When Lie-Nielsen Toolworks opened shop in Warren in 1987, founder Thomas Lie-Nielsen was rattling around in there by himself. Now he’s got 85 employees, and the factory/store on the south side of Route 1 is a destination for serious woodworkers the way Red’s Eats is a destination for lobster roll fiends.

We called him to talk about everything from the Maine-grown wood that makes the best chisel handles to the bizarre business that predated Lie-Nielsen in that location.

NAUTICAL NORWEGIANS: Lie-Nielsen’s father, “Lee” Lie-Nielsen (“no one could pronounce his name”), was a famed yacht broker, skipper and builder of wooden boats, including some designed by Francis Herreshoff, who made sailboats as elegant as ballet dancers. His son grew up helping out at Lee’s Boat Shop in Rockland, although the “tools” he used were mostly brooms and paint brushes. Nor did he get to do much sailing. “My father never really had a boat for long,” Lie-Nielsen said. “It’s the shoemaker and the shoes. There were these beautiful boats that my father would be launching, and then the owner would come to pick them up and they would sail off into the sunset.” Boatbuilding sparked an interest in woodworking and metalworking. “The people working there could make pretty much anything.”

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: After college, Lie-Nielsen worked as a tool salesman for a New York company, where he developed a mounting interest in tools. “In those days, there weren’t many tools available except for antiques,” he said. “The manufacturers had been cutting back on their quality, and a lot of times customers were looking for things that weren’t being made anymore.” He started with specialized edge planes – “just for trimming square edges” and much coveted by woodworkers. These planes hadn’t been made for 40 or 50 years. Today, he makes about 50 different planes, as well as saws, chisels and workbenches. Prices for the “basic plane line” range from about $100 to $400.

IF I HAD A HAMMER: Zounds. Who pays that? Serious hobbyists and those who love them. “The tools we make are not cheap so they are popular gift items.” Not to be sexist, but how often does the company get calls or emails from wives needing to know which chisel or plane is the bomb around Christmas-time? “Every day in December.”

BRANDED: The Maine-made brand is good for business, he said. “Maine has a great reputation for quality of workmanship and for work ethic.” The company’s products are sold throughout the United States and beyond. “We do export quite a bit to English-speaking countries but more and more, also to other parts of the world. Which is extremely cool.”

Then there are the tourists who happen to be fans and do a double-take when they see the looming factory and showroom as they come into Warren. “There’s a lot of slamming on the brakes on Route 1.” They pop in and if it is a weekend, can take a class. “If people don’t know how to use their tools, they aren’t going to be able to get that much out of the experience.” The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship is right down the street in Rockport, so woodworkers can make a vacation out of a trip.

CAN A CHISEL BE MADE IN A DAY? Some of their tools can be produced in a day, but for a chisel, it takes “about a month from start to finish in terms of calendar time.”

NATIVE WOODS: Lie-Nielsen tools are made in Maine, but where are the materials sourced from? Some iron and bronze castings come from a foundry in Lewiston, others from one in Massachusetts. Some steel comes from the Chicago area. “I don’t like to use exotic woods for handles. I like to use American hardwoods. A hundred years ago we weren’t worried about cutting down all the rainforests.”

So he uses sustainable native woods whenever possible, such as curly maple or cherry for the saw handles. For the chisels his preference is an “under-utilized native species” called hornbeam. What’s that? “It looks a bit like a scrubby elm tree but doesn’t get very big. It tends to grow in the understory. Six or 8 inches in diameter is a good size.” It grows throughout the state, but it took Lie-Nielsen a year to find a good source (in western Maine).

SUBMARINE MAN: In 2016, Lie-Nielsen will celebrate its 35th anniversary (look for a big open house in July). The business has grown by leaps and bounds, but Lie-Nielsen distinctly remembers the early days. “The original building has been engulfed now,” he said. “It was a long, skinny cinder block. The previous owner built one-man submarines in it.” Wait, what? The guy was an ex-Navy submariner, and “he built these little submarines and sold them to people who were interested in recreation. Also to oil companies and people doing underwater research.”

WORKFORCE: It can’t have been easy to put together a staff of 85 people doing work that was, not that long ago, considered antiquated. Lie-Nielsen has hired a mix of locals and tool-making experts from away. “Really some of my best people who have been here the longest were local people who did not have the skills but learned.”

Looking for qualified employees “is a constant thing,” he said. “I am looking for people with a love for what we do – I think that is really important – and with a serious attitude about work.”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE: When Lie-Nielsen gets some free time, which doesn’t happen often, yes, he uses his own tools. But not for making furniture; “I spend a lot of time at work doing that, so I don’t want to do that when I’m recreating.” Instead, “I make more utilitarian things around the farm,” he said. The last useful woodworking project? He and his daughter, who also works in the family business, whipped up several bee boxes, which were a definite success. “We just harvested some honey.”