Chris Mroz demonstrates that a U of G degree in biological science is flexible enough to compliment any career, including one that involves sailing and manufacturing. Not boats but wood to build boats.
It all started with his interest in taking to the seas around his home in Gig Harbour, Wash., and grew from there. Mroz set a goal for himself to be independently employed by his 45th birthday. He made it well before age 45.
“I was interested in sailing and decided to build a dinghy to go with my sailboat,” he says. “I was experimenting with boat-building techniques and came across some flexible wood products. They were unique, and I got interested enough to start working on the concept.” That led to a number of patents and a company called Fluted Beams.
Flexible wood? Sounds like an oxymoron or science fiction, but Mroz has made it real. Using his patented process, he takes 10-foot planks of green wood and compresses them end-to-end to make 8-foot planks. “The cross-sectional size of the plank is unchanged,” he adds. “When this is done, the wood becomes very flexible, like rubber. The process allows wood to be used for many different projects. So far, I’ve come up with hundreds of ideas.”
His flexible wood has captured the imagination of people around the world. He ships product to Thailand, India, Iraq, many European countries and all over the United States for use in furniture and unusual sculptures. “It’s not a local business at all,” Mroz says.
It’s the design aspect — the possibilities for innovation and intrigue — that Mroz particularly enjoys. “It’s exciting to look at the drawings and be able to contribute to the design. It’s even better when people come to me beforehand so we can talk about what the material can do. Then we come up with ideas that are original and impressive, yet buildable.”
One of his earliest clients was architect Frank Gehry, who recently redesigned the Art Gallery of Ontario. Gehry contracted Mroz to build a curved trellis for a winery in Napa Valley. Mroz also designed prototypes for Lord Richard Rogers, a British architect known for his modernist and functionalist designs, for a large project in Seoul, Korea, that has not yet been built.
“As the economy has faltered in the last year or so, there have been fewer of these projects, so I have been working on other things,” Mroz says. One of his new projects is making curved wood shells for snare drums that are sold through DW Drums.
“You can get a better sound if you make the shell thicker,” says Mroz. “In the past, the best you could do was a shell about ¼ inch thick. Any thicker and you’d have to glue layers together. That dulls the sound. With my techniques, I can bend that shell with wood that’s over an inch thick. We’ve done about 500 of these drums now.”
Success with the drums has led to the prototype of an acoustic guitar made with his flexible wood.
“I also do a lot of heritage restoration,” he adds. “I’ve done boats in Venice, Italy, and a 1930 sloop in San Diego. “I’m fabricating the curved handrails for a 208-year-old Alexander Hamilton House in New York, which is owned by the U.S. National Park Service and is undergoing an $8-million renovation to turn it into a museum.”
After an exciting 2008, then a lean 2009, Mroz sees architectural business coming back in 2010. He is currently bidding on projects in Atlantic City, N.J.; Los Angeles, and Bangkok.
As more people discover the potential of Mroz’s flexible wood, his business continues to grow. “My goal has been to make my living from my own ideas and resources,” he says. “It’s been harder than I expected, but definitely rewarding.”