Community connections, plus smart business foresight, help this Amish cabinet company thrive.

 

Done for the kitchen of a luxurious condo complex in Kansas City, MO, these cabinets are hard maple. The finish on the dark cabinets was made to match a Stickley color called “Old World.” The island, which is quartersawn white oak, features a black pigment that gives it a painted look.

Joe Burkholder, owner of Oakridge Furniture, says that if he had not taken the risk in 2006 to move and reorganize his business, its performance would have leveled off, having reached its ultimate capacity. Instead, this young business, which is located in the Amish community of Jamesport, MO, (about 80 miles northwest of Kansas City) has grown by leaps and bounds, thanks to the changes he instituted.

Oakridge Furniture is a multi-faceted custom furniture and finishing business that includes a retail shop that sells Burkholder’s furniture, as well as furniture consigned to him by other Amish furnituremakers. Burkholder shares this part of the business with his wife, Ada, who supervises the store’s employees. She is also responsible for the store’s over-all appearance.

Burkholder’s previous location is what inspired the company name — the original shop was on a hillside with large oak trees. It was picturesque, but not convenient. Customers had to walk up the hill to the retail shop, and the parking lot held a maximum of only 20 cars. Burkholder says he realized that the business needed more space, both for retail sales and for the production shop.

Expanding at that hillside location would have been costly. So Burkholder relocated to a flat lot that has twice the storage space, twice the retail space and 10 times the space for parking as the original spot. The new location houses the retail store and a separate finishing facility. Fabrication was taken over by Burkholder’s brother-in-law, Perry Detweiter, in a 2,300-square-foot shop about a mile down the road. His facility primarily features equipment from Grizzly, including a table saw, a 24-inch planer and an edger.

The new finishing shop is around 2,100 square feet, while the showroom covers 10,000 square feet. Both areas are lighted using insulated Starlight skylights, which help keep the area warm in winter and as cool as possible during the summer months. Oakridge Furniture is an Amish company, and the Amish do not use electricity. When the weather is hot, the only relief comes from moving the air, because there really is no way to cool it.

Burkholder is creative when it comes to finding alternate sources of power and light, both for the fabrication and finishing shops. He uses a diesel motor to operate his larger spray equipment, including two Kremlin 350 AirMix spray guns and pumps, and one Kremlin 275 airless sprayer. Smaller equipment is powered by compressed air.

Additionally, the diesel motor plays an important role in heating the shop. The heat it generates is passed through a radiator, then re-circulated to heat the shop.

Joe Burkholder, owner of Oakridge Furniture, checks a drawer on one of his freestanding furniture pieces.

Burkholder reflects that the Amish ban on electricity poses the biggest challenge in operating a custom furniture shop. “It also means that we cannot operate humidifiers or de-humidifiers, so weather is always a factor,” he says. “It’s a problem leaving an unfinished piece of furniture sitting around when the weather is humid, but at the same time, applying finish when it’s humid works against you. I love to work in the winter months, because there are fewer finishing problems then.”

On the plus side of following Amish traditions, Burkholder enjoys a strong networking community of furnituremakers. Every year he travels to Goshen, IN, to attend the Northern Indiana Woodcrafters Association’s Furniture Show. The trip does double duty, providing Burkholder with an opportunity to connect with the Indiana branch of his family, while putting him in contact with other Amish furniture craftsmen. The 2007 event included 82 woodworkers and 10 finishers representing 38 states. “This show gives me the energy to go back home and see what I can do next,” Burkholder says.

The networking results in referrals. For example, one customer for whom he was doing a large kitchen cabinet job in Kansas City also wanted a table. Instead of making the table in his shop, Burkholder passed the job to one of his colleagues who specializes in tables, enabling him to focus on what he does most efficiently.

“Most furnituremakers find something they prefer to make,” he says. “We work together so that people can concentrate as much as possible on the things they like to do best.”

A Mix of Modern and Traditional Touches

Burkholder says he has had a long-time fascination with finishing and also likes the design side of furnituremaking. His favorite finish is a cherry stain on quartersawn oak. He gains a great deal of satisfaction from collaborating with customers to create an individual piece of furniture that meets their needs, he adds. Sometimes a particular piece will be his inspiration to design an entire line of furniture. Over the years, like most Amish furnituremakers, he has based his designs on the Arts and Crafts and Mission styles of furniture.

The cabinet to the right of the sink opens up to interior mirrors, which are arranged so that someone facing them can easily see the back of her head. There also is a pull-out tray, ideal for a woman putting on her makeup. The area has concealed electrical outlets. The cabinetry is hard maple.

Burkholder believes that in order to be a successful furnituremaker, it is important to be “tuned in” to what customers want. He observes that people who grow up with Arts and Crafts-style furniture now look for something similar, but with a more modern and up-to-date look. In response, he developed his Modesto Line, which he says has been a big hit.

“The two elements that I incorporated into the Modesto Line are mortise-and-tenon joinery and a roundness and sense of flow to the pieces. My customers recognize the quality and durability that mortise-and-tenon joinery gives to a piece of furniture,” he says.

About 75 percent of the company’s sales are from furniture and the remainder is from custom projects, including kitchens and entertainment centers. This past winter, the company did the largest kitchen cabinet project in its five-year history. The commission included kitchen and bath cabinets, plus mantles and bookcases on either side of a fireplace, for a 10-unit luxury condominium complex built north of the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, MO. When the developer, Victoria Sexton set out to build the complex, she had difficulty finding custom woodworkers in the area who were doing the quality of work that she wanted. When she saw a kitchen that Burkholder had done for one of her colleagues, she was intrigued and wanted to see more of his work. After visiting his workshop and retail business in Jamesport, she was satisfied that she had found the right person for this project.

Burkholder says that he learned some valuable, albeit painful, lessons from doing the large project. For example, “I estimated the cost of doing the cabinetry for one of the condominiums and then multiplied by 10. That was my first mistake. It was the installation where I lost both time and money,” he says.

“The next time I have an opportunity to do a job like that, I would green-measure before starting the construction phase of the project,” he adds. “In this building, the ceiling heights varied. So we had to make major adjustments on-site to install the mantels and the bookcase.”

Burkholder also reflects that in many ways, his business grew a bit too quickly. But now that he has completed the large Sexton job, he plans to step back and evaluate his business priorities from a more comfortable perspective.

“During the time that I was working on the installation in Kansas City, I was needed at the business in Jamesport,” he says. “Last year our company did 15 kitchens in addition to the ones that we made for Victoria Sexton. It really was too much.”

He adds that the next time he has the opportunity to take on too much work, he will lighten his load by asking a family member to participate. It is another value of networking and the community.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.