Homebuilder-turned-woodworker Peter Singer is happy he switched gears.

One morning 20 years ago, custom homebuilder Peter Singer and an architect were waiting impatiently for a tardy cabinetmaker to arrive at a Chapel Hill, NC, construction site.

The house was to be the retirement home of University of North Carolina President William Friday and his wife. Mrs. Friday was being assisted in her decorating by the widow of well-known swing band leader Kay Kyser.

Singer and the architect waited and waited. Then Singer, a carpenter since his boyhood in New Jersey, had a revelation. “Why don't I just make the stuff instead of waiting on somebody else?” he asked himself.

He left that cabinet project to the original cabinetmaker, who eventually arrived, but he got busy doing the other woodworking at the house — a built-in TV cabinet and a bed headboard. And he kept at woodworking, leaving homebuilding far behind. With the help of his wife, Debra, vice-president in charge of finance, he started Northside Cabinets in Hillsborough, NC, and grew it into a $2 million architectural millwork company. Since then, the company has been responsible for doing the interiors of some of the most high-profile buildings in North Carolina’s Triangle area around Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

Singer says he has never regretted his impromptu career switch. “The control is so much better, and the frustration disappears,” he says. “If you are a house builder, somebody you don’t know can not show up and compromise your whole day.”

Northside designs, builds and installs architectural millwork packages. Its high-profile projects include the new Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; the Bridger Field House at Wake Forest University’s Groves Stadium; Duke University’s field house, The Yoh Center; Winston-Salem State University’s Athletics Hall of Fame; and medical and hospital facilities, including Duke’s pediatric dentistry clinic and the pediatric emergency room for Wake Medical Center in Raleigh.

Laminates and Corian in curved and rounded shapes help give Duke University’s pediatric dental clinic a playful look. Photo by Kenneth Daniels.

Northside Cabinets

Hillsborough, NC

Year Founded: 1986

Employees: 13

Shop Size: 11,000 sq. ft.

FYI: Owner Peter Singer has eight children and says he especially enjoyed working on projects for several local pediatric hospitals and clinics.

Corporate jobs include a series of showrooms for Raleigh-based Leith auto dealerships and the corporate offices of Cardinal State Bank in Durham and Beyond Fitness, a Raleigh-based chain of fitness centers. The company also does historic preservation renovations, including one at the 161-year-old Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough.

Singer, who with Debra has six children and has adopted two more, says he really enjoys the pediatric projects. In Wake Medical’s pediatric emergency room, he says, “They wanted it lively and fun for the children. It was laminates and Corian solid surfacing. Some of the Corian was thermoformed. It was curved and rounded, sort of playful lines.”

Northside, which has its own oven for thermoforming, works in solid wood and veneers, metals, laminates, Plexiglas and solid surface. “We’re not that prissy (that) we’ll only do this or that,” Singer says.

The company depends strictly on word-of-mouth for clients. “Our entire advertising budget is less than a penny,” Singer says. He thinks Northside’s work speaks for itself.

The work spoke to the president of Winston-Salem State University when he walked through the glass and cherry Athletics Hall of Fame in Wake Forest University’s Bridger Field House in Winston-Salem. He hired Northside for his own school’s hall of fame.

The WFU field house, a center for socializing by alumni, university officials and friends, as well as a dressing area for players, uses a variety of materials, including glass, Plexiglas, cherry and oak. Cherry wainscoting decorates the banquet hall that overlooks Groves Stadium.

“We did lockers, windows, handrails, a big package,” Singer remembers. At Winston-Salem State, he used glass and laminates in the C.E. Gaines Center, named for famed basketball coach Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines. For a display case, he says, “I used curved glass. That was a lot of fun.”

Easygoing but Responsive Service

There were few architectural millworkers in the Triangle when Singer started, and clients often had to wait their turn for those few. He was determined to be exceptionally accessible, flexible and easy to work with.

“My approach was to be as responsive to the needs of customers as I could be,” Singer says. “Most of these needs are similar, but there are differences, subtle though they may be. I try to go in there and listen.”

Architects and homebuilders appreciate that he tries to avoid struggles and not be a roadblock, he says. “It goes back to service.” Their reaction? “ ‘Ah, he understands,’” Singer says.

When Northside has to integrate its work with that of other trades, like plumbing and electricity, his broad-based knowledge acquired in homebuilding “allows us to make comfortable transitions,” he says.

Northside’s 11,000-square-foot brick building was the first built in a business center on the outskirts of Hillsborough. The shop is 9,000 square feet, and equipment includes: Altendorf and Griggio sliding table saws, Holz-Her Triathlon 300 edgebander, Timesavers sander, General International mortiser, Omal hinge inserter, Extrema shaper with a Maggi power feed, and Unitronex shaper.

Northside does much of its own finishing and installation, using DeVilbiss hand-held spray guns and conversion varnishes and vinyl sealers from Chemcraft. Sharing management duties with Singer in the 13-employee company are Alisa Burgess, office manager; Andy Whitson, senior project manager, and Bill Hull, shop manager.

When Singer made the switch to woodworking, he already knew the basics, he says, partly from watching a family friend build long benches so that Singer and his nine brothers and sisters could sit at the same dining table. That was in New Jersey, where his firefighter father had ensconced the family in a 100-year-old, five-story Victorian home that frequently needed repairs. “I worked on it growing up,” remembers Singer, now 50.

Since his early years with Northside, his role has changed from hands-on woodworking to business-related duties. “Mainly, I price, design and coach,” he says.

The coaching comes naturally. Singer coached his children’s basketball, baseball and softball teams in recreational leagues for years. Two years in a row, his YBOA (Youth Basketball of America ) team of 11- and 12-year-olds won the state championship.

Lessons learned on the sidelines carry over into woodworking, he says, and he is a demanding coach in both arenas. He tells his players to set a primary focus. “I would like you to work on low defensive posture, moving laterally to block the man in front of you,” he says, as an example.

In the shop, he will tell an employee, “Here’s a job. Here’s your paperwork, your cut list. I want you to analyze as you go through it how efficient you are in moving from one step to the next. That will be your focus as you do it.”

His father Harry Singer, a Purple Heart recipient and retired firefighter, told him, “Never just work,” he says. “Always think as you work and work as you think. If you do not, you are not evolving and really not living.”

Singer has found that he really likes design. “The pleasure to me is creating an environment for customers that is exclusive,” he says.For instance, a column for a Cardinal State Bank project leans against the wall in his office, its multi-layered moulding adding to the impression of height. He calls it “modern Shaker.”

“It is very nice, but not overdone,” Singer says. “I didn’t want to be showy.” It is one of several birch and poplar cherry-stained columns that will flank a series of interior doors. The columns, wood panels, desks and trim are all in the same simple vein. “We tried to do something that was dignified,” he says, adding, “At the same time, we didn’t want it to be straight traditional work. We wanted it to have some personality.”

At the Leith auto dealerships, on the other hand, the largely-laminate showrooms are “tech-y, modern and cool.”

“We are flexible,” Singer emphasizes. “We go with the flow. That makes it interesting.”

That matters to Singer, who believes Northside probably could make a lot more money if it didn’t take on such varied projects. But, he says, “I like to do a lot of different things.”

Laminates and Corian in curved and rounded shapes help give Duke University’s pediatric dental clinic a playful look. Photo by Kenneth Daniels “Tech-y, modern and cool” is how Peter Singer describes the millwork for a series of Leith auto dealerships in Raleigh, NC.

                                                       Photo by Kenneth Daniels
Northside Cabinets owner Peter Singer designed these columns with layers of moulding to give an illusion of height for a bank’s interior. Bill Hull operates the Holz-Her edgebander.

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