit snugly. The good coopers don't need metal guides to make the cut the same way every time.

"They learned to trust their eyes and became extremely proficient at gauging correct angles. It took years of practice," Gould said.

Gould's business, Kachemak Cooperage, specializes in wooden hot tubs and saunas, but he's willing to make just about any kind of coopered vessel. He's sold more than 50 hot tubs and 60 saunas since beginning the business in 1991.

At the low end, he sells 190-gallon hot tubs for between $850 and $1,000. His fanciest sauna sells for $11,300 and is the size of a small room, complete with a changing room and porch.

Steven Carr of Big Lake, a kayak instructor and electrician, has bought two saunas, a hot tub and, most recently, a 12-foot pool for kayak-rolling instruction.

"He is an unusual guy for this day and age," Carr said. "Of all the woodworkers I know, he is the most passionate with his hand tools and the traditional way of being a cooper."

When money was tight, Cris Rideout of Homer loaned Gould $2,000 a few years ago to buy his first load of yellow cedar so that he could try a new wood.

"I'm just happy to see that kind of business keep going," Rideout said.

Gould said becoming a cooper starts with knowing wood. The best wood is used for the hot tubs because they have to hold water. Wood with knots that go through the board can be used for the saunas. He orders between 7,000 and 8,000 board feet of yellow cedar and spruce at a time.

"The grain of the wood is very important. Coopers generally would only use a stave that has a vertical grain," he said. "Less desirable are boards with the heart in the center, or even worse the heart on the edge."

Gould said it boils down to how the wood will accept and release moisture. Boards with a vertical grain tend to expand generally. Some boards with the heart, depending upon the placement, tend to cup.

A good cooper can make the best use of a lousy board.

"If the heart is true and runs straight, I can use that cupping to my advantage," he said.

Gould's dream might have eluded him if a pizza truck hadn't plowed into his sport utility vehicle a few years ago.

For nine years, Gould had been an X-ray technician examining oil pipes on the North Slope. It wasn't what he wanted to do, but the money was good. After the accident, he lost his job.

"I was finding it hard to get off the Slope," he said. "I am so glad I did."

Gould grew up on a 200-acre tree farm in Eureka, Mont. The family home backed up to 50 miles of wilderness next to Glacier National Park.

As he grew, his relationship with wood matured. In his early 20s, he became a logger in Washington and Oregon after dropping out of Montana State University in Bozeman, where he studied civil engineering.

He was a "peeler-picker" at a mill in Yoncalla, Ore., grading logs and separating out the moneymakers.

Gould came to Alaska in 1985, with the help of a few strangers. He drove up the Alaska Highway in a 1961 Ford Fairlane that was a couple hundred miles from the Canada-Alaska border when the engine blew. He hitchhiked the rest of the way, arriving with under $500 in his pocket.

He thought he'd find construction work, but it was September in Anchorage and the summer building season was winding down. He got hired at an art frame shop, where he made wooden frames. It also was where he met his wife, Wendy, and his Alaska life began taking shape.

Gould said he was still getting accustomed to the cold, dark winters when he decided he had to have a hot tub.

"Summer was ending and fall was here and winter was rapidly approaching. We were going through the end-of-summer blues and thinking about another seven, eight months of winter, thinking, What are we going to do? The whole family came up with the idea of a hot tub. I naively said, I can make one; it's easy."

His first hot tub leaked for four days and then something interesting happened. The wood swelled the joints shut, Gould said.

That was lesson No. 1: Don't rely on the wood to swell for a tight joint. Make a tight joint to begin with, he said.

"There is no substitute for a joint that isn't true," Gould said.

Gould decided in 1999 to get serious about becoming a cooper. He trained for a year under Alan Eaton, a Californian from Napa Valley who learned the trade from a French cooper.

Marjorie Campbell, 71, of Wasilla, said she likes to take a steam in her Gould-built sauna on cold Alaska nights.

"I don't light mine up just for myself. Friends will come over and that is one of our main events," she said. "It is just a pleasant way to spend an evening."

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