A Shop with Strong Roots
Third- and fourth-generation woodworkers build libraries and traditional casework for New York City residences.
By Ann Gurley Rogers
It could be said that John Wolf Jr., vice-president of Little Wolf Cabinet Shop in New York City, has custom woodworking in his genes.
“My great-grandfather and grandfather before me were cabinetmakers in a small town between Stuttgart and Munich, Germany. My father immigrated to New York City in 1956,” he says. Today, the two “little Wolfs” continue their family’s heritage of building fine cabinetry and casework for high-end homes.
His father, John Wolf Sr., first learned woodworking in France and Germany, working primarily for a company that made upholstery frames. He says that his experience in France gave him an appreciation for elaborate forms, including rosettes and curves, which became a characteristic of his work in the “New World.” Wolf Sr. admits that he came to America because he could not work with his father, although he realizes now that he learned a great deal from him.
“We cut our own trees when the ground was frozen. Then we brought the logs to the sawmill and stacked them up to dry. I learned so much from that man. My father had 10 children, but only one saw. I wish my son could have had those same experiences,” he says.
In America, Wolf Sr. first worked as a custom furnituremaker for a man who owned a retail furniture store. “This was a man who had fled the Nazi regime in Germany. When I arrived in New York, he took me under his wing,” he says. “I worked for him making furniture. At first I was doing simple pieces that had good quality. Then he introduced me to designers who wanted me to make more complicated pieces. These men pushed me up the ladder.”
Today, the shop produces everything from kitchen cabinets to custom furniture, but its specialty is libraries for homes and offices in an “Old World” tradition. About 50 percent of the business comes from libraries; the company produces an average of four a week. The company’s reputation as a library specialist is something that has evolved over the years, Wolf Sr. says. Its first inquiry for such work came in about 1964.
“We started slowly. We did the first library, and from that we got referrals to two more library customers, and from those we got four more, then eight,” he says. “That is how you build a company. It takes time. You have to do the right things, slowly but surely, and never level off.” Last year the company grossed $1.5 million, he adds.
Little Wolf’s libraries feature hand-carved mouldings, columns and special pediments. The rooms often include entertainment centers, and the company’s woodworkers have developed a facility for creating spaces which work very well for the new flat-screened televisions. Most libraries are done in mahogany, cherry, maple, oak or painted poplar.
Wolf Sr. says he believes that it is easier to be a custom woodworker in America than in Europe because greater creativity is accepted. “In Europe, you have unions, and if you want to be a master cabinetmaker, you are limited by a lot of rules,” he says.
“For example, it is not ‘allowed’ to make flamboyant designs. About two or three years ago, I saw a show at the Metropolitan Museum featuring work by the Herder brothers from the 1830s. They worked for Tiffany and produced beautiful pieces for the Rockefellers and the Astors. They used inlays of mother-of-pearl and silver and were very creative. I remember in particular an umbrella stand with carved birds. Designs like that would not be ‘acceptable’ for a cabinetmaker in Europe.
“That is the success of working in America. As an artist, you are given freedom to create and people will buy your work,” he adds.
a ‘strong’ tradition
One “Old World” tradition the Wolfs definitely adhere to is building strong woodwork. They achieve this in part thanks to a set of special knives that John Wolf Sr. bought from his father in 1922.
“These knives only work on 5/4-inch wood (the average is 3/4 inch). When people see how solid and strong a drawer is when it is made of 5/4-inch wood, they love it,” he says. The old knives are complemented by modern equipment. The shop includes Delta table saws and a 10-hp shaper, a Holz-Her edgebander and Bosch sanders and drills.
Wolf Jr. calls the cabinet shop “a wonderful place to work” and says that they strive to make a good workplace and retain their employees. “It is like a big family here,” he says. “Five of our 20 employees have been with us for 35 years. I think that one of the reasons we don’t have a lot of turnover is because our employees feel a lot of mutual respect from us.”
Most business comes in as referrals or repeats, but the company does advertise twice a year, once in the “Homes” section of the New York Times and once in New York magazine. Most customers are from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Wolf Jr. says he has enjoyed being involved in the family business all his life. He started by helping out on school holidays and after school. By the time he was seven, he started to learn to work with tools by making bird houses. He attended Iona College, just outside of New York City, arranging his class schedule so he could work at the shop in the afternoon. He has been working there full-time since he graduated with a B.A. degree.
Today, his 3-year-old daughter often goes with him on weekends to help and see what goes on in the business. It is the family’s hope and expectation that this fifth generation will continue the tradition and expand the business.
In the meantime, Wolf Sr. says it is his personal goal to invent something new each year which will help grow the company. Recently, he says he was inspired by a broken fishing pole that he found while walking on the beach. As he held it and walked along the beach, it became elastic like a pointer. It gave him the idea to use a similar piece of wood in an elaborate cabinet door that has three different layers, with rods and silicone in the center to keep the wood from cracking and warping.
Evidently, he continues to enjoy his creative freedom, even after 45 years in America.
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