Quality, First and Foremost

John Noel and his employees at Noel Designs in Kansas City, MO, work as hard during pre-production as they do during production to ensure the highest possible quality in their woodwork.

By Sam Gazdziak

Noel Designs Inc.

Kansas City, MO


Year Founded: 1980

Employees: 25

Shop Size: 23,000 square feet

FYI: John Noel came to Kansas City in 1975 to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute. Noel Designs was originally started as a part-time business.


John Noel may have started his woodworking career as a residential furniture maker, but he has found his niche in the commercial world. But no matter the product, he has always run his company, Noel Designs Inc. of Kansas City, MO, as an artisan shop and not just another job shop.

“I’ve been working in this town now for more than 25 years,” he says, “and people know Noel’s name is associated with quality. We’ll hold the customer’s hand through the project to make sure that it comes out all right, because that’s really important to us,” Noel says. “We don’t have a shop full of CNC equipment; we have a shop full of high-quality people who do really high-quality woodwork.”

After starting the company on a part-time basis in 1975, John Noel, brother of CWB columnist Anthony Noel, turned the company into a full-time occupation in 1980. Noel Designs, which has grown to 25 employees, is adept at all aspects of commercial work, including furniture and millwork.

Noel Designs converted this railcar that was once used by Harry Truman into a meeting room for the Kansas City Southern Railroad. The millwork is cherry, and the table has the KCSR logo inlaid on its surface.  

The company’s entry into commercial woodworking came in the form of simple projects, like wood and laminate desks for a Toyota dealership. Gradually, the projects have gotten more intricate. Noel Designs has built several conference tables with the logo of a company or organization featured in the center. One such table was for the Kansas City Southern Railroad headquarters. The KCSR converted a railcar formerly used by Missouri native Harry Truman into a conference room. Noel built the conference table and refitted the interior of the car with cherry millwork.

Noel says that the company has outgrown residential projects. “We’re at our best on the $200,000 and up jobs, where we can really take the time to do a great set of shop drawings and make sure everything is just right before we send it out to the shop to get it built efficiently,” he says. When it does get involved in residential work, it is usually through a commercial project.

Noel did several different projects for Cerner Corp., a medical software and hardware company. It first built some furniture pieces for the company’s headquarters, called the Vision Center, where Cerner’s clients are brought to learn the software. “They wanted to make a good impression, and the Vision Center is their crown jewel,” Noel says. “They wanted to have some nice furniture, and we built three gorgeous round mahogany conference tables with glass tops, plus some consoles, credenzas and a cafeteria.”

Noel also built more than a half-dozen identical furnishings for Cerner’s satellite offices around the country. Those projects led to several additional residential woodworking jobs.

“One of the executives built a 22,000-square-foot home, and we did five rooms in that house,” Noel says. “Another executive had an office complex in his house that he renovated in rosewood, and we did that. They’ve been a good client for us over the years, not only for the corporate work, but also the residential.”

An Artisan Shop

Noel Designs moved into its present location while in the midst of building 150 pieces of furniture for the headquarters of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). “About halfway through the project, we were really running out of space,” Noel recalls.

This conference table was built for the American Academy of Family Physicians. It is 17 feet by 34 feet with an elliptical shape and has a starburst veneer pattern in the center along with the association’s logo carved out of wood.  

After the company moved into the new headquarters, it purchased a neighboring building with a three-bay truck garage. A 10,000-square-foot spanner building was added between the other two buildings when Noel Designs took on two large millwork contracts simultaneously, a library at Central Missouri State University and the headquarters for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. “We’re now in this complex of three separate buildings, and we have about 23,000 square feet of space here,” he says.

Noel Designs spends a lot of time working on shop drawings; Noel even bought a plotter to produce their own drawings, because it was expensive to have an outside company produce them. “We make our shop drawings so extensive that there’s a lot of pages,” he says. “When they come out here [into the shop], it doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation or time wasted.”

The company buys most of its lumber from Paxton Beautiful Woods, and most of the panel products are laid up by either Eggers Industries or Indiana Architectural Plywood. If a project calls for plastic laminate pieces, that work is usually subcontracted to a nearby company, Precision Craft.

Noel Designs employees use a Brandt edgebander from Stiles Machinery, a Lazzari panel saw from Adwood, a Powermatic planer, a Timesavers sander and a Casadei shaper. The newest purchase is a used Wadkin moulder, which the employees are in the process of refurbishing. Finishing is done in a Binks spray booth using Kremlin spray equipment and Campbell-Hesse products.

2003’s Crowning Achievement

In a typical year, Noel Designs works on two or three projects at once. But this year, the bulk of its work has been for one building in the Midtown area of Kansas City. The 24-story building is in the Crown Center, a series of office buildings based around Hallmark Cards. Along with Hallmark’s headquarters, there are several other office buildings. Noel Designs’ work is for the home of the law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon.

Along with the quarter-figured makore lobby paneling for this office building in Overland Park, KS, Noel Designs built a series of display case bases for glassware that was put on display.  

The project consists of 15 floors of partner fronts, all made from quarter-sawn mahogany. Noel Designs is also building some custom furniture, reception desks and a mock courtroom. The company is also making two floors of lobby paneling with quarter-sawn anigre, which is a separate contract from the law firm’s.

Noel Designs actually started working on the Shook project six months before it won the $2.5 million contract. “We were working with the architect to develop specifications and help him value-engineer the project, in the hopes that we would get it,” Noel says. “We started working on the actual physical part of building the project in January of this year.” Most of the initial work was spent making jigs to speed up the preassembly part of the project. It is scheduled to be finished by the end of September.

Noel says that customer service is a big part of his company’s success. “With the Shook job, we’re out there with the superintendent and the carpenters who are installing the job, making sure things are going smoothly,” he explains. “Prior to that we were with the architects and the architectural firm. We spent many hours with them helping to value-engineer the project as well as helping them with design elements.”

For example, the architects on the anigre lobby project did not want bookmatched veneer paneling, because they did not like the striped effect. Noel encouraged them to specify slipmatched paneling instead, and they agreed to it. Noel also encouraged the architects for the Shook project to specify that the panels be hand-tinted.

“We told them they needed to make sure the spec was written for the paneling to be blueprint matched, and if it were blueprint matched, it should be hand-tinted, because you’re going to get variations in color from panel to panel otherwise.” He says that other companies would normally run paneling through a curtain coater, but that would result in a lower quality product.

“Every architect isn’t a millwork expert, so we try to help them out when we can,” Noel says. “We try to give them what their design intent is to the letter. We know when something is not a good idea, and we tell them so. I think they appreciate it, because we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we know what looks good.”

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