Home is Where the Studio Is

Steve Casey is living out his dream of being a home studio craftsman.

By Sam Gazdziak

Steve Casey saw what he wanted to do with his life early on in his woodworking career. As a student in the California State Northridge woodworking program in the mid-1970s, he and the other students had the chance to visit the home studios of several local craftsmen, including Sam Maloof and J.B. Blunk.

 

     
     
   
  This corner unit was designed to hide an odd space in the room. The unit is lacquer finished to match a fireplace in the room.  

“When I saw those guys and what they were doing, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” says Casey. “Those guys were studio craftsmen, and they had their own shops and built their own stuff, and they filled their houses with their own work. I thought they were living the most unique, incredible lifestyle you could pick.

“My dream and goal has always been to find a place where I could build my studio, live and work at home, have a family, watch my kids grow up, not really have to drive to work and do what I saw those guys doing in the ’70s, that studio craftsman gig,” he adds.

Casey, 45, has accomplished exactly what he set out to do. The studio for his business, Casey Design in western Los Angeles County, CA, is only about 20 feet away from his home, and in his free time he is able to go fly fishing or dirt bike riding with his two sons. He has also made a name for himself by building high-end entertainment centers and furniture pieces in the Los Angeles area.

Casey’s woodworking has continually evolved. He began his career doing wood art sculptures and moved into art furniture. He started doing audio and video equipment racks before anyone had conceived of a home theater system, and he got a reputation for doing that kind of work. Although he still does custom furniture pieces, the bulk of his work now comes from entertainment centers and home theater cabinetry.

“It could be anything from a tiny corner unit to this monstrous paint-grade unit we’re doing now,” he says. “For really odd, weird spaces where people just have no clue what to do with, I get a phone call.”

When Casey and his wife moved into their home, he started designing and building his studio. He made it big enough to fit whatever machinery he would have (2,100 square feet, including an upstairs office) and integrated dust collection into the floor.

One of the benefits of having a large amount of floor space is that Casey was able to buy a Powermatic saw for his shop. He says that most small shops can’t afford the floor space it requires, but he is able to run a 16-foot cut front to back without any interference. The shop also has a Davis & Wells stroke sander and a 20-inch bandsaw and a 16-inch Bridgewood planer. Casey also owns a large collection of hand tools that he and his part-time employee use.

“Wood planes are incredible,” he says. “I have a collection of old antiques and modern stuff, sharpened and ready for business.”

Casey works with the 32mm system and uses Blum hinges. He says he likes the Blum Inserta hinges for paint-grade pieces, because he can show the painter how to easily remove the doors of a unit and reattach them without messing up any adjustments. He uses Accuride guides on most of his work.

 

     
     
   
    Steve Casey has been designing media centers before the concept of a home theater or entertainment center was as popular as it is now. This center is done in cherry.

Casey says he can finish a project in an average of four to six weeks, depending on the scale. Building fine furniture tends to take longer, because of the work involved.

“For the same amount of energy and effort it takes to build a ‘routine’ 16-foot unit, I may only be able to build a 4-foot-wide nice piece of furniture,” he says. “If I’m doing that work, it’s because someone has sprung for the cost of what it takes to do that quality.”

There are certain considerations in working with entertainment centers that, to Casey, come naturally.

“I’ve heard these poor installers complaining over and over again that they go to jobs where the cabinetmakers have failed to provide proper access to the equipment or ventilation, or that they can’t get the TV hooked up to the VCR without drilling a hole in the cabinet themselves,” Casey says. “To me, that’s all obvious, second-nature stuff.”

Casey says that the aesthetics of a piece are easy to achieve; the difficult part is the mechanics. “Typically in a home theater, there are a lot of crucial things that happen in a space which revolve around the architecture in a room or the type of furniture they have or the window placement,” he says. “Generally, there’s a fireplace in every room where they want to put a big-screen TV. There’s an issue of how you dedicate two focal points in a room.”

One couple called on Casey to build an entertainment center for a house that had been worked on for two years. He was asked to fill a very odd space in the corner of a room. Naturally, there was also a fireplace in the room that had been given a beautiful lacquered finish. They were initially worried about whether Casey’s entertainment center would fit the room’s decor as well as the space.

Casey looked at the odd space and determined that the best way to deal with it was to put the face of the center across it, using the space only for background casework. He finished the entertainment center to match the fireplace. “They were thrilled to death that they got everything they wanted,” he says. “It matched their fireplace, it hid the wires and other things they were looking at for months, and it finished their house. The guy called me back and left a two-minute message on how great it was.”

Casey’s current project is a large paint-grade cabinet that is broken down into three pieces. Interiors will be done in black melamine to match the black audio and video equipment that will be added when the piece is done. He outsources cabinet doors for paint-grade pieces to a company that uses CNC machinery to make them look like raised-panel doors.

Except for the paint-grade pieces, Casey and his assistant finish projects themselves. When the woodworking is done, the piece is assembled, then taken apart, finished and reassembled to make sure nothing was knocked out of alignment. If everything fits, it is taken apart again and taken to the job site. Casey says that he does a lot of designing for breakdown construction, so that the unit can be moved yet looks like one large piece when completed.

Up until recently, the large majority of Casey’s work had come from word of mouth, either from customers or audio/video installers. He does not do any advertising for his company. “The way I want to be perceived, I can’t be advertising that. It puts you in the same boat with every other cabinet shop that’s advertising,” he says.

Casey has been able to find new clients without advertising with his Web site, www.stevecaseydesign.com. His Web site serves as more than just a portfolio of his work — it includes sections for frequently asked questions, instructions about commissioning work and pictures of wood samples, finished and unfinished.

Casey is personally involved in the site and wrote most of the text, so he can present himself exactly as he wants.

“I wrote a whole bunch of stuff that’s been coming up for 25 years about my business,” he says. “Clients keep asking the same stuff over and over, so I have a frequently asked questions section. I have a section called Woodworking 101, which is the basics of woodworking that lay people need to know about, and what it is that woodworkers have to do — compensating for wood movement, stuff like that. Then there’s a whole section on materials.”

Casey says that the original intent for the Web site was to serve as an introduction to potential clients. Before an actual fact-to-face meeting, clients could read through the information on the site and then decide if they were interested in having a piece custom-made. “When a client calls me, I can now direct them to my Web site and say please look through the sections, and by all means look at the pictures in the photo gallery,” Casey says. “That was how I visualized this whole thing. I had no intention of getting any visibility on the Net, because it’s so big and so wide open, and I’m just a little shop in southern California. How would I get any visibility?”

 

     
     
   
  When not building entertainment centers, Casey works on furniture pieces. This maple entry table has a hidden joint near the top that attaches the piece to the wall.  

Quite by accident, Casey has gotten much more visibility than he ever planned. He started by registering his Web site on many popular search engines, like Yahoo! and America Online. The people who work for those engines rated his site high because of all the information the site offered, and it started getting several hundred hits a day.

Casey has gotten several jobs from people who found his Web site. “For the job I’m working on now, this guy would not have known about me had he not gone on the Internet, done a general search, found my site, visited the site and made a phone call,” Casey says. “This guy is a mile and a half from my shop. He lives in Liberty Canyon, which is the next off-ramp from here. I got a job before this that was in Malibu, which is 20 minutes from here, basically my territory.”

The commission for another piece of furniture Casey is currently building also came from his Web site; it’s a TV cabinet for his webmaster’s master bedroom. The upper half of the piece will hold a TV, VCR and a pair of speakers. The box that will hold all the equipment will be set on a swivel. On the lower portion, Casey built a pair of pull-out panels. The owners can drape a comforter across them as a place for their cat to stay.

Casey hopes that the Internet will allow him to keep pursuing bigger, better jobs. His other future plans include spending more time working on his house and also working to pass down what he has learned during his career.

“As time goes on, when you do all the work by yourself, you only have a certain amount of energy you can spend on it, and then you have to get away from it,” he explains. “I’m thinking the way to go here is to start an apprenticeship, where I could teach and at the same time have some help.

“I think the thing I’m doing now is what I saw Sam Maloof and those guys doing in the ’70s,” Casey adds. “I was able to look at that and say, ‘Those guys can do it, so now I know I can do it too.’ I think it’s really important to pass that whole thing on. It’s my duty to let people know you can still do this. Studio craftsmen shouldn’t be unique; I think every neighborhood should have a guy who does wood.”

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