Cabinetry for the kitchen is Bill Neville's work. The pocket half-doors above the sink, shown closed, open to the dining room. Photo by Seth Tice-Lewis.
Cabinetry for the kitchen is Bill Neville's work. The pocket half-doors above the sink, shown closed, open to the dining room. Photo by Seth Tice-Lewis.

North Carolina Woodworkers Profit from Shared Talents

Four woodworkers with diverse skills and interests share work space with successful results.

By Hannah Miller

Four woodworkers in Chapel Hill, NC, think they have the best of all possible worlds. Each is in business for himself, with his own business cards, telephone number, area of specialization and client base. Separately, they operate as Caseworks (William Neville), Kirkpatrick Woodworks (Jim Kirkpatrick), Works in Wood (Erik A. Wolken) and Doug Chamblin, Furniture Maker.

Yet they share a 7,000-square-foot shop and equipment. Three of them collaborate on jobs too big for one man to do by himself.

"Synergy" is how Neville, the most senior of the woodworkers, describes their coming together. "I use it (the word) all the time. It so aptly describes what we do."

Neville, who is on the local arts commission, is a big promoter of cooperation in the arts, including woodworking. If they had more room, he says, they would bring in other artists of like minds but different talents.

"The more people in here, the more you can learn," he says.

As it is, they do bring other artists into their projects. Neville and Kirkpatrick brought in a metal worker and another woodworker to help with a recent job, a 5,000-square-foot home in Chapel Hill.

In the four craftsmen's one-story shop on N.C. 54 outside Chapel Hill, everyone has his own bench. But the expenses and the equipment are shared.

A separate room houses the studio of architectural photographer Seth Tice-Lewis, whose shots of their work form the basis of much of their marketing.

The in-house lineup breaks down this way:

* Neville, 49, and Kirkpatrick, 46, each have more than two decades of experience, seven years of it in shared space. They are asked by clients to do projects as large as $300,000. "We have been working together a long time, and we try to stay friends," Neville says.

For the Chapel Hill house, they worked for nine and a half months making cabinetry and one-of-a-kind furniture for six rooms, plus 34 interior doors and three mantels. What was exciting, Neville says, was "to be able to go in there and create the whole interior."

"What we were trying to do is make the case goods have the same aesthetic as one-of-a-kind furniture," says Kirkpatrick. Even if it's done in quantity, he says, "we try to come up with the detailing to make it special."

* Chamblin, 36, joined the group in 1999. A mechanical engineer for seven years, he returned to an earlier love, woodworking, and attended the College of the Redwoods founded by noted craftsman James Krenov in Fort Bragg, CA. He creates his own designs, specializing in one-of-a-kind furniture, and is planning to make the chairs to go with a table, sideboard and china cabinet that Neville was commissioned to do.

The job, he says, "fits in real well with what I want to do." Chamblin does not want to work on case goods, says Neville, adding, "Jim and I both respect that."

* Wolken, 38, is a woodworker who has shared space with Neville and Kirkpatrick for six years. Though he still builds cabinets "to make money," he specializes now in studio furniture sold through galleries and does not take part in the others' projects.

He says he is going in an opposite direction from Kirkpatrick and Neville. They are taking large architectural projects, he says, and "I'm trying to get smaller and smaller."

"Between the four of us," Wolken says, "we probably encompass the whole spectrum of woodworking."

Shared space can lead to some momentary confusion. "Whose piece of poplar is this?" calls out someone preparing to use a machine. The owner claims it, and Neville says the way to keep things straight is to recognize your own wood.

"Is it OK to use the planer now?" Wolken asks Neville and Kirkpatrick as they conduct an interview in the outer office. "Yeah," they say, "Close the door." The planer, a Crescent, begins a muffled roar.

"If Jim needs to do a bunch of millwork, he will tell me a day or so in advance, I'm going to need the planer and the joiner all day,'" Neville says. The joiner is a Fay & Egan. Other equipment includes a C.R. Onsrud underarm router, a multirouter, an American double spindle shaper, a Powermatic table saw, a DeWalt radial arm saw and a Yates-American bandsaw.

"Sometimes there have been (scheduling) conflicts, but that's never a problem," says Neville. The advantages make the occasional inconvenience worthwhile, the men say.

There are the obvious benefits of shared costs. Overhead is split equally four ways. "By the way, write me a check," Neville tells Kirkpatrick during the interview with CWB.

Even though they have bought used equipment through the years, "there is a lot of expensive tooling out there," Wolken says.

Extra hands come in handy. "If I want to pick up something, I can't pick it up by myself," Neville points out.

Perhaps more valuable are the intangible benefits. Timing is important in construction jobs, and working together enables them to meet deadlines better.

There is the added benefit of being able to bounce ideas off people whose judgment they trust. They do that even on jobs they handle separately.

For instance, Jim will say, "Hey, Bill, come over here. How does this proportion look to you?"

A second opinion is especially important in bidding, Neville adds. "Am I correct here in this pricing, or am I going to get burned?" he will ask Kirkpatrick. "Maybe he throws up an idea I didn't think about," he says.

When bidding a job, one woodworker contracts to do the work. Then he farms it out, room by room or piece by piece, to others. Neville bid the large Chapel Hill home shown in the photos accompanying this article, and Kirkpatrick subcontracted to him, doing the master bath, the master bedroom and a study for the woman of the house. Neville took the husband's study, living room, dining room and kitchen. Together they did the 34 interior doors and three mantels. They brought in a woodworker friend to do the staircase and a couple of bench seats.

For this project, the wood used was African mahogany with a precatalyzed lacquer finish, accented with metal studs. The theme was Prairie School, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright. Neville built cabinets that were both room dividers and storage space between the kitchen and dining room. They were topped by pocket half-doors that slide back for easy access.

Neville's matching cabinets line one wall of the dining room, serving as a granite-topped sideboard. In the adjacent living room, he built a large entertainment center. He and Kirkpatrick put built-in cabinets in the two studies.

Freestanding pieces include Neville's elliptical dining table, which can be expanded by a concentric addition to the perimeter rather than by a leaf. The interior designer found inspiration in London: a round table with a circumferential extension.

Kirkpatrick created a kidney-shaped desk for the wife's study; for the husband's study, Neville built a curved computer table, with brass trim supplied by a metal-worker friend.

Besides enabling the woodworkers to split big jobs, simply operating out of the same shop gives them a visual presence and greater marketability, Neville feels. "Without Jim, Doug and Erik in the shop right now, I couldn't do what I do," he says.

The Neville-Kirkpatrick collaboration began when Neville, a former builder of yacht interiors on the North Carolina coast, moved to nearby Alamance County, where Kirkpatrick had a one-person shop.

"Bill needed shop space. I wanted company," Kirkpatrick recalls. They later moved the shop to the outskirts of Chapel Hill.

Their work habits differ. "I pretty well have next year mapped out," Neville says.

"And I don't," Kirkpatrick adds.

All four have differing design sensibilities, but all share a love for fine wood and a respect for craftsmanship.

They are lucky, Kirkpatrick says, to be within an hour's drive of High Point, NC, one of the country's furniture-making capitals. Suppliers to the industry provide them with fine wood of all kinds.

They lay up their own veneer, all of it bookmatched, using a press from Vacuum Pressing Systems.

Wolken says that even though he is concentrating on studio furniture, he considers himself a craftsman first, an artist second.

Whether it's a Shaker-inspired piece or a whimsical table he made with colorful glass inserts, "the bottom line is that it goes together and stays together," he says.

They agree that they never want to do anything that becomes boring. "I like the one-of-a-kind, because it's constant problem-solving," Kirkpatrick says. "Never take a job you know how to do!" adds Neville.

"What's fun for us is working together," Kirkpatrick says. "This isn't just work. It's our way of life. Part of it is a dialogue."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.