Meet the Maker: Tom Bihn

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Meet maker Tom Bihn, maker of fine travel bags and accessories made in Seattle, Washington. Tom has been a leader in American made since the early 70s, inspiring younger makers to follow their passion and build a business that stays true to your heart.

I love the copy on the Tom Bihn website about how he got started; “When 10-year-old Tom Bihn asked his parents for money to buy the equipment he wanted for his nascent outdoor adventures, they suggested two options: get an after-school job and earn the money, or “just figure out how to make it yourself.” Up for the challenge, Tom chose the second option. His grandmother had an old Singer home sewing machine which his brother Dan helped get running; Tom’s mom taught him how to sew and his dad provided the foundations of the necessary engineering.” 

And more than 40 years later, Tom is still making bags. I’m pleased to bring you this maker story from a veteran in American Manufacturing.

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Modestics: Tell me a brief overview of your company? 

Tom Bihn: We make backpacks, briefcases and travel bags that are used by all kinds of people all over the world. We are a design house, a factory, and a retailer, all rolled in to one. Some people call it “vertical integration”, but we just call it being control freaks. I like to say that we are a museum-quality example of old-school capitalism: we make stuff and we sell it.

MO: When did you start as a maker?

TB: I started making hiking and camping equipment when I was about 10 or 11 years old, so 1970/1971. I sold stuff to friends, family, classmates and teachers throughout high school. I spent my 20s working in special education and later, managing a youth hostel. In 1990, I returned to what I enjoyed doing most: making stuff. I opened up a “for-real business” in downtown Santa Cruz: 300 square feet with a sewing machine, cutting table and a wall to display the packs I made.

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MO: When did you feel like you were a “real company”?

TB: It all felt pretty serious, though very small, when I first rented commercial space back in Santa Cruz. Otherwise, our growth has been slow, steady, and mostly self-funded. Rather than owing money to a bank or venture capitalist, our loyalty is to the folks who believe in us enough to buy what we make: still friends and family, just a bigger circle.

MO: What aspect of your job do you love?

TB: Design is still my happy place. And because we design and build in-house, integrating what I’ve designed into the production process is also very fun. We sell directly to the end-user, so of course we get lots of feedback. We don’t do everything people ask for — we’re not bag-making avatars — but we listen carefully for what resonates or inspires us: I’ve got more design ideas than I have time to make real. And I like that.

MO: Do you, yourself make your products or do you have factories that you work with?

TB: Like I said, we build in-house. There are a few specialized sub-assemblies that are made elsewhere in the U.S., and occasionally we work with local contractors to accommodate shortfalls in our own capacity, otherwise it’s all made here.

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MO:  What is your favorite Made in USA product?

TB: I love my StenLight  –  it’s f’ing amazing for night hikes http://www.stenlight.com/

MO: What’s your favorite place in America?

TB: I’m a fifth generation child of the American West. I’m not much of a city person really, more at home in the mountains or high desert. That said, Seattle is a great place to be running this business – there’s lots of smart, highly-skilled people here. I really can’t imagine it happening anywhere else, seriously.

>>Thank you Tom for taking the time to speak with Modestics. And thank you for inspiring younger makers to make in the USA. For more inspiration and videos check out their About Us page on the Tom Bihn wesbite: http://www.tombihn.com/ABUS.html

Also check out another branch of Tom Bihn, recently launched Skookum Dog, focusing on our four legged companions. American made of course.

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