Five years ago, Back Forty Woods started as a wood shop and design studio in Eugene, Oregon. It was founded by three brothers with Oregon roots that date back to 1846. Their company’s products have a genuine, Pacific Northwest aesthetic inspired by a deep connection to the land. We fell in love with this company’s story and passion for using locally sourced materials, and have partnered with them to produce the highest quality ping pong paddles possible.
“Our family has been in the Oregon timber industry and tree products industry for a long time,” says Jai Ralls, co-owner of Back Forty Woods. “Our great grandfather was a horse logger and had a small sawmill outside of Portland in the ’30s, our grandfather built and owned a Veneer Mill in Eugene, Oregon; and my dad started a small Oregon family tree farm.”
Back Forty Woods is co-owned by Jai with his brothers Tanner, lead builder and shop operator, and Caleb, a forester who also manages the family tree farm.
“We’re a small company, we try to do everything ourselves,” says Jai. “Caleb helps us in the shop when he’s not working on the tree farm, and also helps up source wood from our timberlands. We only have one other guy that works with us, our good buddy, Eli Kriegh — he’s actually the one who came up with the concept of building a Ping-Pong paddle a few years ago, and he still hand makes every single one.”
The company also specializes in custom wood products like furniture and cutting boards.
Read more about our collaboration with Back Forty Woods in the interview with Jai and Eli below.
Sorting logs and sawmilling lumber from the family tree farm.
How did you start creating ping pong paddles in the first place?
Jai: It all started with games in the shop. Some days when things were slow we would set up a ping pong table at lunchtime and play — Tanner and Eli would have some serious battles! We all grew up playing some, but Eli plays all the time. He’s really pretty passionate about it.
Every summer for the past 15 years, Eli goes commercial salmon fishing in Alaska. They have an old Ping-Pong table where they stay, and a few years ago he decided that he was going to make a couple of paddles to take up there. The first paddles he made were actually all wood and really beautiful pieces of figured wood, but they don’t play very well compared to paddles with a type of material on them. The next generation had cork on them; after that a type of rubber; then sandpaper.
The leather came into play when we were trying to get the best looking paddle that also plays really well. Leather has this nice feel to it, so we began experimenting with different types of leathers — considering looks, quality, and where the leather was sourced.
Eli: I’ve grown up playing Ping-Pong, and since I’ve gotten older it’s become more apparent that it’s an international language. Everywhere you go there are people who are passionate about the sport. We have a really cool Ping-Pong set-up in Alaska and we put on a huge tournament every year with over 120 fisherman from around the country. It takes place in an old mess hall at Graveyard Point, an abandoned cannery. Everyone looks forward to this tradition, it’s highly competitive every year.
Locally, here in Oregon, we’ve gotten feedback from all types of players. Ping Pong is a sport anyone can play and enjoy, from beginners to advanced tournament players. Through experimenting with different materials these paddles have improved over time. What’s cool about the Shinola leather is it plays so well, it has an incredible touch on the ball, and it’s such a beautiful American product.
Oregon Black Walnut logs salvaged from the local Eugene, OR hospital property where three generations of their family were born.
Tell us about the paddles you are making for Shinola — what materials do you use?
Jai: The ones we’re making for Shinola are a maple paddle — the plywood is an apple core plywood, it’s got a maple veneer face, manufactured here in Eugene. The handle is light colored fiddleback figured Oregon Big leaf Maple that’s all sourced locally. It has a slight taper, and profile that fits perfectly into the hand.
The thing about our paddles is that they’re all made by Eli by hand. We handpick every single component for it, and each paddle is a one-of-a-kind piece. Some people like a lot of figure, some people like something that’s really clean. We work together on the design, selecting and editing the wood, breaking down the material, routing, and lot’s of hand sanding. Eli builds each one from there. He has probably done several thousand of these, he has really high standards of quality. It’s a long process, but every paddle ends up being truly one-of-a-kind.
Eli and Tanner working inside the woodshop.
Eli — How long have you known the Back Forty Woods brothers and how have the paddles evolved over time?
Eli: I’m also from Eugene, Oregon, and grew up with the Ralls brothers. When they started Back Forty Woods, I watched the progression of their work. I let Tanner know that as soon as they were ready for another hand, I was eager for the opportunity. I was honored when they welcomed me into their family early on, and I’ve been here ever since. They have such rich Oregon roots and deep connections in this town with woodworking and forestry. It’s really opened up a lot of opportunities and it’s been fun growing with them.
When I first started messing around with the first generation paddles there was a lot of unknown. As we kept getting positive feedback, everyone jumped on board, they’ve been fully supportive. It’s really opened up a lot of opportunities and it’s been fun growing together.
The Shinola + Back Forty Woods ping pong paddle features a heat embossed Shinola logo + American leather used for the paddles.
Eli — Do you consider yourself a woodworker? How do you define yourself?
It’s hard to put a label on it. We all started more in the residential construction field, but now when people ask me what I do, I would say more product design with an emphasis on woodworking. A lot of what we do here is furniture and other fine woodworking projects. I’m really interested in developing new products that incorporate wood, that are considered more functional art.
Eli Kriegh (pictured above).