Arkansas Woodworker 'Makes History'
Charles Wilson Custom Cabinets of Little Rock specializes in 'the odd stuff,' such as recreating furniture and President Clinton's desk for Arkansas' Old State House renovation.
By Helen Kuhl
Doing "the stuff that nobody else wants to do" is the specialty of Charles Wilson Custom Cabinets and Furniture, says owner Charles Wilson. It is a business strategy that started as a survival technique when competition for doing straight casework got "dog-eat-dog" about 10 years ago, he says. It has evolved into a winning market niche that keeps the shop in heavy demand.
"We started concentrating on high-end work when it was real tough to get straight cabinet jobs," Wilson says. "You couldn't go out to a builder and say, 'I want to build all your kitchen cabinets for you' anymore, because he already had 20 guys by to see him that morning. So we would just pick up on these unusual projects, and people found that we would do things that nobody else would."
Picking up work that nobody else wanted expanded the shop's scope beyond the residential and commercial cabinetry it started out doing to include anything and everything. For example, the shop recently has worked on "odds and ends" for residential customers, such as a desk, an entertainment center and a closet unit. It also ran some bullnose millwork for a church job, has built teak furniture for a client's boat, glues up solid wenge panels for a customer who does one-of furniture pieces, and supplies curved millwork, like doors, panels and mouldings, for several local shops. It also does some laminate casework for commercial clients, as well as solid surface countertops.
Some of its most interesting projects have been for local government and public buildings, a niche that evolved from doing smaller jobs over the years. "A friend of mine worked in the sign shop of our state department of tourism, which manages several historic sites around town," Wilson says. "He was always sending us little bits of work, things that they couldn't handle, like doing a display case for a museum, things like that. Over the years we built up a relationship with them and when they needed a special project, they called us."
So it was that Wilson got the call for two unique jobs for the Old State House, a building that served as Arkansas' original capitol building from 1836 to 1911. The building has been used by President Bill Clinton several times throughout his political career -- in 1991 he announced his candidacy for president from its steps, and he made his election and re-election night victory speeches there in 1992 and 1996 -- which started bringing many tourists to the site.
In 1992, the Old State House Museum assembled a permanent exhibit about President Clinton, including a replica of the president's desk from the Oval Office in the White House, which Wilson was commissioned to build. "They sent us to Washington, DC, and we took probably 25 rolls of film of the original desk," he says. "I could never quite determine what wood was used for the original. I think it was a kind of English chestnut. But I used sassafras for my version.
"The Old State House desk is not a complete desk, it's just a front and a body, without drawers," he adds. "I would have loved to have done a complete replica, but their budget wouldn't allow that much. And they didn't want people messing around with the drawers and stuff."
Wilson estimates that the desk required about 1,600 manhours of carving, some of which he did in his shop and some of which was subbed out locally and to New Jersey woodcarver Ron Weiner. "It was a pretty complex job," Wilson says.
In contrast to the elaborate presidential desk, shortly thereafter Wilson was commissioned to provide desks, chairs, spit boxes and a speaker's stand for the site's legislative chambers -- which were quite rustic.
"The Old State House fell into disrepair after the new state capitol was built in 1911," Wilson says. "It was used as a number of different venues, including a medical school, since then. There was some restoration work done around 1950, but in 1996 they started talking about doing a much-needed major restoration job."
That work included restoring the House of Representatives Chamber to its original state as it looked in 1836, including the legislators' furniture -- desks, chairs and spit boxes. Wilson says he searched extensively through historical archives to find information about the original furnishings, but found virtually nothing. To design the desks, he ended up using as a guideline a desk from a private collection that was probably from about the same time period. It is a very simple piece.
"Arkansas was a very poor state back then. Our State House was built on a wing and a prayer. It had no foundation under it; they just built on the mud," Wilson says. "I'm sure that if there were any nice furnishings, when you left office you would take them with you."
The desk is a small, simple design in red oak, consisting of four turned legs, a rear apron, two sides, side pieces and two front rails for a drawer. "They were simple to build. There were just a lot of them," Wilson says. "The hardest part was deciding what to build, then building them and getting them into the building."
Wilson says he began building the desks in stages about 8 months before they were due to be delivered, so they could be worked in conveniently with the shop's other jobs. He sent the legs out to be turned, because he had a hard time finding 2 5/8-inch squares at the time and it was cheaper to have the job done by another shop than to buy the materials, he says. He mortised the legs in-house using a hollow chisel mortiser that he guesses is 100 years old. He had access to an old Mereen-Johnson double-end tenoner in a nearby former furniture plant and used it to cut all the tenons on the carcass and drawer parts.
For the seats, Wilson says that he thinks legislators of that time brought their own chairs and took them home when they left office. He could find no information at all on the original chair styles. So for budgetary reasons, he picked a stock item that he felt matched the time period and purchased manufactured chairs.
In addition to the 46 desks, 47 chairs and 46 wooden spit boxes (Arkansas could not have afforded brass spittoons at the time) that Wilson built for the Chamber, he also had to reconstruct the speaker's platform. "The best description I could find about the original speaker's platform was that it was 'large and hideous,' which is not very helpful when you have to reconstruct it," Wilson says.
It also had to be built to house a large monitor for a video presentation that activates on demand for visitors. Wilson says he put together an idea for the platform from the shape of the room, and then mimicked some of the chamber's panel details.
Having been in business about 20 years, Wilson estimates that about one-third of his work is residential, one-third is commercial and one-third is specialty projects, such as the jobs for public buildings. Although he has some commercial accounts for which he ships work across the country, most of his jobs are within a 30- to 40-mile radius of Little Rock. About 98 percent of it is word-of-mouth or repeat business, and annual sales are a little over $250,000.
He works steadily for a few architects and contractors and is a member of the Architectural Woodwork Institute. But he says that even with those clients, shop drawings are few and far between in his market.
"Most of the large architectural firms around here get the same jobs over and over again. So they will say, 'Do it just like you did for this job, only make it this much longer,'" Wilson says. "They will do a few sketch elevations, but nothing major."
He also gets a lot of repeat business from individual homeowners. "We will do work on a corporate headquarters and do somebody's corporate office, and before we are done, we are working on all the chief executives' personal residences or their side businesses," Wilson adds. "Then at the third stage, we do all their kids' houses."
Oftentimes, the shop will be doing work on a house and a "knick-knack" like an entertainment center or desk will be added mid-stream, so projects can snowball. This makes scheduling projects a challenge, but Wilson usually leaves gaps in his schedule to accommodate add-ons. When he is doing several projects for one customer, he will ask the job supervisor to prioritize what is needed when as work progresses.
Although the homes Wilson works on can be quite large - 25,000 square feet and worth $10 to $15 million - the work itself is not what he calls "super high-end." Most cabinetry is face-frame ("In this market, 'frameless' is kind of a dirty word," Wilson says), done in solid wood, usually oak or cherry.
"We try to stick with a 2-inch face frame with a 3&Mac218;4-inch overlay, and that leaves us a 1&Mac218;2-inch gap," Wilson says. "Customers seem to like that combination."
The shop uses Blum European-style hinges, as well as drawer slides from Accuride and specialty items from Hafele. It buys most of its doors from local shops, although it will do small runs in-house.
The shop did its own finishing work on the desks for the Old State House, doing it in small batches over an extended period of time, using lacquer with a little bit of wax on the top. Wilson says that originally an older, natural-type varnish had been chosen, but he pushed for the lacquer so the desks would have more protection, while still being repairable.
Normally, most of the shop's work is delivered unfinished to the job site, and about half of it currently is paint-grade, Wilson says. "Fortunately, in this market, job site finishing work is entirely acceptable," he says. "There is not much fancy finishing done here. If they use a toner for shading, that's getting real high-tech. Usually it's just stain and a coat of sealer."
Wilson says that the shop had its own finisher on contract, but recently he was hired away by a local department store chain that had just "borrowed" him initially for a two-week project. Wilson also is scrambling to find installers, which he says are hard to come by in his area.
"There are no installers in this town anymore. We just lost our last one a few months ago. They just don't want to work," he says. "They get about $500 a day, and when they get that much, they will work just one day a week. But it costs us almost twice that much to take two guys out of the shop to go and do an install. It's tough.
"We have completely absorbed any available labor pool in our area. Anybody who is worth anything has a job," he adds. "We are paying higher labor wages than in many other areas - it is more than twice as much as we paid five years ago - and that hurts."
Right now, there are three shop employees, including Wilson, and a woman who works in the office. Wilson does most of the design and estimating work himself. He uses CabnetWorks software from Cabnetware for straight casework, which he says is very helpful. It generates shop drawings and elevations and helps with materials and costing, he says. It also generates cutlists, which enables him to consolidate and cut parts for more than one job at the same time.
Wilson still operates in the same 5,000-square-foot space he has occupied for the past 17 years. Shop equipment includes the old hollow chisel mortiser, a Hafele hinge boring and insertion machine, a Newton edge sander, Porter overarm router, Rockwell shapers, Powermatic lathe and a Castle Tool pocket screw machine. Wilson also has an S45 bandsaw, an SC3 sliding table saw and a WIN widebelt sander, all from Mini Max.
While the shop is very cramped, he says it is difficult to find industrial property in the mid-range size in Little Rock. "You go from our 5,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet, with nothing in the middle that you want," he says. He does have two out buildings on his property that he can use for storage, he adds.
But despite the labor challenges and space constraints, business is strong. Wilson enjoys the variety of projects that has become his company's niche market, and he continues to keep his customers happy. "We are probably about 10 weeks out on our work right now," he says. "I think we are booked with signed contracts and money received until about April.
"Our customers trust us and know that we won't steal their money from them. They know they are going to get what they want and they don't have to go out and shop for it and bicker with anybody," he adds. "With us, we give them exactly what they want, and in this area, that's kind of unusual."
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