Partners Through Time

Denver friends learn their trade from their forerunning fathers.

By Lisa Whitcomb

Before they became co-owners of Denver Fine Cabinetry in 1990, a premier high-end custom cabinet shop in Denver, CO, Steven Brown was originally Kevin Danknich’s employer. They became good friends back then, and their comraderie deepened when they found that each had learned the woodworking trade from a similar fatherly wellspring.

Brown’s dad was a remodeler/cabinet maker. “He had a shop in the backyard when I was growing up and I kind of grew up around [the business],” says Brown. “When I was old enough, I went off on my own and built homes for several years, which was how I gained my architectural experience. Then one day someone asked me to build a cabinet,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’ and then [I went back to my dad] and he taught me how to do it. That was my first taste of cabinetmaking.”

Similarly, Danknich started working as a woodworker in high school when he landed a job with his future father-in-law who was a woodcarver and cabinet maker. “It was a part-time job, and I have been doing it ever since,” says Danknich. “Then my father bought the shop from him, and I worked for my dad full-time for several years after that.”

Brown and Danknich first met when Brown hired Danknich to work at the new cabinet shop Brown began (using his dad’s backyard shop space) in 1982. “I went to work for Brown in the mid ‘80s. He had a small six-man custom shop at the time,” Danknich recalls. He left Brown in the late ‘80s to work at another shop, until Brown called him up one day in 1990 and asked Danknich if he wanted to go into business. “And I have been doing this ever since,” Danknich says.

The idea for the joint partnership came about from a remodeling job that Brown had accepted from an architect at the time. At first Brown didn’t want to take the job. “No,” Brown told him. “I have my own cabinet shop now, which is up and running and doing quite well. Thanks anyway.” But then the architect promised Brown that his shop could make all of the cabinets. Brown said, “Okay, you talked me into it.” Remodeling the large old home soon turned into a tear-down and rebuild project that would last three years.

Brown knew that he needed the help of a qualified expert to handle such a large project, while still taking on other jobs that would allow the shop to grow. “I went to the contractor at the time and said ‘Danknich is the best guy [to work with] in Denver. I want to call him and start up a new company with him.” The architect readily agreed to the idea and Denver Fine Cabinetry was born.

     
 
This prototype video game stand for day care centers was originally built using painted MDF, but later versions were constructed from melamine to reduce its cost.  
     

Today, the owners of Denver Fine Cabinetry have long since moved out of the shop in Brown’s dad’s backyard. They now have more than a dozen employees and own an 18,000-square-foot shop in the greater Denver metro area. The shop has amassed a large array of equipment, including an SCMI Rockwell 115 sliding table saw, a Rockwell RC-63 planer from Invicta, a Rockwell/Delta T-32 radial arm saw, a 10-inch Delta Unisaw and DJ20 joiner, a Holz-Her Triathalon 420 edgebander and Super Slide 1245 sliding table saw, an Evans Machinery 206 pressure roller (which the shop uses to do all of its own lamination) and a Timesavers widebelt sander.

The company’s newest piece of equipment is an SCMI Routech Record 220 CNC router. “Two years ago we went to the AWFS show at Anaheim to buy a boring machine, because we were going to change our construction method from blind dado construction to horizontal boring. But when we saw the router at the show we said, ‘Forget the horizontal boring machine, we’re going to buy ourselves a router,’” Brown recalls. “We leapfrogged a whole generation of machinery when we bought the router. Now we still use blind dadoes, but we are doing them with our nested-based router, which has made [all of our jobs] easier to make."

“Of all the big tools that we have in our shop, the biggest is software. We use Cabinet Vision and AlphaCAM software. With AlphaCAM we can draw everything out, and our router can cut just about anything that we can dream up,” says Brown, adding, “In the ‘old days’ after shop drawings were complete and approved, we would hand the package to a project manager and then not really hear from him for at least a couple of weeks. Now our shop has been revolutionized, because we can give the project manager a disc with the nested sheets, and he is ready for the next job in a few days. We can also cut full sheets, so the scrap lying around has been drastically reduced. Accidents in the shop have also been minimized because our hands aren’t as close to the blades anymore."

“Our accuracy [in the shop] is improved, so assembly time is faster,” he adds. “Now our cabinets are machined to the same standards, so they are not left up to the discretion of whatever machine person is cutting that day. And, the computer never forgets, which allows us to store and recall past jobs, [thus making it possible for us] to remanufacture added cabinets or replacement parts at a later date.”

Denver Fine Cabinetry grossed $1.5 million last year, most of which was earned by making cabinetry for commercial and institutional use. “In Denver, right now, the market is strong for commercial cabinetry,” says Danknich. “It has been this way for the last eight years. Residential is just as strong, but we tend to shy away from it, because it takes up so much of the shop’s time since there are always so many small details to take care of in residential custom jobs.”

An average of 70% of the shop’s annual work is commercial. While the shop has seen a downturn in commercial work lately, Brown believes that an upturn is just around the corner. “Everyone has been sitting on their hands for the first two quarters of 2001, but it seems like the phone is starting to ring and the commercial business is beginning to come back,” he says.

“Commercial work is our mainstay,” he adds. “We don’t really have a specialty though and we’ll pretty much do anything that walks through the door.” The shop has done work both locally and nationally for businesses such as hospitals, medical centers, long-term care facilities, youth centers, day care centers, veterinary clinics and schools, such as University, elementary and high schools. In addition to these areas, the shop has also done work for many hotel chains including the Hampton Inn, the Ramada Inn and the Best Western, to name a few.

The shop’s abilities do not stop with just institutional work, however. Denver Fine Cabinetry has also produced store fixtures, restaurant fixtures and other specialty items, like a line of children’s furniture for day care centers that includes items such as video stands and snack carts. “Our versatility [is one thing that] makes us stand out from our competitors,” says Danknich. The shop’s largest ongoing project started in 1996 when the Avalanche, an NHL hockey team that won the 2001 Stanley Cup, came to Denver.

“We were lucky enough to get involved with the Avalanche when they came to town. They [hired us to] remodel a lot of things for the Matt McNichols arena when they first arrived. [From there we] did their equipment, locker and video rooms at the new Pepsi Center when they moved over there,” says Brown. “We have also manufactured stick racks and office furniture for the team, and we did all of the work at their practice facility.”

The Nuggets, Denver’s professional basketball team, were duly impressed with the Avalanche’s areas in the center and have since hired Denver Fine Cabinetry to do all of the work in their equipment, video and locker rooms, which are also located inside the Pepsi Center. Likewise, the Pepsi Center itself liked the shop’s work for the teams so much, it commissioned work throughout the center for desks and restaurant carts.

The shop farms out its glass work, but will do its own metal work, depending on the complexity. However, they do not do any welding on site. In addition to using laminated MDF and particleboard, the company also works with a lot of maple (the most popular wood in the industry right now, says Danknich), as well as cherry and alder woods. “Alder is inexpensive and works well in homes looking for the ‘Old-World’ worn look,” Brown says, “because it lends itself to being beaten up and looking old.” The shop also prides itself on its tight tolerances, Danknich says. “We watch for tight tolerances on our joints for our commercial jobs, more so than other shops do, I think.” Joints are glued and nailed or screwed depending on production preferences, and the shop will use dowels in construction, but prefers blind dadoes because they believe the joints are stronger, he adds.

The demands of the institutional/ commercial cabinet industry are “work fast on a short schedule and [try to] bid low,” says Brown. Most of the shop’s work is procured through word-of-mouth and repeat business. “We have the ability to react fast,” he says. “It means a lot to a builder when I say, ‘Yes, we can.’ On the back side of the business, we take care of any problems we might have with a customer’s punch list or customer service. We don’t let any problems linger.”

“Typically we don’t pick what we want to do, we just do what comes our way,” Danknich says, adding that new customers are encouraged to visit the company’s Web site at www.denverfinecabinetry.com to familiarize themselves with what the company does and to see some of the many beautiful products the company has created. “I figured that we would need [to be on-line] sooner or later to keep up with what everyone else is doing [in business], and I decided that sooner would be better than later,” Brown says. “It is nice to be able to tell people, ‘If you want to see our work, go to our Web site and look at the pictures,’” he adds. “It gives people a way to become more comfortable with us."

   
   
  This curved players’ vanity, located at the Avalanche’s practice facility in Denver, CO. The melamine and plastic laminate cabinets were laid up after they were built.    
         

“We spend a lot of money staying on the cutting edge. There are many times that I have had three computers up and running between working on the books, writing proposals and running all the jobs,” laughs Brown, who also does many of the architectural drawings. “I spend a lot of my time concentrating [on the technology side of the business], because in the long run it has sped up our production tremendously.”

While Brown is working in the office, Danknich runs the shop, manages and trains the employees, handles all aspects of quality control and assists with the bidding and drawing, as well. Last year, the company hired Cindy Brown as an office manager to take over much of the bookkeeping and assist in bidding on some of the larger projects that the shop is interested in.

The men say they are disheartened by the mounting fact that there are not enough qualified workers to be had these days. “Our skilled worker levels seem to be getting worse every year. We just don’t seem to have the same level of skilled workers that we used to have. People won’t ‘do it all’ anymore like Danknich and I do. They will come in and say, ‘Well, I can do this, or I can run that,’ but they can’t do both,” Brown notes. “We find that no one seems to be teaching the vocation anymore. There are no apprenticeship programs, at least in this area.” The shop currently finds its employees through word-of-mouth and local advertising.

Both men believe that the shop will continue to grow at the same steady pace that it has enjoyed for more than a decade now, and it is a rate that they are very comfortable with, they say. Brown and Danknich do plan on adding another router to their shop to increase overall production further, since 90% of all of the work they do is machined on the nested-based router that they already own. The men also say that they will continue to float between the residential and commercial markets, wherever the current market needs lay.

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