No Beginner's Luck Needed for Illinois Woodworking Shop
After working for others, two experienced woodworkers look to succeed for themselves.
By Sam Gazdziak
American Custom Woodworking may be only five years old, but it is hardly run by newcomers to the industry. Both Tom Peters and Wally Braun, co-owners of the Ingleside, IL-based company, have 20 years' experience in the trade.
Both men had apprenticed and worked at several different companies before they came to work at the same woodworking shop. After a while, they decided to go into business together. "We thought it was a good combination," Peters says. "Wally knew the shop a little bit better than I did, and I knew the office a little bit better than he did."
With several corporate centers located in its market area, ACW does about 75 percent of its work in commercial areas. The
work covers plastic laminated cabinets and wood cabinets as well as wood paneling. ACW's customers are in the Chicagoland area, with work ranging from downtown Chicago to residences in suburban Hinsdale and Highland Park. One of the more recent projects was to refurbish the lobby of Vance Publishing, publisher of Custom Woodworking Business and Wood & Wood Products, in Lincolnshire.
Peters says that the business started in 1994 in a "traditional way," in a garage. Within two years, they had moved to their present location, an 8,000-square-foot shop with 11 employees.
Peters handles many of the office responsibilities and brings in work, and Braun runs the shop and does much of the machining. Materials used include veneers, solid surface, metals and plastic laminate. The products that need to be finished are subcontracted out. Work is done primarily on a Griggio sliding table saw and an Onsrud overhead router, as well as a Holz-Her edgebander. "Being a new company, we do a lot of work with what we have, compared to some of these bigger companies that have more high-tech equipment," Braun says. "Although that's down the road for us."
American Custom Woodworking has several contractors with which it works on a regular basis. Peters says that most of ACW's work comes from repeat customers and word-of-mouth.
Getting repeat customers is something ACW has worked very hard to earn. "It's tough when you start out," says Peters. "Nobody knows who you are. You have personal contacts, like from my old position where I dealt with people. But still, you've got to get someone to take a chance on you. Once you do a job or two and you've proven yourself, they come back."
Peters says Braun and he always knew the business would be successful. "If you don't go into it with that confidence, you're up the proverbial creek without a paddle," he explains. "We knew we had all the talent we needed. It was just a matter of getting people to buy into that."
After five years, American Custom Woodworking has built up a solid reputation, Peters says. "People know that we're kind of the go-to guy," he says. "If they need something done, they know that they can count on us to give it to them without compromising the quality.
"The key is to do it without compromising, because maybe you get it done on time, but if it's not right, that's what they're going to remember -- not that you were on time, but that things don't fit right or something's not finished correctly, " he adds.
Peters estimates that the company works on 65 to 100 projects per year, with the length of time on a project averaging one to two months. The work can vary from full-length partitions in the Mercedes Benz corporate office, in Rosemont, IL, to cabinets for a hospital in Elgin. Costs of projects range up to $500,000.
One of the more memorable commercial jobs ACW has done was building the interior for the USG Design Solutions Center in Chicago. "There were a lot of interesting pieces there. Those are the projects that you like, that stretch your abilities," says Peters. ACW built a custom reception area, display kiosks and radiused shoji panels. For a product display wall, they added turnstiles and sliding panels.
The entire project needed to be done for the NeoCon '97 trade show. Peters says that projects like these can be difficult. By the time the contract is awarded, much of the shop time is used up already. He says that when a situation like that occurs, "you've got to do whatever it takes. Start early and work late. That NeoCon show will happen whether you're done or not. If you have that attitude going into the project, you usually end up doing pretty well."
Residential work takes up about a quarter of ACW's workload, and it has led to several interesting projects. One house had a very long galley-style kitchen, which required creative utilization of space. The kitchen featured sycamore cabinets and Corian countertops. ACW added a kitchen island on the other side of the countertop.
The project that Peters said he is the most proud of involved a 100-year-old house in Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb. "The owner decided he wanted to gut the kitchen, start from scratch, and create a French country look," he says. ACW took the owner's input and finished the design, using floor-to-ceiling cabinets and panels with a distressed knotty pine finish.
"It was a conglomeration of a couple of rooms; it was an old porch, a small kitchen and a hallway that all opened up, and we created this big kitchen," Peters says.
"We get into situations like those, I think, because of our ability to do quality work," he adds. "We're not real flashy. We just rely on word-of-mouth and repeat business from people. We do a good job, and people come back."
The Lincolnshire, IL, offices of Vance Publishing Corp., home of CWB and Wood & Wood Products, was refurbished over the summer of 1998. Among the renovations was the front lobby, which had new millwork installed, courtesy of American Custom Woodworking.
The job came from Power V.I.P. Construction, says Tom Peters, co-owner of ACW. The company built column surrounds and beams out of mahogany. "I think it's a lot more impressive than what it was," he says. Vance employees wholeheartedly agree.
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