Texas Woodworker Makes the Leap from Corporate World to Cabinetmaker

Fort Worth-area company owner Ken Voise achieved the American dream when he discovered his affinity for cabinetmaking after remodeling his own kitchen.

By Lisa Whitcomb

Six years ago, Ken Voise left the daily grind of being a corporate “lackey” in St. Louis and moved to Texas to follow his dream of becoming a small business owner and furniture maker. But his plans took a slightly different turn from what he initially intended.

“When the economy went up and down so much in the late 1980s, I got burned out on the worry of layoffs and job insecurity. I’d fallen in love with woodworking and I’m an avid cook as well, so after I moved I decided to build my own kitchen at my house [in Fort Worth, TX]. While I was redoing it, several people from the neighborhood approached me [to remodel their kitchens] and it went from there,” reflects Voise.

 

     
     
   
  This Prairie style kitchen, with strong horizontal lines, is made from quarter-sawn white oak veneers and hardwoods.  

The next thing he knew, he was not building the contemporary, functional furniture that he had originally envisioned. Instead, Voise was building modern, European-style, kitchens. He started with a simple table saw and some hand tools, and as an architect by trade, he made a smooth transition from the corporate world to woodworking, because he already had the necessary background in design and function.

Today, Voise Furniture and Cabinetry is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and it employs three full-time and two part-time people at a 2,400-square-foot facility. Voise has seen his annual sales double each year since he began, reaching $250,000 last year, and he projects that this year’s annual sales will reach $500,000.

The shop’s growth and success can be attributed to its automation and the painstaking hand finishes, which are the company’s forte. Voise says the automation was done by necessity. “One and a half years ago, the shop was doing everything from designing to cutting and sanding by hand. The planning and preparation were taking way too long and it wasn’t productive.” After much research, new state-of-the-art machinery was installed throughout the shop. Voise purchased a Brandt KD68 edgebander, Uhling pneumatic case clamp, Weeke BP60 CNC point-to-point milling center, Disa dust collection system, Altendorf C45 panel saw and a Grass Ecopress drill, hinge and mortise machine.

But, even with the new machinery, the shop was still not producing as much custom casework as Voise wanted it to. So, he went back to Stiles (whom he purchased most of his new machinery from) to look for software that could be customized to function in the capacity that he wanted. Stiles had several software programs to recommend for the new machines.

They recommended Imos software, a program from Virtual Systems for the CNC machine. Imos works in the AutoCAD program as a component and optimizes the machining capabilities by placing every aspect of the project from screw and dowel placement to hole alignment inside a drawing. These conjoined programs run on the shop’s two Dell Pentium 3 PCs and operate the shop’s point-to-point machine. Voise purchased other programs for his shop as well, including WoodWOP for controlling CNC milling, ABC Cam for translating Imos files and Cut Rite for panel saw optimization. The combination of the software and the automated equipment increased productivity and gave Voise the ability to customize each project the way that he wanted to.

However, Voise cautions that while automation makes the cutting process go faster, taking on too much technology at once can be detrimental if the owner is not careful. “Trying to stay on top of the business the market, designing, producing learning how to run a computer, as well as all of the new machines and subsequent programs was extremely difficult, and we were so overwhelmed by the complexities that we almost didn’t make it. Now that we’ve learned how to use everything, it seems easy. But the learning curve was much bigger than we expected,” Voise says.

Despite the shop’s struggles to modernize, Voise advises other custom woodworkers to automate, so they can become competitive, “but take it slowly and start with the basics. Learn how to run your computer well and learn how to work in Windows before learning your machining software.”

He adds that woodworkers benefit from automation because it gives them the ability to build anything they want, in any style. Automation has given his shop “the capability of working with architects and designers who also use AutoCAD.” His shop can now collaborate on project drawings and send them back and forth, even online.

As an ongoing process, he is constantly looking for better quality in his components, “because that attention to quality – what is going to be the best we can produce, not the cheapest or the most profitable – is what pays off in the the long run.”

 

     
   
    Book-matched select white maple veneers and hard- woods are used in what Voise refers to as his Nordic style kitchen with black lacquer accents.

The shop also uses top-quality MDF and marine-grade plywood boards with melamine, high-grade veneers, top-quality hardware and ample dowels. However, to offset the costs of automation, Voise contracts out installation. This makes it possible for the shop to take on more jobs and run production longer, he says, because employees are applying their talents where they are most productive, thus enhancing the bottom line.

Voise calls himself a modernist and a functionalist by training and says he was immediately drawn to the sleek lines and smart applications of European-style cabinets. Voise adds that he was inspired by designs from European companies like Poliform, Poggenpohl and SieMatic because their designs are not only modern and good-looking, but highly functional as well.

When he realized that there were no shops in the area providing those contemporary looks, he felt sure that he could find a local market for European-style cabinets. “That style of cabinetry only came from European manufacturers and I thought that this was just crazy, there must be some kind of way to produce that style of kitchen in America. I decided that this would be the kind of niche that I would work into,” he says.

The scope of his business right now is about 80% residential and 20% commercial. Since Voise produces high-end cabinetry, he generally does not work with builders on new houses unless a client is dead-set on working with him. Instead, he works with people who have been in their home for awhile and want to fulfill their dreams by building the perfect kitchen. Hence the company’s motto, ‘Serious kitchens for serious cooks.’

“We get a lot of middle-class people and professionals who really want a good kitchen and they are willing to spend the money to get quality. We have had several houses that we put kitchens into sell recently, and the kitchen was a real selling point. It is exciting to know that we’ve got a name for ourselves locally and people know our work because we have a good reputation,” says Voise. The typical cost for one of Voise’s contemporary kitchens falls somewhere between $12,000 and $35,000, with the median kitchen size being 12 by 15 feet.

Besides the European styling, the company focuses on doing a high-quality finish. Voise believes that health is just as important as the environment, so the shop uses products like water-borne urethanes from Trinity Coatings, a local manufacturer. Voise says, “We like to use environmentally safe products and be as environmentally responsible as possible, so we use low-VOC products like pre-catalyzed lacquers and water-borne urethanes.”

The shop’s design philosophy is based on the simple principle, “We don’t build cabinets, we build cooking environments,” he adds, “Our approach is that cooking has to be easy, especially in today’s lifestyle. We have to build a kitchen that is not only pretty, but one that works very well. We want our kitchens to be easy to clean, simple, but highly functional.”

To achieve this, Voise maintains that anything below the countertop should pull out, such as drawers, storage areas and trash units. He points out, “If it is below the counter, behind a door, you’re going to be on the floor, on your hands and knees, digging around in there.”

Any type of door below the counter is discouraged, even ones with drawers behind them, because it is just one more thing to open. Under the same simplicity, the shop does not like to stain wood because the beauty of the wood lies in the honesty of its color, says Voise. His shop will apply colored glazing, but if a client wants a dark kitchen, then he recommends naturally dark wood.

 

     
     
   
  Voise’s “No doors – just drawers below the countertop” is the theme in this elegant maple and cherry wood kitchen with steel accents wrapped around the drawers.  

Depending on the complexity of the kitchen project at hand, a job can take anywhere from one week to one month to complete. “The trick to being a fully custom shop,” Voise says, “is learning to help your clients train their expectations. Sometimes people want really wild things, and they just don’t realize how much something like that will cost.”

Voise makes it his policy to sit down with his clients to go over every detail and cost for before the project begins. He then creates a contract reflecting the wishes of his clients and the responsibilities of the shop. He adds, the contract is always signed prior to any work beginning and it is mutually understood and agreed upon that any changes to the project after this point will cost the clients more money.

Only frameless cabinets are produced at the shop. It is one of only two shops in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex area that focus on this style of cabinetry, and Voise’s shop is known as the modernist in town, he says. “Over-wrought woodwork in the kitchen is just the wrong place to put it,” says Voise. “It is hard to clean and kitchens should be easy to clean. You can achieve the same [decorative] style by using warm woods and nice designs that are simple and straightforward.”

The shop has made a conscious decision to stay away from traditional “old-fashioned” looks, and that has paid off, Voise says. “When people found out that someone was building modern kitchens in the metroplex area, our business really boomed.” Most of the shop’s work is produced for the Fort Worth area, but recently Voise has taken jobs in the Dallas area and he is looking to the Austin area for future growth.

Expanding in the community is not the shop’s only goal; creating new furniture focuses is also a priority. For instance, the shop wants to begin producing Murphy beds for people who have a spare bedroom that would make a great office space, but is also needed as a guest room. Voise thinks that a Murphy bed in a cabinet is the perfect solution to meet both needs without having to rearrange the entire room.

Voise Furniture and Cabinetry does not advertise in the traditional sense. New customers are drummed up through displays at the local Christmas tour of homes and participation in the annual Fort Worth Home and Garden Show, where the company won first place for its commercial display. This form of advertising has proven to be the most beneficial because people not only see the product up close, but they can also open drawers and doors and really get a feel for the quality of the product, Voise says. Recently, the shop developed a Web site (www.voiseworks.com) for potential clients to access information about the company and its products. The most important form of advertising though, and the most lucrative, has been word of mouth from satisfied clients.

Such was the case after the shop worked on a 1970s house not too long ago that combined maple and cherry woods with steel accents wrapped around the drawers in the kitchen. Another notable project for the shop was the casework it created for Fizzi’s restaurant, which included the bar area, wine racks, an entrance wall and other various decorative storage areas throughout the restaurant.

The shop has also begun to market itself to designers, architects and general contractors who do high-end projects. “Because our work is custom and unique, broad-based advertising just wouldn’t work well for us,” Voise says.

This year Voise will be increasing the size of his shop by 1,000 square feet to enhance its finishing area. Within five years, he plans to employ about 20 people and move to a facility about five times the size of his current shop.

“I want to become a brand name casegood maker like Poliform, Poggenpohl or SieMatic,” he says. “We are targeting [these companies] because they do a great job with their cabinetry, and we use the same components, like Hettich hardware, and do the same kind of construction as they do. I want to increase our market share presence and our image as ‘the’ place to go for high-quality contemporary cabinetry.”

As far as business management skills go, he recommends reading “The E Myth - Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It,” by Michael E. Gerber. “It is a great book,” says Voise, “and one that every small business man should read.”

The book points out the difference between using your skill to work for someone else, and having skilled people work for you. He adds that the book also helps owners adjust to the fact that they can no longer be just the skilled tradesman that they used to be, because now they are also a business owner with many responsibilities. “As a small business owner you have to be good at everything, or get people who can be good at everything,” Voise says. “Rely on people [to help you] and find people that you can trust.”

Additionally, shop owners should recognize the need for balance between expecting the best work from their employees and understanding that they are also people with their own agendas. Sometimes being a small business owner and making the right decisions can be hard, but in order to retain good employees, “you need to be understanding of their situations, too,” he says.

The most challenging aspect of being a small business owner, Voise says, is learning to communicate well with employees and clients. He adds that learning to communicate effectively with others is not an easy process, and a person can suffer many pitfalls before it is mastered. Voise recommends that shop owners “get everything in writing, and make it very clear what you are going to do and what you are not going to do,” especially when working with clients.

Hard work and determination have been the driving forces behind the shop’s growth. But it has been learning to communicate effectively, choosing to produce European-style cabinetry in an area with no domestic competition and automating the shop that has made the American dream a reality for Ken Voise.

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