Leonard Lee founder of Lee Valley
Feature Stories, Home & Garden, Technology

An Innovative Culture is the Heart of Lee Valley!

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October Feature

An Innovative Culture is the Heart of Lee Valley!

“Lee Valley did something different—
it focused on manufacturing high-quality
hand tools right here in Canada!”

Lee Valley Tools Contributor

Lee Valley 40 Years LogoWhen Lee Valley began 40 years ago, it was a simple mail-order business selling just one item, a barrel stove kit, out of Leonard and Lorraine Lee’s small Saskatchewan log cabin home without any electricity or running water! It may seem to us today that a barrel stove is an unusual choice for a product line. But, back in the day, barrel stoves, unshielded, were the only source of heat for homes and schools during cold winters months.

Growing up on a farm, Lee and his brothers learned to be resourceful. Under the guidance of their father, a carpenter and farmer, they built everything from granaries to barns to chicken coops. “Even my primitive [farm] training was of substantial benefit to me later in life,” Lee said. “I was able to convert my hobby of woodworking into a business.”

Leonard Lee. as a young students at Algrove School
Lee (second from left with hands in pocket), in front of his one-room school house.

He always said he preferred job content over a salary because he was more creative and productive doing work that he liked. “When I do work I like, I’m a happier person,” he said. He applied some of the marketing research skills he had obtained while working in the Canadian Foreign Service to critically look at the Canadian woodworking market. With the help of his family, he decided to test that market by selling barrel stove kits in rural weeklies. It was tough. But it worked.

The kits were designed for use with a heavy-gauge 45-gallon barrel “to make a wood stove to heat your house, workshop, machine shed or cabin”, according to one of the original advertisements. Properly charged and dampened, it would burn efficiently for 8 to 12 hours. The majority of the kit parts were cast by Findlay Foundry Ltd., known for its quality in this field, based in Carleton Place, Ontario (just west of Ottawa).

According to the original order form, Lee offered 3 kits, any of which could be assembled “in an evening by a novice, using the instruction sheet.” Customers could opt to purchase the basic kit, but an ash guard was recommended for use because occasional sparks from an open damper would be hazardous to “people who like to rock back on their chair with their feet on the ash guard and stare into the fire.”

The full flat-top kit included the basic kit, an ash guard and two 6 in. x 24 in. shelves for “people who might want to melt snow in a tub, keep a glue pot warm in the workshop, or rock back on their chair with their feet on the ash guard and have the coffee pot or mulled wine handy.”

Lee Valley Barrel Stove
Lee Valley's First Product – Barrel Stove Kits.
Lee Valley Mr Lee with Stove

Lee Valley Sets Up its Own Manufacturer

Lee’s knack for business and innovation was further demonstrated once the company grew beyond wood stoves. After several years in the mail order business, Lee Valley began to design special-purpose tools for woodworking. Initially, subcontractors supplied the prototypes; but as the market grew, the company became concerned about the quality of products being manufactured.

At a time when power tools were ubiquitous and manufacturing was overwhelmingly being pushed overseas, Lee Valley did something different to fill the gap—it focused on manufacturing high-quality hand tools right here in Canada!

By 1984, Lee Valley was developing and manufacturing most of their product line of tools through Veritas® Tools Inc.’s machine shop in Ottawa. Today, with over 250 products and more than 100 patents, there are now two registered companies called Veritas® Tools Inc., one in Canada, which manufactures the products and one in the U.S, which distributes them.

Research & Development

In 2009, Lee Valley Tools established Chestnut Tools, a trademark brand for its research and development. This company allowed Lee to pursue his passion for realizing potential new products for the Lee Valley business. From research and development, packaging design to purchasing, Chestnut Tools would become a one-stop product shop from concept to shelf.

What does Lee Valley sell?

Today, about one-third of Lee Valley’s total sales volume is generated from proprietary product designs. The majority of these designs are manufactured by Lee Valley’s Ottawa-based manufacturing arm, Veritas® Tools Inc.

In addition to Veritas products, the catalog consists of innovative woodworking tools, over 9,000 pieces of hardware ranging from difficult-to-find pieces to a vast selection of knobs and pulls, a wide variety of original gift products for those people who have everything, useful kitchen tools for the at-home cook and essential tools and unique solutions for the garden.

Lee Valley Order Form
One of Lee's founding philosophies for his business was Lee Valley's guarantee. Here is an original order form that outlines that guarantee.

Gardening Tools

In 1989, Lee Valley initiated a diversion into gardening tools in an attempt to boost sales during spring and summer—traditionally slow periods for woodworking tool sales. By February, 1990, Lee Valley’s gardening department had produced its first gardening catalogue. Twenty pages in length, it featured almost 100 new tools.

By the spring of 1998, the catalogue had grown to 88 pages with over 900 products! Today, gardening products account for approximately 30% of total company sales.

All products, whether made by Veritas® Tools Inc. or sourced from around the world, still have Lee Valley’s full guarantee.

Leonard Lee founder of Lee Valley
Lee Valley founder, Leonard Lee.

Common Sense Business Practices

In his early years, Lee studied Civil Engineering at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario—and Royal Roads Military College here in the West Shore!

To Leonard Lee, business was really just common sense. He attested to the fact that just about everything he needed to know about business, he learned at his mother’s knee: honesty, never betraying your principles, and, most important, never justifying what he did by the principles of his competitors. Keeping his word, being loyal, and treating others (customers, employees and suppliers) the way he would want to be treated was essential, too. He believed in working with instinct—not cunning calculation.

Forty years on, these values continue to serve the company well. Its reputation is based on three principles: customer satisfaction, integrity and treating the customer like a friend.

With these values in mind, Lee Valley, a family owned and run Canadian company, looks forward to serving you for the next 40 years – and beyond!

In-Store Seminars

Each of Lee Valley’s retail stores across Canada—including the one at the Colwood location—offers a unique and broad selection of in-store seminars for all ages. You could learn how to turn a pen, bowl or vase, how to carve a Salish-style bowl and spoons, make a shaker box or some picture frames. Find out how to put your garden to bed for the winter. How about carving a canoe paddle or constructing a skateboard? There’s even a beginner seminar if you want to try power carving a great white shark! Here is a full list of Lee Valley Seminars in Colwood!

Why Buy a Guitar— When You Can Make One!

People interested in building their own guitar need specialty tools and supplies to make it—but they are very
difficult to find. Lee Valley put together a special catalogue dedicated to the process of guitar making from construction through to finishing and set up. All are high quality tools used by professional makers, repair shops and leading guitar factories around the world. Scott Reid is one of Lee Valley’s seminar instructors in Colwood. Here, he shows you the stages he worked through to assemble his own musical instrument, using precision tools and supplies from Lee Valley.

This hand-made guitar is a triple “0” acoustic, following the Stewart Macdonald plan. The top wood is Bear Claw Spruce. The sides and back are Rosewood. The neck is Mahogany with a Bubinga fingerboard.

1. Prepping fingerboard for fret slotting.

2. Bracing of inside of back.

3. Back braces and kerfing all glued in, waiting for top.

4. Gluing top to sides.

5. Assembly started, laying out bridge location.

6. Nut being slotted in a guitar neck and being held in a Lee Valley universal vise.

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