Helmstown uses ipe for all its outdoor kitchen cabinetry. Company Vice President John Evans says the mix of the natural wood with steel appliances is a good look. Photo courtesy of Sub-Zero Inc. and Wolf Appliance Inc.

For Helmstown, a manufacturer of high-end cabinetry for bathrooms and kitchens, expansion of its product line and entry into new markets — especially outdoor kitchen and grill displays — proved its key to new sales and success.

John Evans, vice president of sales and marketing for the Arab, AL,-based company, says it was looking for additional opportunities to showcase its products. “In a tough economic market, we found our biggest growth area by developing a strategic partnership with Sub-Zero and Wolf, manufacturing kitchen and luxury product displays,” he says. “Our displays are featured in each of their dealerships. We currently ship to 88 dealers, but more are coming on each week.

“The dealer displays showcase the possibilities for cabinetry styles for Sub-Zero and Wolf,” Evans adds, “and we also sell to customers who contact us to buy outdoor grill cabinets for their personal use. This has provided us with a brand new market and retail opportunity.”

The designs include outdoor grill surrounds made of ipe and are featured in both Sub-Zero and Wolf’s showrooms and brochures. “Jimmy Helms, president and founder of the company, and I capitalized on the interest from the appliance customers by putting together a binder that features ideas for indoor and outdoor applications, plus order forms,” Evans says.

The outdoor kitchen market had been dominated by grills set in stone or stainless steel. Helmstown offers a new option, with ipe grill surrounds and cabinetry. Evans and Helms believe the popularity of outdoor kitchens stems from the fact that people are entertaining more at home.

“Being displayed in showrooms all over the country has given us a great new tool to get our products out to potential customers,” Evans says. “We picked ipe after reading about it as a popular choice for decking in New York City, a place with some of the strictest fire codes in the country.”

The cutout areas of these cabinets feature panels made from James Hardie board, a plank cement siding. Helmstown used a smooth Hardie board, finished with Sherwin-Williams chrome marine-grade finish. The company feels the Hardie board is a better option than stainless steel while providing a similar look.

The Ipe Advantage

Helmstown’s other lines use a wide range of wood species, but the unique properties of ipe make it ideal for outdoor applications. “Ipe is available in long lengths and is relatively easy to season,” Evans says. “It is particularly well suited as a material for grill surrounds because it has a Class A fire rating, meaning it has the same rating as concrete or steel. This also means that when we design the grill surround in ipe, we don’t have to put a steel liner between the cabinetry and the grill. With other woods, that would be a necessity.”

Ipe, which is also known as ironwood, is one of many commercial names used for the Lapacho group of trees from various species of Tabebuia. Ipe trees typically reach heights of 140 to 150 feet, but some grow to 200 feet. The trees have trunk diameters of six feet with boles clear to 60 feet or more. Ipe has been used in many applications similar to teak, but Evans says ipe is harder than teak.

“The properties of ipe fit very well with outdoor applications,” he says. Ipe’s strong, tough, resilient properties have made it very popular for use in commercial and residential decking and outdoor furniture. The wood is stable, durable and strong with a natural resistance to insects, decay and wet conditions.

Evans said that while ipe will air dry with very slight checking or warping, the material can be difficult to work and saw, in part because it is very hard. Ipe averages a weight of 60 to 75 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 1.08. “The hardness of the material makes it very hard to machine,” Evans says.

Experts recommend using high-quality carbide and diamond-tipped blades and pre-drilling before screwing. Evans says they finish the ipe with a linseed oil and customers can easily apply the linseed oil, annually or semi-annually to maintain the wood.

Much More than a Grill

Today’s outdoor kitchens are a far cry from a simple hibachi on a deck or a charcoal grill on a patio. Customers can configure outdoor kitchens with a long list of amenities, including gas grills, warming drawers, ice makers, refrigerators, searing modules and more.

Cabinetry for outdoor grills typically runs to contemporary styling, Evans notes. “So many outdoor kitchen manufacturers use stone or stainless,” he says. “We want to blend the appliances with natural elements, like wood. We like the organic element of wood teamed with the steel appliances. It’s a good mix.”

Helmstown’s other key product segments are high-end residential cabinetry, a traditional vanity furniture line, plus Kitchen Accents wine storage and other specialty items. The company’s Vaniture Collection offers customers heirloom-quality vanities in a range of styles and sizes, providing the look of antiques without having to convert actual antiques. There also is a full line of companion pieces, including wall mirrors and linen cabinets.

Helmstown’s diversification has helped maintain the bottom line. The company has been recognized in the annual Wood & Wood Products’ WOOD 100 list of fast-growing companies for the past four years, moving to 16th on the list this year.

“The new market entry was great timing for us, because the popularity of outdoor kitchens is growing, even in a slow economy,” says Evans. “We haven’t neglected any other areas of our manufacturing to enter this market. It has been an exciting new venture for us and we anticipate additional growth as the economy bounces back.”

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