'Tasteful' Finishes Spice Up California-Based Restaurants

Douglas Carpentry Inc. of San Fernando, CA, provides custom-stained woodwork for Wolfgang Puck Restaurants across the nation.



Douglas Carpentry's work can be seen from floor to ceiling in this Orlando restaurant.

Enhancing the dining experience at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant is its casual chic decor. An open kitchen, rich colors and geometric shapes contribute to the relaxed atmosphere. An important element of the design (created by Puck's wife and partner Barbara Lazaroff) is the custom finished millwork and cabinetry provided by Douglas Carpentry Inc. of San Fernando, CA.

The shop has done work for Puck since his signature Spago restaurant opened in West Hollywood in 1981. Including work on Wolfgang Puck Express Cafes, the shop has completed nearly 20 restaurants nationwide with woodwork ranging from $30,000 to $180,000 on each job.

Douglas Carpentry recently finished its most extensive millwork project to date -- a $260,000 Express Cafe in Orlando, FL. Including wall paneling, service cabinetry and bar tops, the eight-man shop completed the project in 12 weeks. Custom finishes can be seen throughout the interior from the wood panels below the deli case to the wood valence above the lighting.

For finishing, the shop uses a translucent stain which achieves a rich color while allowing the natural wood grain to show through. This process was perfected through much trial and error, said Jim Douglas, president. "Using a neutral base that does not affect the stain is critical. That's why we settled on maple." The grade of maple is important as well. "Select white maple works the best because no imperfections can show through the finish," he added. The shop uses maple veneer over Baltic birch with a Gator-ply backer.

The stains are custom mixed. Starting with Enduro acrylic stain, pigments are added by hand to create such colors as golden birch, teal, red mahogany, brown mahogany and green. These muted tones replace the brighter colors seen in older restaurants. The trend toward more natural tones has inspired Douglas to formulate a purpleheart stain as well. "We wanted the look of purpleheart, but because of rainforest issues we simulated the color with stain. It was a pretty awesome feat," Douglas added.

Finishes are generally flat, said Al Keaton, vice president. "Occasionally we'll use semi-gloss, but never gloss," he said. "Glosses don't fit with the decor of the restaurant and they tend to detract from the beauty of the wood. Guests will see the finish, rather than the actual product."

The entire finishing process takes four hours. The arrangement of the colors is important, so a lot of time is spent marking out the desired pattern. Next, the board is masked off so the stain can be applied. It takes several applications with an HVLP gun to achieve the rich color. While the shop has many spray guns, they have found that Apollo guns are the easiest to clean, Douglas said, which is important considering the number of finishes used on a project.

The shop allows at least 30 minutes drying time for each pass. Then the finish is topped off with sanding sealer before removing the masking to move on to a contrasting color. V-grooves are routed between the geometric shapes, exposing bare wood.

Douglas uses water-based finishes in nearly every application. Bar tops, however, require conversion varnish to prevent water and alcohol damage. Moisture consideration extends to cabinet fabrication as well. "In a bar area, we will never use a melamine or particleboard core for cabinets. We'll always use plywood. We also make sure all edges are edgebanded to prevent moisture penetration," he added.

Cabinets are glued and screwed. The shop uses biscuit joints as well as splines and dadoes. Blum hinges are used for light commercial and restaurant projects while hardware from Stanley and Rockford Process Control is used for heavy-use cabinets.

The shop is in the process of converting to 32mm cabinet construction and recently purchased a Ritter line borer. Other panel processing equipment includes an SCMI 16W panel saw, Blum hinge insertion/line boring machine and a Holz-Her 1403 edgebander.

Besides being built to withstand abuse, bar areas are designed for eye appeal. The back bar cabinets rest on stainless steel posts. Above them, wine racks in the shape of a circle, triangle and square are incorporated into a traditional wall wine rack. Fabricating these pieces is difficult, Douglas said. Each element has to be laid out full-size to determine how to build it. Then, because of the 4-inch by 4-inch niche for each bottle, the pieces have to be stained before assembly.

Custom woodworking extends to the lighting in this restaurant as well. The shop fabricated 9-foot-diameter donuts and a 12-foot-per-side triangle from which lighting fixtures hang. Built in sections, the maple pieces are held together with splines and drawbolts. For its radius work the shop uses a vacuum press from Quality VAKuum.

Other equipment in the 5,800-square-foot shop includes a Delta shaper, a Powermatic planer, a Hitachi combination planer/jointer, a Delta Unisaw and a Hendrick cut-off saw. Sanding is done on a Rodgers edge sander and a Speedsander widebelt, as well as Dynabrade dustless air sanders.

The company was founded in 1978 when the owner of the shop where Douglas worked retired. Concerned about the welfare of his employees, he sold the business to Douglas. Two of those employees still work for Douglas today. "Employees are the backbone of a company. We pay ours well and treat them right. It takes a long time to train a new employee and we do all that we can to keep ours," he added.

When former co-worker Keaton went to work for another shop, "the only way to get him back was to make him a partner," Douglas said. The partnership has worked out well; Keaton handles the production end and Douglas focuses on estimating and sales.

The shop has always concentrated on commercial work including offices and hotels in addition to restaurants. The shop has experienced steady growth with annual sales "hovering at about $1million," he added.

Working with contractors, the shop enjoys a lot of repeat business. And while the customer base has remained local, when a client expands its operations, he insists on the shop doing the work. Working for Puck restaurants across the country has given them a real education, he said. "We now know to get complete field dimensions. If you forget a measurement, you have to hop on an airplane."

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