A Second-Generation Woodworker Produces First-Class Furniture

John Colabella follows his father’s tradition of high-end hand-crafted furniture.

By Sam Gazdziak

John Colabella got much of his woodworking knowledge from his father, Mike. He also got his business and many of his tools.

Colabella, who worked in his father’s shop when he was a teenager, was preparing for a career in architecture when his father said he could take over the family business. “He thought I’d do better here than working for someone else in architecture,” says Colabella. “I’ve been working here ever since.”

     
 
After being retired for eight years, Mike Colabella came back to the furniture shop he founded 40 years ago. This vanity, which took three months to make, was his first new piece. The vanity is an exact copy of one the company made more than 20 years ago — even the same woodcarver was used.  
     

Colabella Furniture Inc., located in Los Angeles, CA, has maintained its reputation for high-end, hand-crafted furniture for two generations now. John Colabella does the vast majority of the work by himself and is occasionally assisted by temporary help and outside sources. He also gets help from his father, who came back to the shop this year after an eight-year retirement.

“He tried to stop, and he can’t,” says his son, noting that the largest piece of furniture currently in the shop, a massive vanity, was hand-made by his father. “That was the first piece he’s worked on in a long time. He sat home for awhile, and he came back and did that one big piece. So, he’s feeling like he wants to do it still.”

The vanity is an exact duplicate of one that Mike Colabella made 20 years ago. “The carving is the same, everything is the same,” John says. “We’ve even had the same woodcarver for that long. He was a kid when he did the first one. Now he’s about 45.”

Colabella Furniture has been in business for 40 years, the last 20 years in the present location. Mike Colabella, who emigrated to the United States from Italy, has been doing woodworking for more than 60 years. John Colabella has been working there full-time for the last 18 years, plus part-time during high school and college.

The company does not advertise, and there is no sign at the front of the shop. All the business the company gets is through a group of 15 to 20 designers. One designer is working on an entire house, and Colabella Furniture will be involved with every step. That work is more than enough to keep the company busy; Colabella says that he has been especially busy for the last two years.

Colabella adds that he likes the variety of work the shop gets. “One day, it will be a dining room table, then it will be a bed, and from there it will be an entertainment center,” he says. A look at the shop floor will bear that out. The finished or near-finished products could range from Mike Colabella’s ornate vanity to John Colabella’s modern-looking bed and end table, complete with matched veneers on the top and sides. John says that the type of work depends on the designers.

       
 
John Colabella built this rosewood cabinet, which was made to fit in a corner of a room.  
       

“I have older decorators, and they still incorporate the hand-carved woodwork, while my ‘new’ decorators try to go for the modern look,” he explains. “Sometimes the modern stuff is harder to make than the hand-carved work, because it has to be perfect. If you have somebody working for you and he sands through the veneer on a tabletop, that top is gone. When you’re doing handcarving, if you mess up and you’re a little too deep, you can fix it.”

Being located in Los Angeles means the company has had some very famous customers. Among others, Colabella says he has made a bar for Arnold Schwarzenegger, a table for the Sultan of Brunei and a bed for the late Princess Diana. Most clients are located near the shop, with many in Beverly Hills and Laguna Beach.

When customers approach Colabella to make a piece of furniture, they can either come with full-scale drawings or just a photograph. Colabella once made a set of pool chairs that were copies of a chair in a photograph from the 1800s.

The project size can range from a single piece of furniture to an entire room, complete with hand-carved wall paneling. Projects can take from four to six weeks, and lately they have been taking up to four or six months.

Last year, the company built millwork for a room that it had worked on 20 years before. The room had two fireplaces that were 200 years old. Twenty years before, Colabella Furniture put up paneling around one fireplace while leaving the other side of the room covered in fabric. The house’s owners had the company finish the room in 2000. Colabella, who was in high school when he helped with the original work, says he was able to find the original plans and mouldings to make sure the new woodwork matched the old woodwork.

     
 
Colabella Furniture built the millwork for this home office. The Egyptian figurines were hand-carved.  
     

Furniture pieces can vary, ranging from beds to cabinets to entertainment centers. Colabella has made several extendable tables for clients. The long tables have removable leaves, so they can decrease in length until they become a round table. The table Colabella made for the Sultan of Brunei starts off 26 feet long and can turn into a 6-foot-diameter round table.

The prices for paneling can be between $1,000 and $1,200 per foot. Individual pieces of furniture can vary, as a bed can cost anywhere from $2,500 up to $6,000. Prices depend on materials, the amount of carving, and the difficulty of the design and construction.

Production in the shop is done primarily with a Maggi saw and an SCM shaper. Colabella makes his own knives for the shaper. “Whenever customers want a special moulding, I’ll take a blank knife or a knife that’s close to the pattern and grind it until it’s the right shape and size,” he says. “I’ll try it, and if it comes out right, I’ll use it.” He says that he has thousands of knives, which were also bought in auctions and from other woodworkers who were retiring from the business.

The shop also has a large collection of old hand tools and chisels, which the Colabellas use for handcarving. “Over the years, my dad’s been collecting them,” John says. “Whenever someone’s selling them, we’ll buy as many of the old chisels that we can.”

They do much of the handcarving themselves, but they also use a local woodcarver for big jobs. That way, Colabella says, he can move onto the next job. “People wait so long for some of these pieces, that sometimes we have to go a little faster,” he adds. All of the pieces leave the shop unfinished.

When John Colabella took over his father’s shop, the company had about six employees. He has slowly made the shop smaller, to the point that there was just one employee. “And now, in the past year, it’s just been me, and then my dad came back in,” he says. “I’ll have a guy come in for maybe a week or so just to help me out when I need it, but it’s been mostly me now. I’d rather do it myself.”

Likewise, the shop was twice as big as it is now. Colabella has scaled back, reducing the shop size to about 4,000 square feet. “I don’t need that big of a shop,” he says. “The quality is better when you’re small.”

The benefit of having no employees is that quality control stays high. “I usually do everything by myself, making sure it’s perfect before it leaves the store,” he says.

Colabella Furniture continues to stay busy and profitable, but Colabella would also like to make use of his architecture training. He and his brother have designed a couple of houses, had them built, constructed all the cabinets and sold them. “I’d like to do that more, because there’s actually more profit for us,” he says. “The houses can be built while I’m working here still.”

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