An upstate New York company has experienced consistent growth over the past three years by fabricating kitchen cabinets.

Take a glimpse at Artistic Millwork and Design's production process.

Steve Chapman, owner of Artistic Millwork and Design located in Middletown, NY, initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps as a truck mechanic, until he realized that was not what he wanted to do. It was his uncle, Ernie Salonen, who gave him a new direction and a start in the woodworking industry.

“My uncle was a carpenter and worked in the contracting field, [so] I kind of switched careers,” Chapman says. He started out doing typical carpentry — framing and trim work.

Doing built-ins was one part of the job he says he enjoyed the most, so he began to focus on that area of any project that came up. “My uncle had spent some time in a cabinet shop, and we would do simple built-ins,” notes Chapman. “That’s where I decided I wanted to specialize and it just kind of took off from there.”

Chapman credits Salonen with teaching him the basics, although his uncle’s knowledge of cabinetmaking was “rudimentary,” especially when he looks back at it now, Chapman says.

“He showed me everything he knew,” explains Chapman, “although that knowledge was basic from a carpenter’s standpoint. But that’s where I got started and from there on out, I was pretty much self-taught.”

Chapman expanded on his basic foundation through trial-and-error over the years, developing skills that have made him very successful today. He was in partnership with his uncle until they separated ways in the early ’90s, and he started Artistic Millwork and Design on his own in 1996.

“I started [my company] as a sole proprietorship. I took that [direction] because the business I was in with [my uncle] was more remodeling and contracting, and I would handle a lot more of the cabinetry end of it.”

The company was originally based in New Jersey, but when his uncle left the business, Chapman decided to move it to upstate New York.

“I had a small area on my property that I basically converted into a one-man shop,” he says.

The company is now located in a 5,800-square-foot space, including shop, office and warehouse. He has four employees — three in the shop and one in the office.

“I started out as a one-man operation and grew from there,” he explains. “I tried different types of advertising and nothing seemed to work [at first]. The existing base from the contract portion of my career is what fueled everything, and then with a couple of contacts I made here and there, [the business] just kind of grew.”

The cabinets in this kitchen have inset, beaded frame doors. Project designed by Sally Ross, Sally Ross Designs.

Developing the Clientele

Chapman covers Essex, Bergen and Morris Counties in New Jersey. Although he moved his business to upstate New York in 2000, he pretty much uses the same client base and the same referrals that he did when he was in business with his uncle.

He works closely with a Montclair, NJ, area designer, Sally Ross, who has used Chapman for projects for approximately 10 years. He credits that relationship with providing a steady and consistent “network of clientele. She became the root of everything,” he says. “That’s where things stemmed from and I built from there.”

According to Chapman, Ross gave him more jobs because they worked well together and she liked his style of cabinetmaking.

“I think she just liked the way I viewed things, and I tended to be a little more reliable than other woodworkers she’s worked with,” he says.

Current Projects

A good portion of the projects fabricated by Artistic Millwork and Design are kitchens, approximately 90 percent, Chapman says.

“We also do entertainment centers. I’ve done wine cellars, residential libraries and fireplace mantels — any type of custom interior work,” he adds. “It just happens to be that kitchens have dominated.”

At the time of CWB’s visit to Artistic Millwork, the shop employees were working on a portion of a kitchen and bookshelf cabinets.

“I’ve got stuff in the starting phase and material has to come in,” says Chapman. “On average, we have four projects going at one time — staggered. The whole shop really isn’t laid out the way it should be. It’s what I could do with the space I have. If I can move into a different location, I would set things up differently and it would improve efficiencies dramatically.”

The shop is what Chapman calls a blend of hand craftsmanship and technology. “We kind of depend upon a lot of machinery, so it kind of depends on what your definition of what ‘hand crafted’ is. You’re not going to see guys down there with hand planes or carving chisels. We do most of the work in-house. The only work we sub out is drawer boxes.”

The machinery in the shop includes: a Flexicam CNC router, Holz-Her 1436 express edgebander, SCMI horizontal panel saw, Invicta 12-inch joiner, Ritter drill tub and 4x face-frame and door assembly table, and an RKO hauncher.

Ninety percent of the work fabricated by Artistic Millwork and Design is kitchen cabinets. His personal preference is for inset-style cabinets, such as shown in this kitchen. Photo courtesy of George Ross. Project pictured was designed by Sally Ross, Sally Ross Designs.

Popular Trends

According to Chapman, there is a trend in the Essex County area for paint-grade kitchens. One reason is because the homes are older, approximately early 1900s, and it’s important for the cabinetry to blend in with the rest of the home.

“I think [that] will be something that continues because of the nature of this business, even aside from these kitchens, to create spaces that look like part of the house from the day the house was built,” says Chapman.

Artistic Millwork also does an occasional mix of natural and painted cabinets.

“We did a kitchen a few months ago that had mahogany base cabinets and painted uppers. That’s something we’re starting to see a little bit more,” says Chapman. “I think it creates a nice design effect. I like the combination. I think it looks nice in the right house.”

Chapman also says that the company does a lot of inset doors with beaded face frames. He prefers that style to frameless or European-style cabinets.

“I feel that’s the way cabinets should be. If someone wants a different price point then okay, you do some frameless to be able to reduce costs a little bit. That’s just how I view it. Of course, it depends, from a design standpoint, what type of house it’s going in,” he says.

Design is an area that Chapman would like to see Artistic Millwork do more of. He has created some designs, but says, “It’s something I would like to get into even more – it’s where my interest is at this point. Working with architects and designers, you lose creativity to a certain extent because they are the ones designing [the project]. They are the ones being creative, and you’re building someone else’s vision.”

When asked what it would take to do his own designs exclusively, Chapman laughs and says “another life change – shut this down and go to design school. No, I already have a background in design. I think I have more experience than most designers out there just because I’ve been in the cabinetry field and I’ve seen things.”

One way Chapman says he can gain more control over the creative process is by working with architects who do not have interior designers on their staff. “There is actually a potential for a transition right there with these clients that I have developed a relationship with over the years.”

Artistic Millwork and Design has enjoyed consistent growth. Chapman says that sales have increased approximately 15% each year.

He has managed to stay busy despite what is going on in the housing market. He credits his success to the fact that he was able to bring in additional new clients to offset the slowdown with his existing base.

“If I hadn’t brought in those new clients who are giving me repeat business, I might have felt the crunch based on my pre-existing client base. Things did slow down from them. I just increased my

network of people that I deal with,” he says.

Plans for the Future

Chapman’s future goal is to actually decrease the size of his shop while maintaining his profit level. When he started out, he says that he envisioned having a shop with 20 to 30 guys. But he has come to the conclusion that he is “a cabinetmaker, not a business guy.” Chapman says that management can be difficult and he thinks a lot of woodworkers would agree with that point.

“What I started to see is that the larger the business is, the more headaches you have to deal with. I think as far as profitability goes, a larger business doesn’t mean more profit. Sometimes I think I could reduce myself to a shop one-fourth the size and still maintain a profit just by improving efficiencies,” says Chapman. “What I think is that anybody who has a business has to find a happy medium.”

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