Emphasis on the Details
Cabinetmaker Mark Wells specializes in true custom work, giving customers special features they cannot get elsewhere.
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
Mark Wells has long had a passion for woodworking and with careful planning and lots of talent, he found a way to turn that passion into a full-time business.
"I started in woodworking about 15 years ago, but didn't move into the cabinetry end until seven years ago," Wells says. Five years ago he decided to make it his full-time business, opening Mark Wells Custom Cabinetry in his hometown of Dothan, AL.
Wells is unique in that he has another profession he is equally devoted to. He works at the Dothan Fire Department on a schedule that is one day at the department followed by two days off. So his wife, Joy, works with him part-time in the custom cabinetry business to fill in the gaps.
"Joy has been wonderfully helpful in the kitchen design aspect," Wells says. "She has a background as a caterer, which gives her a very good knowledge of what is needed in a working kitchen. She adds a practical and functional dimension that keeps clients from being frustrated with the way their kitchen is laid out."
Most of the cabinetry Wells makes is face-frame. "I have built frameless cabinetry, but it is more for my industrial and commercial clients. My real passion is creating custom wood products," he says, adding that his dream is to build high-end cabinetry and projects exclusively.
Wells describes his niche as custom work "with attention given to details," and he obtains a lot of work through alliances he has developed with some local construction companies and architects who specialize in high-end projects.
One of his recent commissions was creating the kitchen, butler's pantry, and other cabinetry and built-ins for an elegant four-story home, custom-designed and built in Dothan. It gave Wells plenty of opportunities to create special details. For example, the owners have a stone inlaid into the exterior of the home that features their names and the names of their children with a simple cross.
"It is a spiritual design element that has great significance for the wife, which she wanted carried throughout the home," Wells says. "I made mullions in some of the kitchen cabinet doors featuring the same cross that's in the stone marker. It was a very time-consuming feature, but one that gave me the opportunity to get my creative juices flowing.
"We also explored using the same concept in other areas, like the columns I made for the fireplace," Wells adds. "Because of the way they had to be routed and chiseled, it was labor-intensive. But it makes all the difference in the end result."
Finding the Right Customers
Wells said he does not have a high output from his shop. "But I do like to consider myself an artisan, in the sense that I concentrate on the finer details, the little things that mean a lot to the client."
Working with one of the biggest contractors in his area, Carl Hobbs-Donald Trawick, has helped connect Wells with the type of customers he loves. "The contractor I'm working for now recently spent eight months installing the trim work in one room of a client's home," he says. "It's a challenge to find customers who appreciate this kind of work, practically as well as financially. Fortunately, when you work with some contractors and clients, money is not the big issue. They want what they want and aren't as concerned with the costs."
Wells also works with designer-builder Andrew Gosselin. "Most of his work is residential and high-end," he says. "His clients want the types of things I specialize in, like corbels, brackets, overlays and appliquÃÆÃÆÃâÃÂ©s, special finishes, carvings and all kinds of neat little space-saving features in the kitchen. I incorporate the handmade and custom touches, the things that usually find their way into high-end jobs."
Wells also says he loves a challenge and having to work through design questions. "For instance, that four-story home is filled with stainless steel appliances. The kitchen features a bar-height island stepping down to a table with seating for the children. The client wanted Shaker-style feet and legs under the two-part island. That was easy enough, but she also wanted them wrapped in stainless steel.
"I went online to research them," he adds. "The little legs under the island weren't a problem, as I have a supplier that constructs metal work for me. The challenge came in finding the Shaker table legs in stainless steel. I probably spent a day-and-a-half checking various resources, then realized I needed to build and wrap them myself."
Wells experimented and came up with a leg that the contractor, architect and, most importantly, the client approved and loved. "The legs were fashioned into a Shaker style using solid maple, then wrapped with stainless steel laminate," he says.
Wells filled the kitchen with other custom touches, with the family in mind. He included a drawer for dishes, with wooden pegs that can be adjusted to the size of the plates. He also installed round, stainless-steel cutlery holders in one low cabinet, accessible to the children so they can help set the table. The owners' collectibles are specially showcased with lighting, and their extensive cookbook library is housed in tall cabinetry.
Keeping Up With Trends
Wells is a big advocate of attending the International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta to stay abreast of new supplies. Not all the innovations he sees are embraced by his clients, but he has successfully introduced them to the Blum Tandem drawers with self-close.
"That's a popular feature, especially in a home with four children," Wells says.
"I need something to set me apart, because I can't keep up with a shop that has high production," he adds. "Early on, through reading CWB and other publications, I realized I needed to find a niche in the market that I could fulfill better than anyone else. One of the areas that helps me achieve this is that I pay attention to trends and forecasts and keep pace with what's new in the market. Oftentimes I am aware of trends before they have made it to our part of the country. I like to suggest things like the Mepla-Alfit soft-close hinge to clients. I believe that by incorporating adjustable features I can offer my clients a truly personalized kitchen."
Perhaps his most favorite recent project was for the home of a Harley-Davidson distributor. Wells was able to subtly pay homage to famous American motorcycles in a luxurious kitchen filled with custom touches, like an island featuring hard maple panels and large corbels, designed to help support the granite countertops. The island includes a double appliance lift with electrical outlets inside the cabinetry, so that the appliances can be plugged in at all times. In addition, warming drawers were built, plus a large drawer sized for use now, but large enough to accommodate a second dishwasher if the client chooses to add one later.
A computer center features a pull-out keyboard shelf and a solid maple vent for the CPU. A Viking side-by-side refrigerator has lid stay hinges, which allow the doors to stay open in any angled position.
Wells raised the existing dishwasher approximately 6 inches to better accommodate the height of his client. The upper wall cabinets to the left and right of the sink feature seeded glass. The right cabinet contains a cutlery drawer with solid wood dividers. On either side of a Viking range, Wells designed and built special pull-out storage for baking sheets and a spice rack in solid maple.
Other accents include edge-beaded fluted columns at the sink, and appliquÃÆÃÆÃâÃÂ©s and fluted columns on the range hood, which is decorated with grape corbels and edge beading. The range hood mantel was custom cove-cut on a cabinet saw from hard maple. The pantry has a cabinet with three tiers of adjustable shelves, and the top has two rotating, double-level lazy Susans.
Another recent project was a Wells family event. "We built a kitchen for a couple who wanted an island randomly tiled with floral tiles," Wells says. "Joy suggested a backsplash using a mural painted with colors drawn from the tiles. My eldest daughter is an artist, and she painted a bouquet on tiles, which was incorporated into the backsplash. It was very simple, but beautiful."
As a custom woodworker, Wells uses a variety of materials and species. He has seen maple overtake oak in popularity in his area, but he also has worked with exotics like masarunduba, a cousin to ipe, in a lavatory remodel. "It is an incredibly hard wood, and I told Joy to please remind me never to work with it again," he says. The countertop he made from the wood, however, was a big hit with the client.
In addition to kitchens, Wells has built mantels, tables, chairs, desks and entertainment centers. He enjoys creating furniture but does not think the market can support the kinds of prices he would have to charge for custom furniture. "I am focusing on fine cabinetry rather than making one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture," he says.
"I originally began woodworking by performing all sorts of construction around the house," Wells says. "I remember being so proud of my first machines, a metal table mounted with a circular saw underneath to create a table saw."
Wells has expanded considerably since then, and he says he is always on the lookout for good equipment to add to his shop.
The main shop is 30 feet by 36 feet, with an 11-foot by 25-foot paint room featuring an exhaust fan at one end and a filtered opening at the other. Equipment includes a 10-inch Craftsman radial arm saw and Craftsman bandsaw, a Porter-Cable pocket hole cutter and a DeWalt planer. Wells says he is in the market for an industrial-grade planer with a spiral or helical head.
"I believe it would eliminate tearouts when planing maple," he says.
He also has a Platinum Edition 10-inch Delta Unisaw. The shop is outfitted with movable outfeed and infeed tables with galvanized tops that he moves to suit the job at hand. "It is a great way to handle whole sheets of plywood," he says. "Everything is metal, and I keep it waxed so it is real slick. It has helped me efficiently crosscut and rip entire sheets of plywood."
Other machinery includes a Grizzly vacuum dust collector and a Grizzly power feeder that he uses for ripping face-frame stock, plus a Jet edge sander and a Delta 13-hole line boring machine. As for finishing equipment, he uses a Binks pressure pot with Binks HVLP gun.
"I have been using locally manufactured finishes, but am considering a switch to Sherwin-Williams based on information gathered at a previous IWF," he says. "I used oil-based finishes in some of my early projects, but really didn't like the open and dry time. We have some 'monsoon' seasons, and pieces literally take days to dry."
Wells is self-taught with the help of an extensive library. He visits woodworking shows and especially enjoys the workshops. "Joy and I make an anniversary trip built around IWF. It has been a great educational tool for me," he says. "I love that you can actually talk to the person who has invented a system. You can get their card and contact them later if you have questions. I literally walk up and down every aisle and visit every exhibit. I also watch videos and I love doing research. I'm not shy about contacting the experts for information, from glue suppliers to machinery manufacturers."
Wells clearly is always thinking about his work. In addition to spending his wedding anniversaries at IWF, he and Joy recently went on a trip to Asheville, NC, and visited an area where high-end custom furniture was being sold.
"I looked at one beautiful rocking chair made from mahogany, cherry and walnut. It was the most comfortable chair I had ever sat in," Wells says. "I was admiring the inlay and pegs and I thought if I were going to build this, I would have to charge around $3,000. I flipped the price tag and was gratified to see that the artist was charging $2,995. I guess the point of all that is that making that kind of furniture might be great, but for my area it isn't in demand. I've found my niche, and am happy building 'true' custom cabinetry."
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