Furniture Talent ‘Hatches’ in Northern California

Andrew Jacobson designs and builds exceptional furniture in Petaluma, CA — the former ‘chicken capital of the world.’

By Helen Kuhl

One could say that furnituremaker Andrew Jacobson “came home to roost” when he started his own company, Design in Wood, in a converted chicken coop in Petaluma, CA, the city known as a major supplier of eggs in the early 1900s.

Bad puns aside, the former home for chickens has provided Jacobson with low overhead, a beautiful country setting and access to a wealthy residential clientele in the greater San Francisco area for the past 15 years. In that time his company grew from being a one-man operation sharing space and machines with co-op partners to a thriving six-person business with annual sales topping $500,000 in 2000.

     
 
This console table of Andrew Jacobson’s design is what he calls his “trademark piece.” It is mahogany with a black lacquer finish. The legs are stack laminated; the rails are tenoned. There is a red Persian travertine stone top. Jacobson says he has built about eight different variations of this table.  
     

Jacobson discovered his affinity for designing and building furniture when he took woodworking as an elective in college. Instead of continuing to pursue his biology major, he obtained a four-year degree in furniture design and construction from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, CA, and then worked for two years as lead craftsman for a “master” furnituremaker in Marin. Finding the renovated chicken coop in Petaluma, he leased part of the space and began producing pieces on spec for local galleries while making improvements to the building when he had time.

In addition to the gallery sales, Jacobson began to do work for two well-established interior designers, and he found his first employee — an apprentice who worked essentially for no pay in exchange for learning custom woodworking. Jacobson added full-fledged employees and had different co-op partners before eventually taking over the whole shop himself about four years ago.

“When it was a cooperative shop, overhead expenses were split and this was a very beneficial arrangement for all concerned,” Jacobson says. “It allowed us to get established and pour profits back into machinery and promotional expenses.”

The shop today covers 3,200 square feet, and while there are power and space limitations to the building, Jacobson says they are outweighed by the low overhead and quality of life “being out in the country.

“Because of our limited space, we put a lot of effort into increasing the efficiency and organization of the shop,” he adds.

Jacobson now has five employees, who he says are highly skilled and share his mentality of building furniture-grade cabinetry. “My employees are my business’s most important asset,” he says. “They serve as my hands and have everything to do with the high quality of what we produce. When money has been tight, I have made sure that my workers were paid first.”

Jacobson says that he offers competitive pay, health insurance and a retirement plan, plus a year-end bonus based upon employees’ performance and the shop’s success. He also tries to create a good working environment by giving employees flexible hours and autonomy in their work.

“I’ll do a very detailed set of working drawings and spend maybe 15 minutes with the craftsman who is going to build the project, and he or she takes it from there. There is no shop foreman. I encourage workers to ask me questions but also to make their own decisions,” he says. “While giving an employee a project to build from the ground up is perhaps less efficient than delegating tasks, we end up with a higher quality, more cohesive product.

“I also feel this structure is more satisfying and challenging for the craftsman doing the work,” Jacobson adds. “We have a reputation of doing some of the best work in the Bay area, but I hope also to develop a reputation of having one of the best shops to work in.”

     
Cone Tables a Challenging Job

A challenging project that began seven years ago has developed into a steady flow of side work for Andrew Jacobson’s Design in Wood.

Initially, the company was commissioned by San Francisco interior designer Ruth Livingston to build two cone-shaped tables for one of her customers. When she later started her own studio line of furniture, she included the cone tables and gave the production work to Jacobson. The tables now are her best-sellers, and the company builds about 50 a year, all to order.

When Design in Wood began building them, they were done in solid wood using stave lamination, like a barrel. “This was very wasteful in the amount of board feet of wood it required,” Jacobson says.

Production methods evolved, and today the tables are still stack-laminated construction, but done in 1-1/2-inch ultralight MDF. The shop rough bandsaws the layers, glues them up and then shapes them on the “conemaster,” a machine invented by Jacobson two years ago to handle the task. “We are experimenting with CNC cutting the staves for our standard sizes,” he adds.

The sides are veneered with Oakwood bubble-free veneer and contact cement. Tops are laid up in the vacuum press with urea formaldehyde resin glue. The tables are weighted with sand inside to keep them stable.

Standard sizes are 18-, 24- and 36-inch diameters, but about 30 percent of orders are for custom sizes, Jacobson says. A variety of species are used, although standard finishes are maple and cherry. The feet are gold or silver leafed. Design in Wood does all the finishing, including the leafing.

“The tables have gotten better as we have perfected our techniques, thanks in large part to suggestions from my lead ‘cone man’ Scott Braun. There has been an evolution of refinement in building them,” Jacobson says. “It’s not a substantial part of my business, but it’s nice because it’s fairly ongoing, and it’s different, in that this is somewhat production.”

 
   
     

Almost all of Jacobson’s work is residential, much of it for homes in the Silicon Valley area near San Francisco. Projects include built-in furniture such as wall systems, libraries and kitchens. Jacobson deals directly with the client or with an interior designer.

“Our specialty is unique high-end projects. The more difficult and unusual, the more likely a job is to end up here,” he says. “I would get bored doing the same thing day after day and find the highest-end custom work to be the most interesting and challenging both for me and my employees. Curved members, custom laid-up veneers and specialty finishes all frequently show up in our work.”

Jacobson continues to design and build two or three pieces for galleries each year. He says his own aesthetic is fairly contemporary, borrowing from Arts & Crafts, Shaker and Federal furniture styles. In addition, about 10 percent of business is for a line of “cone tables” the shop produces for Ruth Livingston Studios (see sidebar).

Building “furniture-grade” cabinetry starts with an approach and an attitude, according to Jacobson. “Specifically, we are very meticulous about having every surface fine-sanded, even if it is an underside where you would only see it if you crawled down on your hands and knees and looked up,” he says. “All edges are carefully broken with uniform, hand-sanded breaks. And we strive for great accuracy and tight tolerances. Our typical door gaps are 3/

“We use dovetailed drawers and top-of-the-line hardware,” he adds. “All lumber and veneer is selected for grain and color, and panels are always balanced. Our carcass construction is typically lamellos, screws and glue. The common thread running through all our work is quality.”

To help him achieve high quality and maximize the limited space available in the shop, Jacobson says he is is careful in selecting the equipment he buys, looking for versatility and accuracy.

“A key factor in the machinery I buy is what I call ‘transparency,’ the attribute of premium engineering and quality that allows the craftsman to perform the desired operation without the possibility of machine error affecting the end result. My feeling is that one can never entirely eliminate operator error, but by investing in premium equipment, we can reduce or eliminate machine error.”

Jacobson says that one of the most useful pieces of shop equipment is a Multi-Router milling machine from JDS Co. They use it for all kinds of joinery, including floating tenons, as well as to produce pulls and do aluminum work. He adds that the shop’s 20-inch Jet disc sander has been useful for shaping small, unusual-sized pieces like mitered mouldings and pulls — work that he says is not safe to do on a table saw.

Another indispensable “tool” are the shop-built torsion-box work platforms, Jacobson says. Flat to 132-inch, they are the reference upon which projects are assembled.

The shop contains some reconditioned equipment, such as a Northfield 18-inch planer, a Delta drill press and an R.B. Rodger Manufacturing Co. bandsaw that Jacobson retrofitted with Carter bandsaw guides. A small Meber bandsaw, also fitted with Carter guides, is used for intricate, precision work.

Jacobson put together his own vacuum bag press table using components from Vacuum Pressing Systems. He had a metal manufacturer make the frame for a two-tiered table for space efficiency. The bottom table, with a smaller platen and a bigger diameter bag, is used for curved work. Flat pressing is done on the top table. There is a manifold so that both presses can be run simultaneously. The table is located near a heater, because many of the glues used are heat-sensitive, Jacobson says.

Other equipment includes a Sac Sueri 25-inch widebelt sander and an Omga 12-inch chop saw, both purchased two years ago at the Anaheim Woodworking Fair; a Delta Unisaw; a Mini-Max 12-inch jointer; Julius Blum line boring and hinge insertion machines, and a Felder KF7X combination panel saw/shaper. There also is an SCMI edge sander and Jet spindle sander.

To keep sanding dust at a minimum, the shop has two JDS Air-Tech 2000 air filters, a WoodMark downdraft sanding table and a Fein canister vacuum. It uses Fein and Dynabrade random orbital sanders.

The shop does its own installation and Jacobson leads on all jobs. To make installations run more efficiently, he created “installation kits,” which are tool chests containing all the tools needed for a particular task, ready to be taken on site.

“There are 10 or 12 different kits, for example, one for shims, one for fasteners, one for drills, etc. I’ll look at the installation plans before going on site and select the kits that are needed for that job. That way, all tools are right there and you can’t forget something in the shop. The system works well,” Jacobson says.

     
 
This kitchen in avodire with a black granite countertop was built for a residence in Incline Village, NV. Andrew Jacobson did the design work, including the credenza in the foreground, which is black lacquer over maple. The credenza includes a stainless steel hanging shelf system made by Arakawa, a Japanese company. Jacobson says that many of his pieces incorporate other media, such as glass and metal.  
     

A 10-foot by 20-foot spray booth is fitted with AccuSpray HVLP spray equipment. The company finishes its furniture and smaller cabinet jobs in-house. Larger jobs are subbed out. Most finishes are Mohawk or Sherwin-Williams products. Finishing is one task that is specialized in the shop; most is handled by one employee.

Jacobson says that the business side of owning a woodworking shop has never been much of a problem for him. His father, retired founder of a shoe manufacturing business, analyzes his financial statements on a monthly basis and can point out things he might miss. His “life partner,” Peggy Schafer, does a lot of the bookkeeping and related office tasks.

“My job position has evolved into project manager, designer and problem solver,” Jacobson says. “I still get in an hour or more of floor time a day, on average. But I equally enjoy all the other myriad aspects of running a custom woodworking business.

“One of the reasons I developed my business the way I did was that I started getting bored with doing woodworking day-in and day-out. I had achieved a level of mastery so that it was no longer challenging. Moving more into being a business owner, I found new challenges and it was interesting,” he adds.

Jacobson says that he does well at pricing work. “I’m pretty good at estimating how long a project will take. I’ll take the number of hours times the shop rate plus materials at retail to get a price. The business is consistently profitable.” He adds that he always takes into account what other area shops might charge for the same job and strives to stay competitive.

While the company has been growing steadily, Jacobson says he is not looking for fast growth. “I spend a lot of my time doing book work and logistical work. But I feel that if we got much bigger, I would lose my connection with what happens on the floor and then I would be concerned about quality,” he says. “It might be slightly more profitable, but it would be more stressful.”

Jacobson’s concern about quality is one of the reasons he goes on site for every installation, he says. “Being on site allows me to respond immediately to client’s questions and concerns. I find that the quality of an installation and the decisions made during the install have a huge effect on the overall quality of the project.”

Jacobson is very careful to ensure that he and the company maintain a professional image at all times throughout a job. He built a portfolio case in ebony and thuya burl to house the photographs of his work as a way to show clients his quality. He prepares detailed job proposals which he presents in a nice-looking folder. And for installations, employees arrive on time, lay clean moving blankets over the floor before they bring anything in, and organize and clean up at the end of each day.

“I think it’s a leap of confidence when someone commissions a woodworker to work for him and come into his home,” he says. “There is such an image of tradespeople or craftsmen being flaky. I feel like I have to show my customers that I don’t fall into that stereotype. I think that approaching clients with an air of respect is one part of my success.”

Although the business is growing and space is tight in the current shop, Jacobson says he will keep “feathering his nest” in Petaluma. “I’m really happy with where we are now,” he says. “Our quality level is excellent. I’m just looking for ways to maintain that quality but do it in a more efficient manner.”

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