Amish woodworking shop, GunSafe, builds high-end cabinets that enable gun collectors to display their collections beautifully while keeping them secure.

When much of the woodworking industry is turning to CNC and other forms of automation, some companies stick to more traditional means of production.

Nestled in, and a part of, the Amish community in Arthur, IL, GunSafe, a division of Wedge Woodworking, designs, manufactures and markets high-end gun cabinets. These cabinets enable gun owners to keep their firearms on display while preventing them from being stolen.

“GunSafe allows (our customers) to display a portion of their collection safely,” says William Schlabach, co-owner.

The cabinets prevent “smash and grab” thieves from easily stealing guns that, according to Schlabach, can cost $50,000 or more.

GunSafe started out in 2004, when a local customer requested three of the cabinets. In 2005, the company began advertising those specialized cabinets, and from there business has been growing.

Schlabach says his clientele are mainly gun collectors with a lot of disposable income. “They have expensive antique guns and they want to display them,” he says. “I know we build a lot of cabinets for airline pilots, doctors and lawyers.

“You can go to a department store and buy a gun cabinet for $120 — it's as cheap as you can get. We cannot build a cabinet in that price range, therefore we chose to target the upper-end of the market segment,” he adds.

GunSafe's standard cabinets range in price from $4,000 to about $5,300 with many options available.

Above the Bar

According to Schlabach, the original idea for the cabinets' design and construction came from a manufacturer in Canada who went out of business about a decade ago.

GunSafe’s cabinets are available with a variety of options and can be customized to meet the customer's specifications for size, wood species, finish and more, while keeping a collector’s expensive firearms secure.
Not Just Gun Cabinets

Wedge Woodworking, the parent company of GunSafe, also manufactures custom cabinetry under the name Meadow Brook Cabinetry. According to William Schlabach, co-owner, most of the cabinets that Meadow Brook makes are sold wholesale to private contractors.

The company’s offerings include kitchen cabinets, bookcases, entertainment centers and more. All are made using the same methods and with the same attention to detail as the GunSafe cabinets.

Schlabach estimates that Wedge Woodworking’s business is split evenly between GunSafe and Meadow Brook Cabinetry.

This manufacturer brought the original design down to Wedge Woodworking. From there, Schlabach says the original cabinet concept was redesigned and adjusted until it transformed into GunSafe.

“We gleaned a few ideas here and there, but we also developed a lot of our own,” Schlabach explains.

The custom cabinets begin with a hand-drawn design that Schlabach does himself. “I do everything here on the drafting table,” he says.

The company has a couple of standard designs, but it is always open for custom projects. “We sell quite a few custom cabinets,” Schlabach adds.

The standard cabinets are made to accommodate six, eight or 12 guns, with custom sizes and options available, such as incorporating a bookcase or entertainment center.

One thing that makes GunSafe's cabinets stand out from other gun cabinets, Schlabach adds, is a specially designed steel bar that makes it nearly impossible to remove the guns without first removing the bar or dismantling the cabinet.

Once the bar is in place, it must be unlocked and pulled out to be able to remove the guns. The cabinets have cam locks that feature tubular keys, so that the locks cannot be opened with a lock pick. For the high-end look of the finished product, the bar is fitted with a wooden sleeve to match the rest of the cabinet.

“The locking mechanism is the heartbeat of the system. If a guy breaks into a house, he runs in and wants to grab what he can get quickly. In a standard gun cabinet, he can bust the glass, grab the guns and go. With these bars, it's different,” says Schlabach.

The bars are based on the original Canadian design and then custom made for GunSafe by a local machine shop.

“We actually changed quite a bit on the bars,” Schlabach says. He adds that he has an agreement with the supplier of the bars to make them exclusively for GunSafe. “We get occasional requests from other builders for only the steel bars; however, we don't sell parts of our system.”

The same machine shop also supplies the company with a metal door that can be installed in the bottom of the cabinet to secure other valuables. While this storage space can be fitted with a lock, it is not as secure as a standard safe and does not offer fire protection.

“GunSafe was not designed to replace the traditional steel safe,” says Schlabach.

Traditional Workmanship

“It's a combination of the hand craftsmanship and the design that really makes the cabinets unique,” Schlabach explains.

GunSafe manufactures its cabinets without the use of computers, CNC machining or even electricity. With the exception of a couple of power hand tools, all of the company's machines have been converted to run on hydraulic or air power, respecting traditional Amish ways. Some of the larger machines, such as the Powermatic table saw, are activated through an air switch and powered by hydraulics.

Schlabach says he completed some of the air switch conversions himself, but another company in the area did the hydraulic conversions. While on average the conversion usually costs about 35 percent of the cost of the machine, in some cases it can cost as much as 60 percent or more of the cost of the machine. The conversion is a necessary step to conform with the practices of the Amish.

The need for converting the machines creates a new industry in his area, Schlabach adds. “There are 75 woodworking shops in our area — some small, some large — and most of them have these same conversions. That creates another business for an individual doing that type of conversion work, and there are several individuals doing that.”

The power is generated by a John Deere diesel engine that is hooked up to a hydraulic pump and an air compressor. A small power generator also is run off the diesel engine. This is used to recharge the batteries that are used for the hand tools and to power the lights in the finishing room. The diesel engine has a remote radiator, located inside the shop, which can provide heat during the winter.

Aside from the finishing room, throughout the shop the company uses Day Star skylights during the day and propane lights in the early morning and at night when the skylights do not provide sufficient light. The Day Star skylights provide full-spectrum lighting within the shop, which helps the employees with grain matching, color matching and finding defects. Plus, Schlabach notes, the lights provide a cheery atmosphere.

The fluorescent lights replace propane lights in the finishing room and are used only when the skylights do not provide enough light, since propane lights pose a threat due to the flammable nature of the stains and finishes used.

GunSafe has four full-time and two part-time employees. There is approximately 3,500 square feet of manufacturing space and another 400 square feet of warehouse space. In addition to the Powermatic table saw, the company has a Powermatic bandsaw, a Bridgewood widebelt sander, a DeWalt saw, an edge sander, a C.R. Onsrud inverted router and Makita cordless hand tools.

With a wealth of woodworking companies in the area, Schlabach says parts of production are outsourced to maximize productivity in the shop and eliminate the need for certain machines. For instance, GunSafe does not do any of its own rough milling. Additionally, the company outsources its drawer boxes and frames to a local woodworking company.

Where a General Keeps His Guns

Where does retired U.S. Army General and gun collector Norman Schwarzkopf keep the show guns that he would like to have on display? He keeps them in a GunSafe cabinet.

“He (Schwarzkopf) contacted me about a year and a half ago,” says William Schlabach, co-owner of GunSafe. “I mailed him a catalogue and he didn't do anything for about a year. Then one day, some ladies from his office called and they wanted to get things ordered and nailed down.”

Schlabach says the General first saw the cabinets in a magazine ad and then later at one of the Safari Club International shows at which the company exhibited.

Schwarzkopf requested information, and Schlabach remained in contact with him throughout the process. Schlabach says the General had shown interest in ordering one 12-gun cabinet. When the order came through, he was pleasantly surprised to see the General had ordered two 12-gun cabinets.

To complete the cabinets, Schlabach contacted the Industrial Technology/WoodLINKS USA program at Shiloh High School to engrave a name plate for one of the cases.

“My neighbor has a mill shop a half mile away and he's got everything — the trims and stock. We're very well set here in the area as far as there's a lot of woodworking done here,” Schlabach explains. “We're cramped for space and we can more efficiently work on getting the end product out.”

All of the work done in the shop is measured, cut and assembled by hand. For pieces that are routed, such as the plate that the butt of the gun rests in, employees of GunSafe use a template to follow the shape of the piece. On average, a standard cabinet will take about 40 hours to go through the shop and be complete.

Schlabach says the company does not use any particleboard in the construction of the cabinets. While some of the interiors are made from plywood, all of the doors, raised panels and frames are made from solid wood. Currently, cherry is the most popular wood species.

According to Schlabach, he can get just about anything his customers request, including some exotic wood species from specialty suppliers.

The cabinets are finished with a wipe-on stain and a spray-on varnish. The company uses primarily Chemcraft stains and finishes, starting with the stain, moving on to a vinyl sanding sealer and finally applying a conversion varnish.

One of the options available for GunSafe's customers is to have an engraved wooden nameplate installed in the cabinet. For these requests, the company turns to the Industrial Technology/WoodLINKS USA program at nearby Shiloh High School, which has the CNC technology necessary to complete these tasks easily. The students of this program create the nameplates from solid wood and GunSafe finishes them to match the rest of the cabinet.

Getting the Word Out

It's not building the cabinets that is the difficult part of the business, Schlabach notes; it is marketing the cabinets that creates the most difficulty.

“The biggest challenge is getting to that customer, that clientele,” says Schlabach. “It's grabbing their attention and holding it for a little bit.”

To build business, Schlabach utilizes various advertising channels, while staying away from the Internet.

“Most of our marketing is through magazines — gun collecting magazines and high-end safari magazines,” explains Schlabach. “We refrain from utilizing the Internet for marketing. The Amish do not embrace Internet technology.”

Schlabach says he watches the magazine ads closely to monitor which are effective and which are not.

“Advertising is always a tough thing,” he adds. “It's a waste of money to run one ad and stop. You need to be there a few times before people notice. In the past, I've had a few magazines that didn't go well. I just discontinued advertising and try to watch it as much as I can.”

In addition to marketing through the magazine, GunSafe has exhibited twice at the Safari Club International show held annually in Reno, NV. The company hired outside personnel to work the booth and generate leads. During one show, retired U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf viewed the GunSafe cabinets, and he later ordered one.

GunSafe's latest advertising strategy is to send out postcards, brochures and other material to a targeted audience through direct mailing. An outside source designed GunSafe's literature, and the company works with a direct mail house in Ohio to send out its materials.

“With the direct mail, we can go ahead and keep reminding (potential customers) of what we have, and hopefully they won't forget about us,” says Schlabach.

The steel bars and high-end lock allow gun collectors to securely display their firearms. “The locking mechanism is the heartbeat of the system,” says Schlabach. The butt plate, as well as the cradles for the guns’ barrels, are trimmed with leather to prevent the guns from being scratched.
One option that is increasingly asked for is to be able to store the firearms horizontally. This style of storage can accommodate sights and other attachments to the guns. This inverted router from C.R. Onsrud has been modified to run on hydraulic power.

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