California Cabinet Shop Fills an Institutional Niche

A small shop that handles big jobs, Benicia Cabinetry finds a comfortable market doing commercial work with residential ‘fillers.’

By Helen Kuhl

Commercial cabinetry is a market that you could say Benicia Cabinetry fell into by accident. But it has proven to be a successful niche for the Benicia, CA, company.

Owner David Weirich says he never intended to be a professional woodworker. He was taught “how to build stuff” by a friend when he was in the service and pursued it as a hobby in his garage as a diversion from his studies when he was in college. But a neighbor asked him to build cabinets for his kitchen one summer, which turned out well and led to other side jobs. And Weirich, who always wanted to have his own business, decided to give cabinetmaking a professional try.

At that point, Weirich had a full-time engineering job, but he decided to bid for a big project, building cabinets for 215 low-income homes. When he got the bid, he quit his job and started his business.

“When we got that very first job, it was funny because the contractor called us up and wanted to see our shop, and we didn’t have one,” says Weirich’s wife Deborah, who runs the office. “So we quickly rented a shop and stuck our tablesaw and some saw dust around, and he came and inspected it.

“He told us later that he knew that we weren’t really set up for doing that kind of job,” she adds. “But he liked us and we liked him, and we did a really good job. He kind of helped us through it and became one of our favorite contractors to work for.”

That was in 1986, and the early focus of the shop stayed on face-frame cabinetry for low-income housing for a long time. However, about five years ago Benicia Cabinetry got a school job that required WIC-grade frameless-style cabinets. Weirich says he felt that the frameless market offered more opportunities and he decided to change his outlook and his construction methods.

“We were looking for some bid work and there weren’t really any face-frame jobs out there,” he says. “There were some schools open for bid, and all the plans were for frameless construction. We had done a couple of frameless kitchens here and there, but for kitchens you don’t need any specialized machinery. We did that first frameless school job almost by hand, and I needed a better way to do it in the future.

       
 
 
Benicia Cabinetry supplements its larger projects with “fillers” such as high-end residential kitchens. Cherry cabinets with glass doors helped create the high-tech look in the San Francisco kitchen at left, while the clear maple kitchen at far left was done in a traditional Shaker style.  
       

“I was thinking of a CNC router, but the machinery dealer told me I should get a point-to-point,” he says. “First I bought an edgebander, then a point-to-point, and then I replaced my vertical panel saw with a beam saw.”

Today, Benicia Cabinetry is a WIC-certified shop and does a lot of school work, as well as apartments and office TIs (tenant improvements), primarily frameless. It stays within a 50-mile radius in the Oakland area and concentrates on institutional remodels, doing two big jobs per year.

“Those types of jobs are pretty good size, and they are usually a phased-type of work, so we are doing them through the whole year,” Weirich says. “In between those jobs, we do other little filler projects, like the office TIs. We also do some residential kitchens as fillers.

“Because of the size of our shop and the number of employees, working the bigger jobs in stages fits our needs,” he adds.

The big projects tend to be in the $100,000 range and involve straightforward casework, most of it in plastic laminate. Those jobs often include some custom cabinets and pieces as well. “There is a lot of straight casework in the school classrooms, but then you go to the library and there is a special book return counter or you go into the office and there is a special reception area there,” Weirich says.

Although Benicia Cabinetry purchased its panel processing equipment in order to do higher volume frameless casework, having that equipment also gives the shop its capability to do the custom “specials” that some bigger shops avoid.

“With our computer software and machinery, we can design and make custom sizes quickly,” Weirich says.

Benicia’s equipment is arranged in a work cell. Panels start at an SCMI Sigma 90 panel saw, then go to an SCMI Tech 90 Super point-to-point boring machine and to an SCMI Olimpic S212 edgebander. The company buys all its panels laid-up. It purchased the panel saw with an extra large table, “so we can buy panels as big as possible,” Weirich says. The panel saw also generates bar codes. The company uses Cabinet Vision software, which links to all the machines through discs.

When the company began concentrating on frameless cabinetry, it switched from using Conformat screws to a dowel construction because it was faster and more economical, Weirich says. The shop has a Model DD automatic dowel inserter and a case clamp, both from Accu-Systems. Since it still does some face-frame work, the shop also has a Ritter face-frame clamp table. Weirich adds that he would like to purchase a conveyor to go from the panel saw to the point-to-point to keep work flowing smoothly.

The company buys some of its panels prefinished, but also does a lot of its own finishing. “Doing it in-house is a lot better for getting it done on time,” Weirich says. “Plus, we have a better control on it than if we subbed it out.”

The shop has a 160-square-foot Binks spray booth equipped with Binks HVLP sprayers. It uses a Chemcraft solvent-based catalyzed lacquer that is VOC-compliant in California, where regulations are strict. However, Weirich sends “fancy work” like faux finishes to a custom finisher down the street.

     
 
One recent institutional job was for the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Services office in San Francisco. The project featured Nevamar laminate and Corian countertops. The glass windows are held in place with white oak trim.  
     

Most casework features Accuride drawer slides and Blum hinges. Benicia also uses the Blum Metabox drawer system for high-volume projects.

Benicia moved into its current facility in 1994. It is a condominium, which Weirich owns. The shop is about 6,000 square feet and there are six employees.

The shop does all its own installation, except for smaller residential work which is generally installed by a contractor. “The main reason why we install it ourselves is because it’s tricky to get frameless cases to look right,” Weirich says. “If you are paying somebody else to do it, they are just trying to get it done as fast as they can. It’s better to install your own work.”

Some of Benicia’s commercial work, especially for offices, has been higher-end. One “dot.com” company used a Formica copper overlay for its doors; another used an expensive Abet Laminati laminate. But most jobs use just standard colors and materials.

Weirich says he likes the institutional market because the specifications are very specific. “The drawings that we submit for approval are checked by an architect and there are no questions,” he says. “When we do a project, we are building exactly what they want, because we not only have done our shop drawings from a set of architectural drawings, but we also have walked the project with the general contractor. We do our submittals and the general contractor signs off that it’s okay to build them. There are no questions and there are very few change orders.”

He also supplements his income by doing work for other shops, since he currently has more capacity than he needs with his new equipment. “Our bander can do 3mm, which lots of shops around here don’t have,” he says. “I’ve also done cut work for a local lumberyard and some drilling on the CNC for a shop that doesn’t have one. We don’t advertise for it, but that’s good work.”

Weirich says that he would like to get a little bigger and handle a few bigger jobs. “We are only into the fifth year of this commercial-type work, so we are still learning,” he says.

“There are lots of peaks and valleys in this business, and if I could get more of a straight line, I’d feel a lot better. Of course, I’m sure everybody says that!” he laughs.

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