Details Make the Difference for an Alabama Custom Cabinetmaker
Carvings and other special touches build a reputation for excellent work for Denis Hermecz.
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
Back in the early '70s when Denis Hermecz was graduating from college and working on a graduate degree, he contemplated a variety of career choices. "I had a degree in English and I wanted to teach college English or work for a newspaper," he says, adding that he even entertained the idea of being a creative writer.
But, "when I finally looked around for work, I noticed what was right in front of me," he says, "the thing that had helped put me through school. Basically, that was putting a saw to a piece of wood and making something out of it."
Custom wood working had been a means to an end for Hermecz - he worked as an apprentice boat builder to earn money for school. But then he realized it was the life he was searching for. "I decided in my 20s just to be good at what I was doing. I liked the thought that, as a woodworker, I would be creating the nooks and crannies that people love," Hermecz says. "It comforts me to think of building someone's hearth. It is a peaceful thing. The pieces we make are what people gather around and help make them feel at home. It is my approach to world peace, one home at a time.
"I always was driven by aesthetics and the beauty of what I was doing," he adds. "The creative side of either writing or woodworking was intriguing to me."
Hermecz has a straightforward Web site, www.hermecz.com, filled simply with images of his work, from dining room tables to elaborate kitchens, mantels, entertainment centers, offices and pieces for virtually every room in the house. Much of his work comes from referrals and word of mouth.
"People see what I have done at someone else's house and really like it. It's not especially fancy, but an honest presentation of the best wood I can get. I believe if you show people some pretty wood, they will like it," he says. "Do a good job of finishing a piece, present it in a simple manner so they can see the quality of the material, and the customer will appreciate it."
Details Stand Out in the 'Dust'
After deciding on a career in custom wood working, Hermecz began doing cabinetry and furniture. He first had a shop in the basement of his Silverhill, AL, home. He eventually moved into a shop he built just steps from his home. For a time, Hermecz and his wife Patty collaborated on a business making sculptures, which they painted and sold at art fairs. "We attended close to 100 fairs in five years and just got tired of the traveling," he says.
So, Patty established a new business, growing flowers, which she sells at farm markets, and Hermecz pursued custom woodworking. "I tell people my wife works in the dirt and I work in the dust," he says.
Hermecz downplays the intricacies of his work, which often features carved elements and built-in flourishes that add value and function as well as interest. "As our casework jobs increased, we still had the ability to do little details in our cabinetry, such as a carved scallop or corbel or rope trim," he says, adding that he believes those details helped establish his reputation.
"It's the little details, if you are not afraid to do them, that in the end contribute something exciting and beautiful. It doesn't have to be the most magnificent example of carving in the world to still add a lot," he says.
"A lot of the cabinetry made through the '70s and '80s tried to shortcut what could be done," he adds. "There were a lot of overlay doors and cheaper forms of drawer boxes, for example. It was stuff that was quicker for manufacturers to turn out, but it got away from a lot of the detailing, like doors that really fit. When you put those features back in, people don't even know what they are seeing, but they love it."
Another philosophy that has served Hermecz well is to be creative. "The best way to compete is to have better ideas for yourself," he says. "A woodworker's best tool is imagination. The way to compete isn't to get bigger machines and work faster and drive yourself harder. The best way to compete is to have better ideas, use more design skill and try to do the stuff that other people won't or can't do. I don't think that anything we build here is complicated to build, but if you apply some design sense, it works. We work in a medium that has one of the most beautiful characteristics that any artist can hope for - the patterns in wood."
Hermecz prefers letting the beauty of the wood show through. "If I can talk the client into avoiding stain or paint, I will. I like things clear," he says. "I try to educate people on what stains do to wood and how they obscure its beauty. I feel woods like mahogany and cherry and cypress should be left alone. They will darken and age with a wonderful patina if they are just left alone."
Hermecz believes that wood is a wonderful medium to work in. He looks for just the right piece of wood for his designs. "If I'm working on a door, I might choose a vertical grain to make a frame around the feature of the door, the panel," he says. "I think if you apply the individual eye, the artist's eye, and you look at the wood, you can make a really beautiful door. It isn't a matter of running just any piece of cypress through, for example. You pick the right grain and get something flamboyant. Cypress is a wonderful Southern wood. It shrinks less than other woods and has less movement."
When CWB visited Hermecz, he was in the process of making a screen door for friends in New Orleans. "My friends' house survived Katrina, but the wind blew out the screens and tore them up," he says. "I am making them a screened door with a carving of a cormorant, patterned after a drawing by their daughter. It is the seabird equivalent of a phoenix, rising from the ashes or, in this case, the flood waters. It is rising from the mud to fly again, an apt metaphor for New Orleans coming back to life."
A Shop with a View
Hermecz' workshop and home are at the end of a country road, set in a clearing of trees and just steps from a creek. The shop recently underwent some renovations. It is 1,200 square feet with a 24-foot by 16-foot painting porch. He is adding a stoop to the back, which faces the creek, that he says will be a perfect area to do light sanding.
"In southern Alabama, the weather is nice enough most of the year that we can work outside. We figure with the sanding porch we can sand outside and while we are at it, drop a fishing line in the creek like Huck Finn," he says. "By expanding our shop into spaces that are outdoors, we create better working spaces for the three of us."
Hermecz often has employed help over the years. Now with two full-time assistants, Nathanael Fedor and Stephen McPhaul, he says he took a look at the flow of the shop and made some slight adjustments. "I have often had another employee, but with two others now working in the shop, we had to change the space to avoid a log jam," he says. "We needed to dedicate two separate large workbenches as opposed to a single workbench."
Hermecz also put some of his machinery on moveable benches so that machines could be moved where they are needed. "With three of us working, we needed some creative design solutions," he adds.
Hermecz also says he is enjoying teaching Fedor and McPhaul the ins-and-outs of running a business. "My children have gone into other pursuits - one is an environmental lawyer, another runs a cafÃÆÃÆÃâÃÂ© in Oregon and one is an aspiring cartoonist. Nathanael and Steve have the ability to push tools and make good-fitting joints and to apply beautiful finishes, but they also are smart enough to know that it isn't just running a saw that makes you a woodworker," he says. "I want them to get the experiences of dealing with clients and how to price work and fix complaints. That, and the ability to design, is something you grow into and learn from watching."
Hermecz gives them credit for teaching him some new methods and design solutions as well. "Nathanael came up with a great idea for making brackets that solved a problem and saved time," he says.
When it comes to the business side of custom wood working, Hermecz says he learned valuable marketing and sales skills while working the highly competitive art fairs. "I loved being in the art world and doing art shows. I think some of the most cutting edge stuff was right out there in the streets," he says. "Patty and I got into some of the best shows in the country; fairs in places like Coconut Grove, FL, Cain Park in Cleveland Heights, the Dallas 500 at the Cotton Bowl, and the Crocker Center in Boca Raton. For one show, there were 1,700 applicants for 30 positions. It's a great tool to learn the best ways to showcase your talent."
Hermecz says he also liked the competition that went with selling his art. "You learn how to talk to people and to make things that fair-goers want to buy."
But as much as Hermecz loved the atmosphere, he says he grew tired of life on the road. "I calculated that for every hour in the shop, you were out on the road an hour, traveling to a show or selling. It got to be too much."
Now he spends most of his time on the home turf. His shop is equipped with the standard equipment and tools commonly found in small shops, including a Powermatic 66 table saw and a Performax 38-inch two-drum sander, often used to sand raised panels and dining room tabletops. He has a 15-inch planer and jointer, both from Powermatic, and a Bosch 1200 auto body grinder which is used for rough carving. The shop also is outfitted with a Grizzly dust collection system.
While Hermecz says he enjoys letting the beauty of wood shine through, he is not opposed to working with finishes and paints. "We recently did a kitchen that featured a painted hutch amid unstained wood. It offered a nice contrast, as did the painted pulls on the cabinetry," he says.
Recent Job a Showplace for Skills
One of his favorite recent jobs involved a high-end kitchen for a couple living on the water. "They survived Katrina, although their backyard pool was filled with saltwater and quite a few fish," Hermecz says.
The kitchen features cypress cabinetry and glass doors with five individual wood panes. The owners are gourmet cooks, and the kitchen was designed with that in mind. There is a huge Viking range next to a wall-mounted pot filler, and a cypress wine rack stands next to an under-counter wine refrigerator. A professional coffee-serving area dispenses hot beverages, plus steamed milk. Another nook is specially designed to store cookie sheets.
Hermecz placed an open-space spice rack just off from the Viking range. "It is open to provide easy access to the spices and vinegars," he says, "but it also can be used to display decorative items."
The main sink is hammered copper and a generous hanging rack displays the couple's copper pots. Pulls on the cabinetry are an interesting design in silver.
"I tell people to go out and shop for pulls, because I know they will have a good time seeing the amazing range available today," Hermecz says.
Custom-designed mosaic tiles form a backsplash, and Hermecz added interesting design elements throughout, like arches under cabinetry and rope moulding and carved legs on the island.
"Thirty years ago, you would never see four chairs pulled up to the island in a kitchen," he says, commenting on the evolution of the kitchen in recent years. "Back then, the cook was hidden and virtually alone in the kitchen. Now it's a room that draws people in and is a gathering place for family and friends. I think that's a great change for the better in home design."
Hermecz also added storage in places that are usually wasted space, such as wide, narrow-height drawers built just under the granite counters on the large island. "I thought as long as we were making the island, we should put it to good use. Table wear fits nicely in the wide drawers," he says.
He has worked on many other areas of the same home, including casework for a luxurious laundry/sewing room and the den/office. A specially built gun rack in another room is home to the owner's extensive collection.
Strong Local Roots
Hermecz and his wife have lived in the area for their entire lives, and both families have had several generations there, too. "My grandparents came to the United States from Hungary in 1911, settling first in Dayton, Ohio," he says. "They were farmers from the 'Old Country,' and when they heard about a place in the South where there were four growing seasons, their ears pricked up and they had to check it out."
As a custom woodworker, Hermecz works with a variety of woods. Cypress, as mentioned, is one of his favorites. He also is fond of working with reclaimed heart pine and earned a mention in This Old House magazine for work on a project that used recycled heart pine taken from the floor of a home and made into cabinetry and countertops.
In his own home, he used reclaimed heart pine for floors. "You can get a beautiful look with heart pine after cleaning and sanding it," he says. "We used recycled heart pine floors and made it into a table in a room we call our 'Tuscan Room,' so called for the warm woods and the deep color on the walls."
Hermecz says the room was the brainchild of his wife. "She decided she wanted to convert a space to a dining room. I thought it was a good idea, but I didn't realize she wanted it done for the fast-approaching Thanksgiving holiday at the time," laughs Hermecz.
But he met the deadline, and the room is warm and inviting, filled with the kind of touches that are a signature of his work.
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