Furnituremaker Makes Two Successful Moves

With a background in fine furniture, Jose Florez relocated from New York to South Carolina and switched to custom cabinets - both moves with good results.

By Hannah Miller

When New Yorker Jose Florez opened a cabinet shop in Greenville, SC, in 1995, he and his wife were strangers in a strange land. "We didn't know a single person," he says, except friends who had previously moved there from New York.

It was a visit to those friends that inspired Florez (or rather Florez' wife Claudia) to move to the southern city. She thought it would be a quieter, less crowded place to raise their two children, Jonathan, now in sixth grade, and Jessica, a fifth grader.

"She kept on pushing and pushing. I finally gave up," says Florez, who at the time was shop manager for SFA Woodworking in New York.

This was not their first time starting over in a "foreign" land. Thirteen years before, Claudia and Jose had moved to New York from Colombia, where he, six brothers and his father ran a small furniture factory. "She has been my longtime sweetheart," he says of his wife, "and she's the boss." The move to South Carolina, he adds, was "the best thing we ever did."

Built in three sections, this entertainment center/armoire is maple with a pickled finish. It's used in a bedroom, and pocket doors enclose a TV.

Determined to have his own shop eventually, Florez began by answering ads for woodworkers in Greenville, while Claudia worked for Wal-Mart so that the couple could pay for insurance. Florez found a cabinet shop owner willing to hire him as a subcontractor. The owner was based in nearby Spartanburg and was leasing an unused 7,500-square-foot former woodworking shop in Greenville for the spray booth it contained. Florez took over the space, then the lease.

"I was very nervous," he says. "But I was confident things would come along."

And they have. His work started attracting customers, and what began as a $600- to $700-a-month business now grosses more than $500,000 a year. Florez cabinets have graced photo spreads in several consumer magazines, including Better Homes & Gardens.

Seven woodworkers have joined him, and he hopes to bring that number to 10 when he expands to a new, 12,000-square-foot shop that is in the planning stage. "We all dream," he says. "I want to have my own building." Claudia has long since left Wal-Mart to work in the shop's office.

"Once you meet your first customer, things start to develop," Florez says. "That customer tells another one. You might get four or five from one person. It keeps branching out."

For Florez, one of the first connections was a builder with Camperdown Development Group in Greenville, who continues to be a strong customer. He stopped by the shop and asked, "What do you do here?"

"Build cabinets," Florez answered.

The builder said he would give Florez a chance and not only gave him a project, but also introduced him to an architect, who introduced him to other clients.

"Things kind of snowballed," Florez says.

Part of the reason for his success as a cabinetmaker, Florez says, is his fine- furniture training, which shows in his work.

"You can train a skilled cabinetmaker in five to six months' time," he says. "You cannot teach a guy to make furniture in six to seven months time. It takes a lifetime."

For example, his background taught him "how to do a nice elliptical piece or oval," he says, and how to use routers and the lathe. "How to do nice joints. These are things you don't learn overnight."

Florez uses a General turning lathe for producing special touches like unusual legs for a kitchen stand. He says he couldn't find what he wanted for sale anywhere, so he turned them himself.

The shop buys some of its cabinet doors and builds others. He feels it is more cost-effective to produce his own elliptical mouldings, which he does with the shop's Williams & Hussey moulder. The shop also makes keystones, crown mouldings and scalloped bases, along with other special touches.

Florez says he has good basic woodworking equipment. This includes a 37-inch widebelt SCMI sander, a Cehisa edgebander from Adwood Corp., a Northfield chop saw, four Delta table saws, four Jet shapers and a Delta shaper.

Florez also has a supply of dedicated shapers and routers, which he prefers to having to constantly change cutters and bits. "Here in America, we can afford to do that," he says. But if he said that to someone from Colombia, he adds, they would have a hard time believing it. Colombia is a very poor country, he says, where "you can hardly afford even one shaper."

Despite its poverty, Colombia has a tradition of fine furniture-making, Florez says. He decided to build cabinets instead of furniture in the United States because mass production makes furniture factory jobs low-paying, he says, and custom cabinets are more lucrative.

This maple cabinet painted in white semi-gloss features beaded mouldings on the sides and a keystone at the top of the arch.

Florez' Fine Woodworking does both face-frame and European-style frameless cabinets. Drawers are fitted tongue-and-groove. Other joinery used depends on the customer's wishes. Florez says he charges more for the time-consuming methods, like biscuit joints. He uses biscuits, dados, mortise and tenons and some nails, he says.

For the casework, Florez uses 3/4-inch plywood and all the "popular" species: maple, mahogany, pine, walnut, cherry, red and white oak, ash and alder. He uses only wood and wood veneer.

Florez says that he has a reputation of being "picky" about the work in his shop, insisting that mistakes be redone. "The customer will never notice, but I will," he says.

As an example, he had an employee redo a beaded-board panel that, when first completed, was 18-inch longer than its twin. "It's going to cost me time and money, but I'd rather do it right," Florez says.

He does all his own drawing by hand, and the shop also does its own installation. "If it's going to be messed up," Florez says, "we'll mess it up ourselves."

Finishing is subcontracted to outside experts who do custom samples for customers, then do the work in Florez' Binks spray booth. They use a variety of stains, including Sherwin-Williams, Duron and Minwax products that are applied and then wiped off, he says. Typically, they "fog" cabinets with a second coating of stain to help make the stain dry an even color and finish up with three coats of Sherwin-Williams clear lacquer.

Often, Florez installs his cabinets unfinished. He is inclined to do it that way because "you can collect your money faster," he says, and avoid hassles over finishes. "The customer is happy and I walk away."

Some projects are massive and long-term, like $170,000 worth of cabinets built for a large home on nearby Lake Keowee. Other jobs are as small as an individual entertainment center. "I sell to anybody," Florez says.

"To keep seven guys busy, you need to have three or four projects at one time," he adds. He tries to allocate jobs according to each employee's skills and temperament. "I think that's my biggest job here," he says.

When Florez opened his shop six years ago, he did not know any builders or their reputations. So he had to take whatever clients told him on faith, he says. "You have to take chances."

Now, after six years of building up his own reputation, he can be more selective about both the clients and the projects he chooses.

He says he is not surprised by the shop's success after its tough first year. "If you put your heart into what you do, things will work out, don't you think?"


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