Creating Luxury in the Windy City
August 14, 2011 | 9:04 pm CDT

Sullivan Woodworking and Custom Cabinetry crafts beautiful built-ins for high-end Chicago homes.

Chicago, known for its architecture and magnificent skyline, is filled with stunning skyscrapers and historic mid-rise buildings.

Charming bungalows designed by famous architects dot local neighborhoods, such as the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park. Along with the beautiful exteriors of these landmark buildings are equally beautiful and luxurious interiors with distinctive architectural millwork.

Many savvy real estate owners, looking to add value even to these luxury properties, contract custom woodworking companies, like Sullivan Woodworking and Custom Cabinetry, for home improvements. Owned by Patrick Sullivan and located just west of downtown Chicago, minutes from the United Center, Sullivan Woodworking's sole market is residential built-ins and architectural millwork packages. Sullivan describes the process of making home improvements as “shifting one asset into another form. If the real estate has enough value, it typically appreciates and pays for the improvements we make,” he says. “It's arithmetic.”

Even the mathematically challenged can appreciate Sullivan's work with its clean, sleek lines and incorporation of materials such as solid surface and exotic veneers.

Sullivan works with high-end clientele, which he says is “the only place you can stay alive in the Chicago area.”

The style of the built-ins Sullivan fabricates depends upon the type of building he is working in. “We've done a lot of jobs in vintage Gold Coast condominiums and vintage Lincoln Park homes and those have always been very traditional looking cabinetry,” he notes.

Mahogany has been a choice material, but Sullivan says they are “weening” themselves from it because of its expense. Sapele has become a prominent substitute, as well as walnut. “There's been a lot of demand for walnut in the last year or two. Those have typically been very modern looking projects with decorative veneers,” he adds.

Kitchens are always a popular home improvement project. High-end home owners often spend more than $40,000 on a kitchen, which makes it a lucrative market for a custom woodworker. Sullivan says, “We've gotten involved in doing high-end kitchen cabinets for the past number of years because there is such a demand. We responded to that market opportunity.”

Bringing the Work In-house
Sullivan Woodworking is a vertically integrated shop, which means it makes all of its products in-house, including veneer layups.

“About 10 years ago, I developed an interest in veneer work and bought the equipment to do all of the panel processing,” he says. As a result, Sullivan Woodworking fabricates a lot of work in decorative veneers. Shop equipment includes: an Ott hot press, Meyers veneer saw, Casati veneer stitcher, Holz-Her sliding table saw and edgebander, Griggio sliding table saw, two SCMI shapers, Ritter framing clamp, Grizzly planer, Timesavers widebelt sander, Cemco stroke sander, Crouch edge sander and more.

The company typically lays up all of the fronts for its jobs, which gives it a greater chance to match the veneer. “We do a lot of built-in libraries with paneling and casework. We typically use a veneer and layup panels to get the grains to read around the room,” Sullivan says.
“I like to give our clients a ‘bang for their buck,' because we have the capacity to do that kind of work,” he adds.

“The only upcharge is the cost of material and we would still have to use some kind of material, so it's really only a small percentage of the job to enable us to step into offering someone kitchen cabinets in sycamore or sapele or anigre veneer.”

Green Alternatives
Sullivan often works with sustainable material. His portfolio features kitchen cabinets fabricated with sapele and sycamore. He says he makes a conscious choice to steer his clients in that direction by subtly offering the alternatives if a species is endangered. For Sullivan, it is “about the rainforests.” He is concerned about their viability, and always explores all eco-friendly options.

His clients don't seem to mind, Sullivan says. He involves them in the process of selecting material and often invites them to visit his veneer supplier, Bacon Veneer, with him. “They have input into what the product will end up looking like,” he adds.

Branching Out
Initially, Sullivan began as a “one-man band” in a little coach house nearly 30 years ago. He was in his mid-twenties when he realized that he was “becoming very attracted to the craft of making things,” he says. I studied literature in college and I put myself through school working as a theatrical carpenter.”

Sullivan Woodworking handled small projects at first because of its size. As the company grew “inch by inch,” Sullivan hired an assistant and then began to hire skilled workers in various capacities. Soon, he branched out into larger-scale projects.

Sullivan's shop is 10,000 square feet and he employs seven workers who also do the installation. “I've tried outsourcing but there were too many problems involved, so we now do it in-house,” he says. “Typically the people that build it in the shop, install it. They are responsible for their job from start to finish.”

Sullivan has been in his current space approximately four years. It is his fourth shop. “When I first moved here, it looked like an airplane hanger, but now that we've cranked up, we can barely turn around in here,” he laughs.

Although it was a long process to get to where he is now, Sullivan says that as he made more money with each project, he bought more equipment. “I've always been self-financed, so I've always paid cash for everything. It was my Irish immigrant grandparents who instilled the fear of debt in me,” he laughs.

“Now, a lot of our projects are whole homes. We get the millwork package to do the kitchen cabinets, bathrooms, entertainment centers, libraries — whatever sort of millwork that is required,” Sullivan says.

The previous housing boom was a bonus for the company, Sullivan says, because if the home was upscale enough, architects or builders would then hire his company to provide the millwork.

“We did two (whole homes) last year. Those are big jobs and they take up months of time in the shop,” Sullivan adds.
Most of the business the company receives comes from referrals. “Being in this business almost 30 years, I know a lot of people,” he says. “I have a lot of contacts. We have a large body of work out there and people see our stuff and they give us a call.”

That said, Sullivan recently placed an ad in Chicago Luxury Home and Condo as an experiment of sorts. “So far, we haven't had any results,” he reports.

Creating the Designs
Design work is approximately a 50/50 split between architects or designers, and what is done in-house, Sullivan says. Richard Watts, a Sullivan Woodworking employee, uses Graphite software by Ashlar-Vellum to create many of the company's drawings.

As for his own creative abilities, Sullivan credits his family for his sense of craftsmanship and appreciation for art. “My father was a builder and my mother is an artist. I grew up in a household that understood what tools did and had a sense of aesthetics — an eye for proportion and style. So my sense of design was all sort of ‘seat of the pants,' but I like to think that I have the right DNA for it,” he says.

Fulfilling Special Requests
By its nature, custom woodworking involves projects that meet the specific needs of a customer. Sullivan routinely handles unique requests, like a display for a collection of bears that he recently completed, and a bookcase fabricated years ago for a customer who wanted the project to reflect Italian architecture.

“The client came to me some years ago and brought a picture of a building in Italy. She told me that she wanted to commission me to build bookcases that reminded her of her trip,” he says.

Sullivan took the photo and designed the piece to pick up architectural details, such as a typical cornice over doors and windows. “I took great liberties with the (project). This is not typical cabinetry, but it was for a very specific request,” he adds. Also included in the project was a cabinet unit positioned between two posts, which resemble Roman columns.

Sullivan says he does not mind these special request. It is one of the reasons that he works primarily on residential projects. Through these jobs he is able to develop relationships with his clients. “(Residential work) tends to suit my personality better. I can deal with people better than I can deal with companies and drop-dead deadlines. I like to have a relationship with the people I work with. When we're done with the project, it's always a friendly exchange and I'm thankful for that,” he says.

A happy client means that the company has successfully fabricated and installed a built-in that is unobtrusive in its surroundings and adds value. “The function of (creating seamless built-ins) is designing millwork that is sensitive to the architectural ambiance we are working in,” Sullivan says. “It's very common for us, particularly in the vintage buildings, to have moulding knives made to match the original profiles so we can replicate what was done 100 years ago.”

For example, last year Sullivan worked on a beamed ceiling in a historic building on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. It was originally designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw, an architect from the 1920s.

“There was only a small remnant of one of the beams left, and the owner wanted to return it to the way it was in the '20s. Upon closer inspection, we realized that the ceiling was a hand-hewn beam ceiling. We figured out a way to fabricate (the beam) and give it a hand-hewn look,” which was created by curved moulding knives made for use in an electric planer, Sullivan says.

Although Sullivan Woodworking works on vintage buildings in the Chicago area, a large number of the company's projects involve new home construction as well.

“It's a mix,” Sullivan says. “It used to weigh heavily on vintage work, but with all of the new construction going on, that's changed that market somewhat. You have to respond to market conditions.”

Sullivan's skill and flexibility will allow him to continue to grow his company even when the economic outlook changes. “I did notice a softening in the (housing) market,” he says. “But being a small business, it's not hard for us to generate enough sales to keep the shop fairly occupied. Sometimes it's just a manner of picking up the phone. We get clients who are waiting for opportunity and a schedule to fill those niches.”

“I've been at this almost 30 years, and I've been thankful to make a living in a creative and satisfying manner. It's a hands-on craft. That's sort of hard to do in this day and age, but it's been a lot of fun,” he adds.

The elegant faux finish on the ceiling accentuates this mahogany library fabricated by Sullivan Woodworking and Custom Cabinetry for a private residence in Chicago, IL.
Photo by Stella Hart
This media unit with cabinets was fabricated with quarter-sawn white oak. It was desiged by Architect Paul Florian for a private residence in Burr Ridge, IL.
Photo by John Boehm
Sullivan Woodworking and Custom Cabinetry rebuilt this fireplace in maple to match the original. The home, built in the 1920s, is located in Wilmette, IL, near Lake Michigan.
Photo By Eva Leczycka
Boggie Kobylarczyk, who has been with Sullivan Woodworking and Custom Cabinetry approximately 15 years, operates a Holz-Her sliding table saw. Patrick Sullivan designed and fabricated “The Architrave Collection” for Noel Hoyt, a client and friend, to remind her of a trip to Italy. The piece, created in quarter-sawn douglas fir and solids, features typical details of Italian architecture, such as cornices. Photo by John Boehm

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