August 2005

'The Weird Stuff' ...

... is the right stuff for Classic Woodworking Inc., which amplifies the company's more traditional woodworking projects with one-of-a-kind jobs.

By Katie Coleman
This "bat bench" is comprised of Mark McGwire's bats and balls, all used during his record-breaking 70-home-run season. The bases were those rounded on the day he broke Roger Maris' record. Classic Woodworking was commissioned for the project by the St. Louis Cardinals' organization.

The photo portfolio is labeled "special," but the father-daughter execs at this St. Louis woodworking shop call its contents "the weird stuff." Classic Woodworking Inc. has several little black books, most filled with photos of more traditional past projects, but it is the weird stuff in the "special" book from which stories are born and that keeps shop employees' creative juices flowing.

Tale 1: A Night Out with the Secret Service

When Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome - site of St. Louis Rams' football games - David Hutchinson's high-end woodworking shop was hired to create the ambo (podium), altar and candlestick holders. Much like the infamous Popemobile, these ceremonial pieces had to be clad with bulletproof armor. But unlike the Pope's ride, these objects also had to be stately and beautiful.

"The Secret Service furnished us with [the bullet-proof material] to use on the inside of the altar," Hutchinson explains. "They had to see it being installed, and they had to come and take it and ship it themselves."

On top of the grayish-blue protective material, Classic Woodworking attached a layer of rift white oak with a clear finish, following the design of Chicago artist Angelo Girardi, creating a stunning piece that no one would have guessed serves a practical purpose as well.

But it was not just the construction of the piece that had extra challenges. To install it, Hutchinson and his crew were instructed to arrive at the dome at 11:00 p.m. the eve of the ceremony, which was part of the Pope's tour around America, however, because of delays assembling the rest of the stage, they did not start installation until nearly 2:00 a.m.

When Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis as part of his tour across America, Classic Woodworking designed the ambo (podium), altar and candlesticks for the event.

"We're down there, getting in, and they're checking us and making us go through the metal detector and all that," he says. "But, of course our tool boxes just went in, and those could have been filled with anything. Maybe the dogs sniffed them, I don't know, but it was kind of funny."

Tale 2: Take a Seat, 'Big Mac'

On Sept. 8, 1998, baseball fans witnessed one of the game's brightest moments: Mark McGwire hitting his 62nd home run of the season, thus breaking the single-season home run record at Busch stadium in St. Louis - all while playing the Chicago Cubs, a divisional rival and team of fellow-slugger Sammy Sosa. Sosa watched from right field and applauded, soon arriving at home plate, where McGwire embraced him.

Many Cardinal fans tried to create a memento of the historic event, but few could rival Classic Woodworking's "bat bench," a project commissioned by the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

"This was the sort of one-of-a-kind thing that maybe no one else in St. Louis, other than us, was willing to tackle," says Laurie Fromm, Hutchinson's daughter, who serves as the company's vice president. "It was basically, 'Here are some bats, and you have to make a bench out of it.'"

The seat of the "bat bench," as Fromm and Hutchinson refer to it, was made from the bases McGwire stepped on as he rounded the diamond on that late fall afternoon. The bats, which were used as both legs and a backing, and the baseballs, which were sawed in half to use as decorative accents, were all used or hit by McGwire at one point during his 70-home-run season.

Classic Woodworking's job was to create a wooden frame for the seat and figure out how to assemble all these items into an actual bench.

"There's a nice frame around the seat, and you just have to put enough bats under there until you feel it's well supported," Fromm explains. "And then, through those bats and balls is one big chunk of steel - one big thing of all-thread. We didn't know, when we bored a hole in this ball to stick the steel tubing through, what was going to happen. Until we cut that first ball in half, we didn't know if it was going to explode or if all the string was going to come out."

After completion, the bat bench found a home in the St. Louis Cardinals' Hall of Fame, which is across the street from Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis. One of the "big-wigs down at the stadium" then ordered a replica of the bat bench made for his personal residence.

Tale 3: One Lead Sandwich with Laminate Bread, Please

Over the years, Classic Woodworking has shipped some 25 to 30 "nuclear glove boxes" around the country. Upon first look (see photo at right), the unusual item does not appear to be something a woodworker would undertake. But, as Hutchinson says, "We like to do the stuff that other people don't want to talk about."

Designed to protect the medical workers who encapsulate any kind of radioactive products for hospitals, Classic Woodworking constructs the nuclear glove boxes' walls, which are made from a 1?2 inch of lead, 3?4 inch of MDF and plastic laminate.

This unique reading area was created by Classic Woodworking as part of a children's library. The stools and desks were designed to look like parts of a train.

"It's a sandwich," Hutchinson explains. "Screw the lead to each panel and the other panel to the lead. Since lead is slowly flowing, like glass, it needs to be kept locked together in the sandwich."

This unusual business, which goes back to when Hutchinson was an apprentice working for the man from whom he eventually acquired Classic Woodworking, is sold mostly to pharmaceutical companies. The job was offered to the woodworking company originally because of the plastic laminate laid on top of the MDF.

The Spice of Life

Other unusual projects undertaken by Classic Woodworking include fabricating 60 to 70 decorative end panels for a MasterCard corporate office; cabinets with a "wave" veneer; an upscale bar for the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse; casework for radio stations and children's libraries; outdoor bridges for a Jefferson City, MO, reserve; and even an under-the-staircase compartment that would make any Harry Potter fan jealous.

"That's the fun stuff. Those are the things we like to do," Hutchinson says. "One of the reasons we keep our people is because our pay levels are ever so slightly higher, but also because we're giving them things that challenge them. How many times do you get to build something for the Pope?"

While the majority of the company's projects are not for pontiffs, baseball legends or nuclear scientists, Fromm says, "I don't think we've ever said 'no' to anything."

Indeed, Classic Woodworking works in both residential and commercial settings, about equally, and completes both whole-room projects and individual pieces. Its projects are so versatile that Hutchinson says it is impossible to quote an average price for the company's line of work. "There is no average," he says. "We do a lot of smaller projects; for instance, a stand for only $2,000, but we've also done a $600,000 commercial project."

Despite the unique nature of each project from month to month and year to year, however, Classic Woodworking consistently has done between $1.7 and 1.9 million in business annually for the last 15 years. "We're keeping the 11 to 12 guys [out in the shop] busy, we have some overtime, we hardly ever have layoffs, and we seem to have a steady stream," Hutchinson says.

"I like the profit and the workload that we have right now. It's not unmanageable for us," says Fromm, who plans to take over the family business one day. "We have three project managers right now. I think if we had four or five, we'd start to lose a little more control and quality in there."

Hutchinson agrees with his daughter's judgment. "I haven't been interested in being real big because of losing control. I'm not the kind of person who has to keep control, but it takes a long time to hire good quality people," he says, noting that before some recent retirements, their newest employee had been with the company for 11 years.

Growth and Evolution

Despite that small family business feel, the company still experienced its fair share of expansions through the years. When the shop first opened in 1973, "Classic Kitchen and Bath," as it was then called, was only a 1,225-square-foot shop. By the end of the first year, the company bought an adjacent property that nearly tripled its physical size. Another 5,000-square-foot addition was tacked on in 1978.

Classic Woodworking, as it is known today, was named officially in 1983 after one of Hutchinson's business partners left to pursue other opportunities. As the business grew, it changed from its almost-exclusive, residential kitchen-and-bath work to a combination of residential and commercial projects. According to Hutchinson, most of his original work was done in plastic laminate, but his goal was always to become a more high-end woodworking company.

"After a few years, we started building more and more wood pieces, and we've gotten to the point today that we build almost no plastic laminate," he says. "Our claim to fame has gotten to be where I wanted to go in the first place, which is more high-end, really nice stuff, mostly in wood." Hutchinson also notes that because of the high-end nature of his work, his customers are in the top 2 percent of the income bracket.

The most recent expansion came in the acquisition of an old local drug store across the street from Classic Woodworking's main buildings, which Hutchinson converted into a separate finish shop in 1997.

"We have the nicest finishing equipment we can come up with," Hutchinson says. "The only machinery we've really bought over the years is a [Holz-Her Sprint 1411-3] edgebander and a [Biesse Forecon 51] boring machine. We also have stroke sanders and widebelt sanders. But, generally speaking, the shop is still a little bit old-fashioned. When you're only building one table at a time or maybe a couple, you don't really need a lot of CNC equipment to do that."

The Classic Woodworking shop also has a Holz-Her edge sander and a Holz-Her 1265 vertical panel saw.

Fromm, who has been around this type of equipment since she started with the company as a teenager, says she never thought this would be her life's work.

"He just started taking me out with him, so I just kind of learned it by ..."

"Osmosis," Hutchinson says, finishing his daughter's sentence.

"I still run everything by him," she says, "still do."

"Not really," her father interjects. "That happens now maybe about once a month. She still does tell me what she's already done, though. 'I did this, what do you think?' Well, that's fine."

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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