Wisconsin Company Continues A Legacy of Quality

A.J. Pietsch has been building high-end millwork in the Milwaukee area for the past 85 years.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

A. J. Pietsch Co. Inc. has long been a presence in Milwaukee, WI — so much so that it is one of the businesses recreated in the Milwaukee Public Museum’s “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit. The company recently celebrated its 85th anniversary. Founder Alfred Julius Pietsch started the business in 1916 and ran the woodworking and cabinetmaking company for many years until handing over the reins to son Richard. Gregory Reistad, president, bought the company from Pietsch in 1993. Pietsch was retiring and had no family members interested in continuing the business. Co-owner David Nadolski joined the company three years ago as the vice president and controller.

This wormy chestnut office was done for a political figure in Milwaukee. A.J. Pietsch’s work included the built-in cabinets, wall paneling, base and crown moulding and the perimeter of the floor surrounding the rug. The company also built the desk, a small conference table and a lamp table.  

While the original company was billed as a general building, construction and repairs firm, the list of what the company did in the early 1920s is very similar to what it does today. A promotional flyer from the early days lists services of the company as: interior woodwork, cabinet work, store fixtures, office partitions, display cases, shelving, industrial displays, industrial wood parts, office wainscot and wall paneling. A rosewood can opener made as a company give-away in the early days is inscribed with the slogan, “Pietsch for Perfect Miters.”

“We run a custom house,” says Nadolski, who is a CPA in addition to having a background in woodworking. “We sum up our capabilities by describing ourselves as cabinetmakers and carpenters of fine woodwork.”

“A. J. Pietsch has a reputation for high quality. This is not a discount house, not ‘Cabinets ‘R Us,’” adds Reistad. “Our quality is our number one sales tool.”

The company’s Web site, www.pietsch.com, gives a good pictorial cross-section of what the company does. Recent jobs include the first two levels of the former Hilton hotel, now the high-profile Monono Terrace Convention Center in Madison, WI.

“We did the entire lobby, including all moulding and standing and running trim, the front desk and concierge desk, bellman’s desk and other furniture,” says Nadolski. “We recently finished an entire office suite for a prominent Wisconsin politician, using reclaimed wormy chestnut.”

The job included flooring, office furniture and paneling using wood from Appalachia, reclaimed and recut for the new application. Nadolski says they did mockups of the paneling and moulding in various finishes before deciding on the final look. The finish — a warm, honey color — was achieved with paste wax and various tints which were kept in liquid form during application using a light for heat.

“The job grew as we went along. We originally were supposed to do the floor and wall panels, replacing material that was too dark. The finished job includes crown moulding, built-in cabinetry and fixtures, a desk, phone stand, small conference table and other items,” says Nadolski.

“We also recently finished the Miller Time Pub in the downtown Milwaukee Hilton, including the bar, wainscoting, crown moulding and paneling done in red oak. We can work with any wood a customer requests, but lately it seems we are working with cherry, cherry and more cherry plus the occasional maple. Cherry is currently a hot wood with our type of work,” Nadolski adds.

“Almost all of our work is commercial. Our market position is as a high-end shop for architectural woodwork and commercial interiors. Our ‘bread and butter’ is in showing off the skills of our cabinetmakers. If it is made of wood, high end and commercial, we can do it.

“We do a lot of work for capital management firms,” Nadolski adds. “We do wood workstations finished with tapestry-type upholstery material. It’s the type of work that isn’t available in some office interior catalog. We have a good relationship with some of the law firms in the area and do interiors for them. We also work with general contractors who do high-end work. We provided the woodwork for the Madison Edgewood College Predolin Humanities Building Rotunda. That job earned an award as being among the top 20 construction projects of 2000,” says Reistad.

“I don’t much care for the term ‘turn-key’ because it is so overused, but we offer clients the entire package, if they desire, from design, drawing, manufacturing, finishing, installation and service,” Reistad says. “We can design the furniture or millwork, build and install it. We take the headaches away.”

Pietsch today still occupies the large, rambling 25,000-square-foot three-story building it moved to in its first decade of business. The company employs 25 people, including 12 cabinetmakers, two carpenter installers, two finishing experts, a project manager, office manager and estimator, plus apprentices working toward certification from a union-sponsored work/study program. “We have employees who have been with the company for 40 and 50 years,” says Reistad.

The original sash for the altar window at the Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Milwaukee was so damaged that the art glass would flex in heavy winds. A.J. Pietsch removed the window and installed a temporary one while it re-made the entire sash in white oak. The gothic, arch shaped window measures roughly 24 feet wide by 36 feet tall.  

The building is divided into several work areas; from the rough lumber area, to manufacturing, to assembly and finishing. One enclave houses a wall of blue shelves and drawers. Each drawer contains the knife, template and finished sample of mouldings machined on the company’s Weinig Profimat 23 moulder and Rondamat grinder.

“We have had the machines for six years now,” says Reistad. “We catalog each cut we have done (we have hundreds), which saves time when we use that design again. We have the capability to do any moulding profile in any wood a customer requests. We also grind the knives for each application.”

Other machinery in the shop includes an Altendorf F45 sliding table saw, an AEM widebelt sander, an SCMI T150 tilt spindle shaper and an Anderson Exxact 51 router, which features an eight-tool changer and uses AlphaCAM software. The router is used for horizontal and vertical drilling. The company has had the machine for a year and has trained three people on its operation. “We haven’t maximized its capabilities yet,” says Nadolski.

The rough mill area of the building contains a Diehl ripsaw dating from the 1920s or ’30s. Nadolski says it is a work horse that runs all day, every day.

A former storage area has been turned into a conference room, paneled entirely in American black walnut. “This place used to be an odds-and-ends area for storage and a place where workers came to smoke. We cleaned it all out and transformed it using the culls from walnut we had in our lumber area to make the paneling, moulding, display cases, doors and trim. A lot of our customers want the straight, clear material, but we used this material to show that non-clear material can be very attractive, too,” says Nadolski.

“The door, for example, is filled with knots and figures,” he adds. “Most of our customers would reject something like that until they see it done. The markings give it a lot of character that you won’t see in the clear grades. The door looks like it will leap right off its hinges. We call this place our conference/customer education room.”

The company does a wide range of work, including some occasional furniture commissions. “We also do some church work,” says Nadolski. “We work with Conrad Schmitt, a local company that specializes in the stained glass or art glass, as it is properly called, used in church windows. They take out the art glass, clean it and re-lead it if necessary, and we redo the sash work. We get involved in a lot of unusual projects.”

Reistad’s background includes working as a cabinetmaker since the age of 18. He worked in or owned various small cabinet shops over the years and first worked with Nadolski when he hired him as a cabinetmaker.

A.J. Pietsch did several workstations in cherry for a corporate client. The workstations feature wood panels on the outside walls, tackable fabric panels with a cherry cap and curved work surfaces with a bullnose edge. The company also did the pedestals.  

The two first met when Reistad was running a shop that worked exclusively on luxury passenger railroad car interiors. The niche market is one they are still involved in with A.J. Pietsch, although it is a minor part of the company’s business today.

“These are the cars that politicians use when they go on whistle stop tours of the country. I call them rolling yachts,” says Reistad. “Each interior is different, but they typically include two levels with paneling, moulding and trim, and arched skylight windows in the atrium area. One recent job featured mahogany. We have been getting our mahogany supplies from Africa. You can get great widths and a beautiful grain and color now.”

Reistad previously worked on the interior for the Hiawatha, a train originally designed in 1946 by famed industrial designer Brooks Stevens. “Mr. Stevens commented that the work matched the original faithfully, except for a small circular table that we had topped with white oak veneer. He told me the original featured a plastic laminate. It’s not often that a client prefers a laminate, but when he was designing the original, Formica was an exciting new design option,” Reistad says.

A.J. Pietsch works with solid wood but also uses matched veneers, usually applied to MDF, or reconstituted veneers. The company is thriving despite the slowdown in the general economy. Last year sales were $2.5 million and this year’s projections are for $3 million.

“If I had to point to any changes over the years, I think it would be in the customer’s demand for shorter lead times. It seems to be industry-wide,” Reistad says. “Ten years ago a customer was happy with a 10- to 12-week turnaround. Today, it’s very different and we frequently get asked to complete work in two to three weeks or less. You have to be extremely flexible these days.”

Reistad adds that offering complete service in-house helps them keep in charge of deadlines, adding, “It’s not unusual to have our staff working around the clock.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the company’s insistence on a quality product, Reistad says. “We think our success and repeat work is due to the fact that we do things well.”

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