Retiree turns P.O. boxes into banks

By: 
CHRIS MCCONNELL
Outlook staff writer

A chance encounter led to a lucrative retirement business for retired postal worker, Jim Haskins, of Jim’s Woodcrafts.
In the early 2000s, Haskins was anticipating retirement and looking for a hobby so he could earn some extra income. He started building birdhouses but hadn’t sold many when a man came into the post office selling simple banks using old post office box doors. It gave him the idea that has now been his passion for more than 15 years.
He purchased 300 antique doors from a Postal Service warehouse in Billings and started Jim’s Woodcrafts in 2002.
He’s a self-taught woodworker whose hands show the nicks and scars of more than a decade of working with saws and other sharp tools.
“I shortened up my right index finger,” Haskins said, smiling and holding most of a finger in the air, then he wiggled the others.
“I still got ‘em all, but some are different though.”
Haskins graduated from high school in Superior, Mont., where his dad was part owner in the “Lucky 4” gold mine.
He then served in the Army from 1966-69 as a construction engineer and was mostly stationed West Germany.
After he was discharged, he lived in Denver for a time while working for a rubber company. He moved to Billings to work for the U.S. Postal Service in 1971, after he got tired of the smog.
“I took a pay cut, but it was a good government job with benefits,” Haskins said.
In the early 1990s he moved to Laurel and eventually retired in April 2009, as a register clerk.
Other than the doors he bought while he was still a postal employee, he finds most of them on eBay. He also has purchased some from customers.
“A guy from Washoe came to one of my shows and sold me the Bear Creek doors he had stored in his basement for years,” Haskins said.
The Bear Creek P.O. Boxes, from the site of the worst coal mining disaster in Montana history, have proven popular mementos with family and friends of the 74 miners who lost their lives in 1943.
Most of the doors are more than a century old and include working combination locks and keys, with his oldest ones from the early 1890s.
The newest doors he uses are from 1972.
“After that they became throw-aways made out of plastic and tin,” he said.
Haskins builds his banks using Knotty Alder exclusively.
“Alder has character and I like working with knots. It’s just right for what I’m trying to do,” Haskins said.
He gets most of the brass coin slots on the top from a retired veteran in Florida who he met online.
“I like his work and wanted to support a veteran,” he said.
Haskins also sinks a coin from the year the doors were made into the top of the bank.
He generally uses silver half dollars and dollars, but some of his banks from 1943 include an unusual silver penny. Because of copper conservation efforts during World War II, the U.S. Mint made pennies from out of low grade steel with a thin alloy coating instead of copper-based bronze. The doors he has from 1943 are also make from zinc alloy, rather than brass or bronze.
Haskins starts the process in an assembly line fashion, adding custom detailing at the end.
He says customers can “choose the size of the door, color of stain, type of coin and individual custom engraving.”
He’s engraved everything from special messages and lucky numbers, to birthdays and anniversaries.
Haskins doesn’t sell his banks at an online store and says he prefers to meet his customers face-to-face.
“I want to talk to people ... I feed off the feedback. I get motivation to make more,” Haskins said.
He sells a few banks out of his house south of Laurel, but most of his revenue comes from arts and craft shows.
He travels throughout Montana plus Gillette, Cody and Sheridan. The biggest shows he attends annually are in Denver, Salt Lake City and Tacoma, Wash.
He said the big shows can be lucrative—he sold 160 of the banks at the Tacoma show the last two years—but admitted the booth and travel costs can be expensive.
“It costs $1,250 for a spot in Tacoma, versus [for example] $30 at the Absarokee show,” Haskins said, “but the motel, gas, food and booth fees add up.”
His wife, Barbara, usually travels with him but he said selling isn’t really her thing; she enjoys browsing the craft shows.
“She supports me out of love,” he said, then joked, “Sometimes we bring home as much as we take.”
He said he averages about $110 per bank, with prices varying from around $60 to over $400, depending on the size of the bank, year of the door, type and year of coin and custom craftsmanship.
Haskins estimates he has made 8,500 of the unique banks since he started Jim’s Woodcrafts, and admits he can’t do it all on his own. It is a family business by default and he readily acknowledges their contributions.
His wife Barbara, daughter Mary Haskins, and four grandchildren—Nate and Kara DeRoeck, Tanner Haskins and Devon Lee—all help with various stages and sometimes travel to the shows as well.
“They help with sanding and staining, and apply sanding sealer, which raises the grain of the wood,” Haskins said.
His banks can be viewed and purchased at the 20th Annual Farmer’s Market and Quilt Show in Absarokee on Sept. 2, and the 38th Annual Labor Day Arts Fair on Sept. 4 in Red Lodge, or he can be reached at (406) 794-2717 or via email at haskinsfam@usadig.com. His website is jimswoodcraftsmontana.com

Upcoming shows:
•Aug. 4-6 at Whitefish.
•Sept. 2 at Absarokee.
•Sept. 4 at Red Lodge.
•Sept. 9 at Lewistown.
•Oct. 19-22 at Tacoma, Wash.
•Nov. 3-5 at Denver.
•Nov. 10-12 at Sandy, Utah
•Nov. 17-19 at Spokane, Wash.

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