Unique Market Offers Varied Possibilities
Cabinetmaker Hansen & Bringle does a little bit of everything to stay on top in its south Florida location.
By Helen Kuhl
Located at the southern-most tip of the United States, Key West, FL, conjures up images of beautifully-colored waters, swaying palm trees and a great vacation destination. However, with a population of only 25,000, Key West is also a small town market, especially when you consider that being the bottom key in the Florida chain, it is fairly isolated from major metropolitan areas such as Miami.
As a result, people who need any kind of woodwork or cabinetry tend to shop locally, where help is close at hand and they know who they are dealing with — which all works out well for Hansen & Bringle, a Key West woodworking shop that is happy to supply everything from stock kitchens and mouldings to high-end custom kitchens and millwork. Despite economic ups-and-downs and the occasional tropical storm, the company has enjoyed close to 25 years of solid repeat business, thanks to its quality work and wide variety of product niches.
“Key West is kind of a unique market because of its geographical location,” says owner Steve Bringle. “It is a good ways from a big city, and that kind of gives us an avenue not just to specialize in cabinets, but also to do a little of everything. Our philosophy, being in a small town, is to fill all our customers’ needs. We will do whatever they want.”
Besides doing custom cabinets and millwork, Hansen & Bringle is a dealer for KraftMaid and QuakerMaid cabinets and supplies mouldings to local lumberyards. The payback for offering a diverse range of products has been steady work, even in recessions, and growing to annual sales of $2.5 million. “In 25 years, we have never run out of work,” Bringle says.
Solid Wood Work Provides the Base
Bringle founded Hansen & Bringle with a partner in 1978, but bought him out a few years later. The company has been in its current 7,000-square-foot shop for about eight years, having outgrown several previous Key West locations. It opened a 1,200-square-foot showroom two years ago, which has nine vignettes showing both stock cabinets and its own custom work.
There are 18 to 19 employees in the shop, and Bringle says he is lucky to have a group of skilled craftsmen capable of doing fine woodwork. His work force also is a family affair — it includes Bringle’s brother, John, who is one of the lead woodworkers, and his mother, Norma, who helps out in the office.
Although the shop built its share of plastic laminate cabinetry when that was the predominant style a few years back, the recent trend has been towards very traditional wood looks. Besides kitchen cabinets, a lot of recent business has come from renovation work being done on historical “conch houses” in the area, which has generated projects requiring custom millwork reproductions and trim. So today the vast majority of the shop’s work is in solid wood.
The conch houses are another unique feature of the Key West market. They were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, copying the style of homes in the nearby Bahamas. Today, many are being restored and remodeled in Key West’s historic district, with prices ranging from $600,000 to several million dollars. The restoration work requires adherence to strict codes of authenticity, says shop foreman Joe Wiltsey.
There also is new construction being done in the conch house style, Bringle adds. The company not only does the exterior trim and millwork, but also custom cabinets inside.
“There has been a lot of money coming down here in the last few years,” Bringle says, “and it has meant some nice custom work.”
The popularity of the conch and conch-style houses also has created another strong niche for Hansen & Bringle — exterior shutters. The company builds both fixed blade and operable blade styles, in cypress, cedar, redwood or pressure-treated pine. The shop gained some national publicity for its shutter work a couple of years ago when it was featured on an episode of “This Old House.” The television show featured a conch house renovation and visited the Hansen & Bringle shop because it built the shutters.
The shutters are produced on a Griggio louver groover and are not just an aesthetic element, Bringle says, but also are practical. They help a home weather the tropical storms or hurricanes that visit the area and are popular for homes and condos throughout Key West.
The company does all its own finishing, and the popularity of traditional-style cabinetry has been accompanied by a growing call for specialty finishes, such as antiquing, distressing, glazing and crackling, Bringle says. The shop has a 24-foot by 14-foot spray booth equipped with conventional syphon cup sprayers. Most finishes are conversion varnish.
In addition to the finishing room, there is a small rough mill area that houses a Diehl straight line ripsaw, a Wadkin five-head moulder and Powermatic planers and jointers. The shop grinds its own knives by hand using a Delta knife grinder and has amassed a considerable library of tooling over the years. The shop also has an SCMI overarm router that is used to produce gingerbread trim for restoration work. It has a large collection of templates for the different style trims it has done.
The shop does both face-frame and frameless cabinetry, although most is 32mm. Its frameless department has a Striebig vertical panel saw, a Holz-Her edgebander and line boring machine, a Newton dowel boring machine and a Grass Ecopress for hinge insertion. Hansen & Bringle uses Grass hinges, slides and some Zargen metal drawers. It also purchases some specialty hardware and accessory items from Hafele.
Other equipment includes a Timesavers widebelt sander, two Rockwell shapers and Powermatic table saws.
A Little Bit of Plastics, Too
The shop rarely does a laminate countertop, Bringle adds, although a few of the kitchens it works on now are requesting granite tops. Despite being in a small-town market, Hansen & Bringle is among the largest Corian dealers in the country, and that is just from its own jobs; it does not do any subcontract work.
In addition, the shop recently started a new sideline — plastic cabinetry for pool-area wet bars and open-air patios or rooftops. The cabinets are made from King Starboard, a plastic material originally developed for boat parts and chopping boards, among other uses. The entire box is fabricated from Starboard panels, which come in six colors and various thicknesses. The product machines just like wood and does not require any special tooling, Wiltsey says. Starboard cabinets are assembled using stainless steel screws, hinges and slides and are usually paired with a Corian countertop.
“People around here want to be outside and they need something that will stand up to the elements,” Bringle says. The company has added a small Starboard vignette to its showroom and done several jobs already, one a $9,000 project. Although the Starboard cabinets are expensive, they meet a need and should be a growing niche, says showroom manager Danny Beasley.
While the plastic cabinetry probably will remain just a small part of Hansen & Bringle’s overall sales, it is another example of how the shop does whatever work its small town can use in order to keep itself growing and profitable.
“We try to have all the bases covered,” Bringle says.
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