Former Apprentices Team up to Create a Woodworking Accord

Matt Sykora and William Cavanagh always seem to be on the same page when it comes to high-quality woodworking in their Alsip, IL, shop.

By Tom Caestecker Jr.

When Matt Sykora went off to college, he chose to major in criminal justice. After a year of collegiate life, he grew disillusioned with his major and with school in general. It appears that, all along, the real “injustice” might have been the fact that Sykora neglected to follow his first love, which is woodworking.

Following his brief tenure in school, Sykora went to work for a furnituremaker in Oak Park, IL. It was there that he met his current business partner, William Cavanagh, and they eventually collaborated to co-found Period Woodworking, located in Alsip, IL, a southern suburb of Chicago.

The company specializes in fine veneer work, such as conference tables, desks and credenzas for the commercial sector, as well as buffet tables, kitchen cabinets and entertainment units in residences. Their work spans a 40-mile radius that includes downtown Chicago offices and affluent residents in the north suburbs.

These conference tables were built for LaSalle Bank in Chicago. The larger one combines sapele with ebony squares. The base is solid mahogany. The smaller table features quarter-sawn mahogany.  

“I learned a lot of the basics of woodworking from my dad and from fiddling around with his stuff in the basement when I was growing up,” Sykora recalls. Cavanagh’s high school background also featured some woodworking experience. But both credit their time spent together as apprentices as being the final cog in deciding to venture out on their own.

“We knew each others’ tastes and idiosyncrasies, and we have always been aware of a common goal and have the same desire to reach that goal,” Sykora says.

While Sykora and Cavanagh were in Oak Park, they did a lot of their work at night and began with no real customers, Sykora says, building a client base slowly.

“Finally we got one job to fix up an unfinished third floor for a couple that wanted their kids to have it as a play area. We flanked the walls with storage cabinets and benches. Until then, our jobs had been around $2,000, just here and there. But this one was $20,000, and that money allowed us to really upgrade our machinery,” he says.

Despite its initial roots in the residential arena, the company used its veneer expertise to expand heavily into the commercial realm, which now makes up approximately 90 percent of annual sales. Since moving to its current 11,000-square-foot facility in 1998, Period Woodworking has experienced quite rapid growth; Sykora and Cavanagh project that annual sales for 2001 will be at least $800,000 — more than double the $350,000 mark set in 2000.

Following the flurry of machinery purchases made by Sykora and Cavanagh after that initial third-floor playroom job, another round of new machines was purchased after both attended the Anaheim Woodworking Fair in the summer of 1999. They made significant investments to upgrade their veneering capabilities, which they say helped fuel their sales growth.

“These machinery purchases have truly been worth it,” Cavanagh says, “especially our veneer splicer. Before we bought it, meeting deadlines could be a nightmare. Customers would want something in, say, eight weeks, but the veneer shops we worked with would say we had to wait four weeks before we even received their product.”

“Now [since we have more control], our lead times aren’t so unreasonable,” Sykora says.

Also, with the new equipment, Period Woodworking now does custom layups for other shops.

“We do a lot of sketch-face work and not many other companies want to handle it because it is very labor-intensive,” Sykora says. He adds that since their overhead and payroll are not as large as other companies’, Period Woodworking can do it less expensively.

After samples have been approved, most veneer projects begin at the Striebig panel saw, purchased from Colonial Saw, where MDF or particleboard substrates are cut. (Soon to be installed is a Homag España CH 12 beam saw from Stiles Machinery.) Veneers are cut on a Hymmen/Kuper Type AS guillotine and spliced on a Kuper/FL Innovations splicer, also from Stiles.

The faces and backs are then run through a Fin/Atlantic Machinery SC 2P 1600 glue spreader, placed onto the core and put into a Joos HP115 OP hot press. Finally, panels pass through a Bütfering widebelt sander and are ready for pickup or shipment to the work site.

This dining room set is an example of Period Woodworking’s residential work. It is mahogany with a deep brown stain.  

Production equipment in the shop includes a Weeke Optimat BP100 point-to-point machine, a Brandt KD 68 edgebander and an Altendorf F45 sliding table saw.

Period Woodworking does some of its own finishing in-house and subs some work out. “It all depends on the job,” Sykora says. “We don’t have a full-time finisher, and for larger jobs it can be hard to do the color matching.”

For in-house finishing, the company has a Binks spray booth and uses Wagner HVLP guns. The finish itself is usually a conversion varnish from Chemcraft International.

As for hardware, Period will always go with customer specifications, but most are content with the shop’s choice of concealed hinges from Salice. Drawer slides and glides are from Accuride.

The company’s largest job so far — and one that its owners hope is indicative of others to come — involved supplying all the furniture for an executive floor at LaSalle Bank in downtown Chicago. Period Woodworking built a variety of high-end conference tables, Art Deco credenzas and an audio/visual conference table. The project was the company’s most lucrative job to date, netting approximately $65,000.

In a similar vein, both in price and scope, Sykora and Cavanagh say that work at Oak Brook Bank in downtown Chicago also helped establish the company’s reputation in the commercial market.

“We did all the desks, credenzas and returns for every office,” Cavanagh says. “It is probably the most complex job we have done, and the one we are most proud of.”

But despite their elaborate veneer work and heavy focus on the commercial sector, the partners still harken back to “the old days” and try not to turn a job away, no matter how small.

“It’s hard to do now, because with eight other employees in the shop, there is a lot going on with all our large scheduled jobs. But we don’t want to turn a potential customer away,” Cavanagh says.

“If customers want something small, we will tell them it may be three or four months down the line before we can do it,” Sykora adds. “However, most of our jobs today are bigger, such as offices that need three or four conference tables, and those usually cost around $25,000. That’s also the median price for our residential work now, which typically is something like a dining room set with a buffet.”

Sykora and Cavanagh welcome the tremendous growth in sales produced by their veneering capabilities and reputation for top-notch work. But they view it philosophically.

“We are still adjusting [to the growth],” Cavanagh says. “We are doing more large jobs, but both Matt and I really enjoy what we are doing.”

“We have had the advantage of working together,” Sykora adds. “We know exactly what the other is thinking, and we have like minds in terms of the quality we want to produce.”

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