At KOL Industries Inc. Challenges Are Routine

Providing custom woodwork for the high-end residential market in Baltimore, MD, is never boring, say owners Robert Schatz and Mark Schaub.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

 

Before founding KOL Industries Inc. in 1986, Robert Schatz and Mark Schaub worked for an architectural woodworking firm. When that company's focus shifted from residential to commercial work, the two friends decided to go out on their own.

"We had an itch we needed to scratch," says Schatz, president of the Baltimore, MD-based company, which specializes in architectural woodwork and furniture for the high-end residential market. The partners brought talent and enthusiasm to the job but found the high-end residential market initially "tough to crack," says Schaub, who is vice president.

 

This bath/dressing room features casework and millwork in soft maple with an antiqued crackle finish. The tall millwork unit in the middle of the room contains two display nooks and houses the stereo system for that wing of the house. At the left and right walls are clothes closets. Robert Schatz says that there is a trend lately for people to put "serious money" into their dressing rooms.

"When we started our company, we found that the high-end interior market is not an easy one to crack," he says. "We had to prove ourselves, and in the beginning we bounced between commercial and food service-type work until we established a reputation. We knew it was a matter of opening the right doors, getting an opportunity to work with reputable architects and interior designers and proving ourselves.

"It is very important in this business to develop a good relationship with architects and designers. That is what feeds us," he adds. "It doesn't happen overnight. Our GÇÿniche' is that we are known for doing highly detailed and unusual work. A challenging job doesn't scare us. We thrive on it."

By "challenging," Schatz means work that includes custom doors, radius units, wall paneling, libraries, staircases, dressing rooms, elaborate kitchens and custom millwork. "We have set up our shop to handle difficult work and be competitive in the process. Now when we get a job that is simple, our staff wonders if we are mad at them," Schaub says.

Schatz adds that the company is also known for its ability to do all phases of a project in-house, which he says gives the ability to control quality and accelerate the schedule when necessary. "There is a trend in the business today to rely on subassembly. Buy doors. Buy casework. Sub the finishing. Where is the challenge in that?"

The partners say that their hard work has paid off. Today they employ 12 full-time workers, including two installers. For the past three years, business has been booming and 60- to 70-hour weeks have been routine.

"We don't want to get any bigger," says Schaub. "In 1991, we increased our shop size to 15,000 square feet, and this is a comfortable size for us. We employ a great group of people whom we consider friends. We have a work/study program for students, and we usually end up hiring them once they complete it."

"We like what we are doing," adds Schatz. "While we like working in our own backyard, the mid-Atlantic area, our work has taken us to other parts of the country, including Manhattan, upstate New York, Colorado and Florida. When you work with architects at our level, you have to be willing to be mobile. For example, Mark just GÇÿlived' at a job in New York for about nine months."

Another challenge in their business is having to handle the unexpected, the partners say. Daily changes are routine. "On a recent job, we saw the Federal Express driver every day as we sent finish samples and details back and forth. Clients and architects get very involved, and they want to see what it is we are talking about," Schatz says.

The partners also say that in their market they have learned to lose the idea that the low price gets the job. "We had to decide whether we wanted to go for quantity or quality. Service is very important to our customers," Schatz says. "This is such a high-end market that I can't afford our work myself, much to my wife's chagrin."

Schatz learned woodworking at an early age from his father. He first worked around autos but decided to enter vocational school and study woodworking formally for a variety of reasons. "For one thing, when people are improving a house, they tend to be pretty happy and prepared to spend. It is something they elect to do. People who need their automobiles fixed are usually frustrated and not so willing to write the check," he says.

Schaub entered the business at friend Schatz' urging. He says he liked the idea of woodworking, because he never wanted to sit behind a desk. "Ironically, we sit behind desks all the time now. But we still like going into the shop and working with our hands. We are solving problems and creating."

Testifying to the caliber of their work, one project was featured recently in Luxury Homes, a magazine about prestigious homes and interior design in the Maryland, Washington and Virginia area. The partners describe the job as an eclectic and, at times, playful luxury treatment of a 20,000-square-foot estate set in the "bucolic Maryland countryside."

For KOL, the work was challenging but fun. "The master bedroom featured a wood canopied bed and an overall design that blended traditional and contemporary styles," says Schatz. "At the foot of the bed, we built a high-tech hidden entertainment center housing a huge TV screen, surrounded by six others, that raises up when the owners want to watch TV and remains hidden the rest of the time.

"The house has 86 televisions in various rooms, including the guest room, play room, game room, living room, workout room, kitchen bathrooms and in the shower," he adds. "It also has an exercise wing, complete with a two-story workout room. The upper level features a painted dome, while the lower level incorporates a wall of glass blocks that curves like the rest of the colorful room. The home's black and aubergine game room is designed to be an adult play room and includes a pool table, built-in television, bar and full-service kitchen."

In the market they serve, the partners say customers are usually savvy about wood. "Between the interior designer, the architect and the client, we have people who are not bogged down in the ordinary. Wood helps sell the work," Schaub says. "In one Manhattan co-op apartment building, we used 32 different wood species. Every room had to have a door that matched the room. Some of the doors featured several different wood species on opposing sides of the door, and that can be tricky, since woods move at different rates.

"We give our input about which species will enhance a design," he adds. "Cherry is hot with clients now, as is antique lumber, especially for flooring and islands. Mahogany and maple continue to be strong." Ebony, snakewood, bubinga pommele, wenge, sapele, pear, satinwood, purpleheart, antique pine, wormy chestnut and imbuya are among the other species they use.

 

These photos show two sides of one room. The built-in cabinetry in bird's-eye maple with a natural finish houses audio-visual equipment. Opposite is a radius kitchen, also in bird's-eye maple with a deep purple stain, high-gloss finish. At the left is a metal mirrored column. The countertops are Corian solid surfacing material.

"Some woods surprise you. Ipe is a unique wood. It is very heavy, weighing about 75 pounds per cubic foot. (Lignum vitae, considered one of the heaviest of all woods, weighs 76 pounds per cubic foot.) The dust, when wet, will dye hair red. We have an employee here who is 62 years old and ipe gave him a whole new look," says. Schatz. "Imbuya is a popular wood for its looks and pleasant fragrance. But as sweet as it smells, it can cause an allergic reaction when it is sanded. Another wood, pink ivorywood, is only available if it is cut by royal members of a Zulu tribe."

The use of reclaimed lumber has opened up interesting design arenas, they say, and is popular with clients who like the ecological aspect, as well as the idea of using woods that no longer are available. "We can get premium chestnut that has been resawn and kiln dried," Schatz says. "One of the architects we frequently work with, Greg LeVanis of Baltimore, loves wood and he educates his clients about it. We have been building a variety of rustic-looking reclaimed chestnut islands for some very formal kitchens for him."

Recently the company worked on an English manor-style home. "The library featured antique white pine reclaimed from a barn," Schaub says. "The old growth planks were wide and long and just beautiful. We used 2,000 board feet in 20-foot-long planks. The client liked the fact that some of the boards have borer bee damage and a touch of rot, because it added interest and dimension."

When it comes to the machinery used to build their high-end work, Schatz and Schaub joke that their shop is "CMC" -- completely manually controlled.

"Our work is custom, and our machinery is designed to do small lots, not production work," they say. But they do have a wide variety of equipment on the shop floor, including an Altendorf sliding table saw, 24-inch Oliver planer, 16-inch joiner, 36-inch AEM widebelt sander and shapers from Whitney, SCMI, Powermatic and Moak. There also is a Wysonge stroke sander, Holz-Her panel saw and a variety of saws by Oliver and Altendorf. The shop has a vacuum press and lays up some of its own veneers.

The company recently installed a finishing system by Kremlin. "The air-assisted airless spray system cost $2,500, but we will recoup the investment in a year because of its high efficiency. Material waste is greatly reduced, and the system allows us to spray finishing material with less thinning and more viscosity," says Schatz.

He also says that although he sees a trend in some woodworking companies for shop workers to specialize and concentrate on a single area, he does not agree with it. "I have been in this business for 18 years, and I have interviewed people who have worked for a long time but they can't take a blueprint and make a cutting list," he says. "They say, GÇÿNo, that comes out of the office.' At our place, each person starts a job and follows it through to its completion.

"At some shops, one person cuts out all the pieces, another assembles a case and someone else makes the drawers or doors," he adds. "In our shop, basically one person runs all the way through from start to finish, except for the finishing stage."

However, Schaub and Schatz themselves do have their own areas of expertise. Schaub is an expert at finishing and says, "Finishing is very exacting work. You have to be a color wizard and have great eye-hand coordination, plus know a little about chemistry. Our clients are knowledgeable about the new finishes. For example, a recent high-end bathroom job featured a crackle finish. Another job, a high-end kitchen, featured a trompe-l'oeil scene. Still another client wanted the distressed look with edges that were almost chipped."

Schaub also excels at job estimating, while Schatz usually serves as the project manager for most jobs. That role can put him in charge of loading a truck bound for New York City at 2 a.m., as was the case on a recent job, and making sure that there was a crane on-site to lift 10-foot-high entry doors into place, because they wouldn't fit into the eight-foot freight elevator.

There also are time challenges to their work. "Our business is such that we have to have fairly fast turnaround, because we are working in conjunction with other trades. We have to be able to do quick samples in the midst of a job, and we have to have our part of the project ready," Schatz says. "We are fortunate that our employees are team players who stay late when we need them.

"Custom work is never boring," he adds. "Each day brings us new challenges."

 

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