Cabinetmaker Finds a Booming Market Doing ‘One Particular Thing’
Years ago, William Draper created something that filled a need – and touched a nerve. Today, his ‘distressed’ offerings set the industry standard for authentic-looking reproduction cabinetry.
By Anthony Noel
Sitting in his office at Draper-DBS in Perkasie, PA, William Draper thought back to the early days of his business.
“In 1982, we would walk in with our distressed samples and literally, a kitchen dealer would look at it and say, ‘What the hell am I gonna do with that?’ You know, ‘Why would anybody want that?’”
But by that time, Draper — who, like so many others, started his custom woodworking business in his own basement — had already tested the market in historic Bucks County, PA, where restoring old farmhouses is taken very seriously. And he knew he was onto something.
Draper had opted for the basement in 1981, after spending several years as a carpenter’s helper, often working on those ubiquitous Bucks County farmhouses.
“I had to kind of scratch around for things to sell while I built up the business,” Draper remembers. “I decided that I would just fool around with a chipped-off-paint finish, which I had seen a lot of in houses that I had worked on restoring.
“The finish came out in a way I felt was successful, and I took my piece down to a friend at a used furniture store and said, ‘Would you give me 50 bucks for this?’”
Rather than sell it, Draper’s friend began taking orders – lots of them, it turned out – at a time when distressed, old-looking pieces were not widely available.
“People would come antiquing to Bucks County, but all the good pieces that had original paint were long gone,” Draper says. “The way to honor an antique at the turn of the century, when collecting was started, was to strip everything off and put a nice new finish on it.”
The result was a dearth of authentic-looking pieces befitting the time-worn homes which would house them.
“That finish was just the right thing at the right time. It was a lot of luck that I happened to choose to do that,” Draper says. Though he strongly believes that success lies in finding what you love to do and sticking with it, there’s no question that what happened next was even luckier.
Bob Schultz, a local designer who would join Draper as a business partner in the firm’s early years, had an idea. (The “DBS” in the company’s name is an amalgam of Schultz’s and Draper’s initials, not shorthand for “Dented and Beat-up Stuff,” as Draper likes to joke.)
“[Schultz] showed up at the furniture store one day,” Draper recalls, “looked around at the furniture and said, ‘I think we ought to do some kitchens like this.’ I was not sure about the idea. But I figured it was good for one or two kitchens a year anyway. So we put a three-cabinet display in his showroom and, literally, within two months, our leadtime was out to 25 weeks.
“Bucks County was just the right place,” Draper continues. “I mean, close to New York, New Yorkers coming in, buying old restored farms and houses, and they didn’t have any kitchens – or if they did, those kitchens were put in during the ’50s and ’60s — and there was a display, for all the world, of exactly what should be in an old farmhouse.”
Outside of Schultz, only one other dealer saw the potential for Draper’s unique kitchens. But just as the Bucks County location proved perfect, this new dealer’s did as well. The dealer was Kitchens by Deane. The location, Greenwich, CT.
“They were, and they still are, one of the most widely respected dealers,” Draper says, “so when they said [to customers], ‘We believe in this, you ought to have it,’ people would listen.”
But today’s level of demand for — let alone general understanding of — the aesthetic Draper captured was still a long way off. Stories of refused deliveries (installers thought the pieces were damaged) and tradespeople painting over Draper’s “old” finishes were common.
“The whole concept was so alien that people didn’t know that it would sell, and didn’t know what it was when they saw it,” Draper says.
“It was really the first time somebody went after the emotional appeal of the cabinetry, that would reach out to people like artwork does.”
Draper pressed on, seeking out and eventually securing several reputable dealers in large metropolitan areas. The statement his cabinets made was striking enough that they did not require much showroom space. By the early ’90s, larger cabinet manufacturers were taking notice.
“I suppose I’ve been accused of a certain amount of ego, but I think that almost anybody would admit that at that point, our product really started to drive the market, because we really did have something that was going after an internal need of the customer,” Draper says, “the need to feel this warm, nostalgic feeling about their homes.
“It just was a particular thing that we had to offer the customer that wasn’t in the market at the time, and people liked it,” he adds.
Today, that “particular thing” has helped Draper-DBS become a $6-million company with 45 dealers nationwide.
Five project design managers work as liaisons between dealers and the production side, smoothing bottlenecks and assuring that the vision of the showroom designer and the customer is met.
“We realized that beyond all the advertising, beyond all the outreach to the customer, the one person that’s really working hardest for you is that designer in the showroom,” Draper says. “That’s the contact point for the rest of the world, and we have kind of made a decision that that is the most important person in our whole food chain.”
Seventy-five employees work at the firm’s 25,000-square-foot facility, about two-thirds of them in production. The company’s sprawling finishing area takes up about one-third of the production space; Draper-DBS has earned a reputation for creating any finish a client can dream up.
Because of the traditional nature of the work, Draper has stuck largely with traditional woodworking equipment, although the company’s new Weinig Profimat moulder is one state-of-the-art exception. On it, the company profiles every piece of moulding it requires, whether it be for cabinet doors or trim. The five-head model 23E was purchased at last August’s International Woodworking Machinery and Furniture Supply Fair (IWF) in Atlanta.
Particular attention is paid to the distressing of the pieces. Contrary to popular opinion, creating realistic “dented and beat-up stuff” involves more than taking a hammer to it at random places. Draper has carefully studied how furniture and cabinets are used, and the wear of finishes and the wood underneath shows surprising attention to such details.
About 75 percent of the company’s output is executed in pine, with maple, walnut, cherry and mahogany comprising the remaining quarter, much of it produced under the William Draper Cabinetmaker name. That’s the firm’s architectural interiors division, whose work is geared toward home offices and other areas beyond the kitchen.
A line of painted reproduction furniture, Country Classics, is also offered.
Needless to say, Draper’s one particular thing has evolved into several.
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