Meet Marc Comeau, the brains and talent behind Old Birch Workshop. Marc creates handcrafted leather goods out of his workshop in his charming Hydrostone house. I first discovered Marc at Halifax Crafters last year in search of Christmas gifts for loved ones, and I found what I was looking for at his table. With an eye for clean-cut minimalist yet reliable and detail oriented designs, his leather goods appeal to everyone and are staple items we all want to be using on a day to day basis. What started as a hobby naturally grew into a small business Marc diligently works at and grows on the side of his day job at Field Guide. 

From canvas shoulder bags to the perfect leather belt, to collaborations with the new Lot Six and Melody Ceramics, Old Birch is getting recognized in the Halifax market and is here to stay. I stepped into Marc's work space to talk shop- how he got started, what keeps him going and what his dreams for Old Birch entail.

Where did you grow up and how did that shape you into the person you are today? 

I  grew up in the North End of Dartmouth and spent a lot of time outdoors with a tight-knit group of friends from the neighbourhood. We spent all of our time playing basketball, street hockey, baseball, sledding, manhunt, hide-and-seek, you name it. We also lived near a lake, where we spent our summers swimming, fishing and catching frogs. In the winter we skated and played pond hockey. A Saturday spent indoors was nothing short of depressing.

Although I participate in few of those activities now, I still feel that intense longing to be outside on a nice day. So much so that I can’t bear to have a schedule that commits me to working in those precious hours of the day. Maybe that’s how I came to be working for myself (at least part of the time).

How did Old Birch Workshop come to be?

A few years back, my friend and co-worker, Ceilidh (who I now work for at Field Guide), pointed me toward a blog that she thought I might like. Well, she was right. That blog was Wood & Faulk: a portland-based, DIY blog, written by Matt Pierce. Matt would post a series of projects he has worked on, with thorough instructions on how to recreate them for yourself, complete with tools & materials lists and photos of the entire process. I was drawn to his design aesthetic and the functionality of his pieces and was inspired to try my hand at some of his projects. 

So I looked up the nearest leather supply shop (which turned out to be Tandy Leather Factory in Burnside Park) and went out and bought a couple of tools and some materials for a few projects. Seeing as I needed a different tool for every project, and that money doesn’t grow on trees, I figured I may as well try to sell a few items and make back some of the money that I invested in the tools. One thing lead to another and everything sort of snow-balled from there.

I’m still doing the same old thing: making new projects, buying new tools, experimenting with different processes, selling the thing I am tinkering with, then turning around and putting that money back into buying more tools and more materials. The difference, now, is I am designing my own projects, but I still closely follow and draw quite a bit of inspiration from Wood & Faulk, which I would say is the very reason I got into this line of work in the first place, which leads into the next question…

Who or what has most influenced your path toward becoming a maker?

Following the progress of Wood & Faulk over the years and watching it go from a crafty, DIY  blog, to a full-blown, thriving supply company based out of Portland, OR has served as my single, greatest inspiration to continue to do what I do. To see somebody selling high-quality items, intended for everyday, functional purposes, and made with care, largely by hand, right in the USA was refreshing to see in this day and age of outsourcing and mass-produced garbage. I want to be part of that movement, to revert back to the way things were once bought and sold from local makers. The quality and durability of goods within that model of business is unparalleled.

What does a typical day in your life look like?

Admittedly, it takes me far too long to get going in the morning, so I usually start with spending way too much time drinking coffee and listening to the radio. Maybe I get all of my mindless web-surfing out of the way first thing, or I work on the admin side of Old Birch (anything that allows me to sit): ordering, emailing, etc. Once I’m feeling sufficiently caffeinated, I muster up the motivation to hit the workshop and pick up wherever I last left off. Usually I will spend a couple of hours working on some projects, take a break for lunch and then either get right back to it, or, if it is a particularly nice day, I will try to spend some time outdoors and save work for later (if I’m not scheduled to work the evening at Field Guide, that is).

Best advice that has stuck with you?

Not so much direct advice, but a statement or quote that has really stuck with me comes from knife-maker, Joel Bukiewicz, of Cut Brooklyn. In a mini doc about his work and how he came to be hand-crafting high-quality kitchen knives, he says:

“My flat out mission statement with what I do is to make every single knife that I make, the very best knife that I have ever made.” 

Any advice for makers/artists/entrepreneurs going into business themselves?

You have to be willing to work at it. You need to make those critical mistakes along the way and you can’t let the fear of those mistakes hold you back. It seems like utterly cliché advice to say “don’t be scared to take risks and mistakes and ya gotta work hard”, but it truly is the most important thing to remember along the way, because it is so easy to lose sight of that and to let those reservations become road blocks. 

What's been the most surprising thing about this venture you're on- making a living through your passion and craft?

Well, I’m not entirely making a living through my craft (at least not yet), so there’s no misconceptions. I still work part-time in the restaurant industry, but regardless, the most surprising thing I have noted thus far is the overlapping groups of people interested in my wares. For all of the individual things I make, I have a pretty good idea of who my target market is, but then sometimes at a craft show I will sell the same canvas bag to an older lady as I do to a young, hip-looking guy and a mother of three. I like to think it speaks to the simplicity of my designs. Minimalism in design has the ability to appeal to a broad range of folks and the unisex aspect of it is nice. I guess when it comes down to it, we’re all looking for the same thing.

What's next for Old Birch?

I really want to expand on the line of canvas and leather goods. My partner, Ashley, and I have been collaborating on those projects and it has been really nice to get her involved. I want to keep her busy with this stuff and tap into her creative energy. It is very helpful to have somebody else to bounce design ideas off of and to keep me company in the workshop. We keep one another motivated. 

Also, canvas and leather are just such a perfect marriage of materials. Both strong, durable, and a very versatile medium to work with. I want to create a lot more in the way of lifestyle pieces. Different bags for different functions. Backpacks, duffles, bike-mounted packs, etc. I also want to do a full line of waxed canvas aprons, tailored to specific tasks. At the root of it, a painter, a bartender, a florist, or a barista, are all seeking the same thing out of an apron…to keep the mess off their clothes. Experiment with different pocket sizes and arrangements, though, and you can really optimize an apron for a specific line of work. A durable apron can become a very utilitarian piece, which not only saves your clothes, but provides a means to help you become more organized, and thus more effective & efficient at whatever task you’re trying to carry out. I really enjoy taking on the challenge of taking a piece and making it as useful as it possibly can be, because in the end, that will be the deciding factor for whether the thing sits on a shelf in somebody’s closest or gets used day in, day out for years and years.

Trying to get a website up and going is another important next step for Old Birch. It’s something I have been putting off for some time now, as whenever I have the time to work on stuff, I want to focus that energy in the workshop and not at a computer. But in this modern day & age, a web presence is undeniably valuable for any business.

Finally, what do you love most about Halifax?

The sense of community & familiarity. Spend a day walking all around Halifax, then do the same the next. You’ll see at least half of the same faces. Some people may get tired of that, but we are creatures of habit and a comfortable, familiar environment is something we innately crave. To me, Halifax is an ideal mix between a small & intimate city and one big enough to still have exciting things going. 

That same sense of community translates wonderfully to a loyal support net for somebody like me. I get the sense that other people here get excited about my work, simply because it happens here. People want to support their own and I am so grateful for that. I have had some people buy 2…3 belts from me. That repeat business is so reaffirming for me, as I realize my things are not cheap and people could very easily justify spending their hard-earned dollars elsewhere.

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