Segmenting With Certitude

The old adage, ‘the acorn does not fall far from the tree,’ certainly held true for the Rogers family when craftsman John Rogers decided to branch off from his father’s restoration furniture business to pursue his own custom cabinet making dream.

By Lisa Whitcomb

Old Dominion Woodworks Inc.

South Boston, VA

Year Founded: 1998

Employees: 4-full-time, 2 part-time

Shop Size: 9,200 square feet

FYI: Worked on the home of this year's Daytona 500 winner, Ward Burton.

• Clara Rogers, Rogers' mother, serves as the company's vice president.


John Rogers first learned about woodworking while still a boy in junior high school. The skills and knowledge he acquired during that time proved beneficial when his father decided to give up farming to purchase an existing woodworking business, Clarks Reproduction Furniture, 15 years ago. “I caught on to woodworking pretty quick by working with my dad. I’ve always enjoyed working with wood and using my hands and my mind.” For many years Rogers worked diligently by his father’s side mastering his talents as a woodworker while he crafted each furniture piece. But as time passed, the task of making reproductions became mundane to him. “The company was known for a certain style, and we really couldn’t deviate or expand from that point,” he says.

Rogers began dreaming of building a business of his own where he could focus on unique custom-built cabinetry and other types of ornate millwork. Rogers says he was drawn to this type of woodworking because of the level of creativity involved, and the fact that the design potentials were not limiting like they were in reproduction furniture work. “I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. [I wanted to] make a name for myself rather than rely on my father’s company’s name and reputation,“ he recalls. In 1998 Old Dominion Woodworks Inc. was formed. At the time, with start-up costs being so high, Rogers made the sound business decision to utilize his father’s facility and machines as equitable resources. “The set-up costs were [and still are] too expensive to go out on my own. Besides, you can’t beat a helping hand,” he jokes. Today, both father and son operate their businesses successfully from the same location in South Boston, VA.

Fluting, corbels and beaded insets give high-end cabinets a “finished” furniture look. Photo courtesy of Bruce Wilkins, Studio East Photography.  

Creating a niche where there is no likely demand

Unlike other custom millwork and cabinet shops around the nation, Rogers says there is no real market locally for his high-end millwork and one-of-a-kind kitchens because the area around the shop is rural and financially depressed due in large part to the loss of jobs in the tobacco, textile, furniture and lumber industries. However, the business was built slowly with perseverance and patience. “It took a long time, but I eventually built up a clientele base through referrals and with architects and designers,” he says.

Currently Rogers services a 150-mile radius that spans both Virginia and North Carolina. His work is entirely residential for an upper-middle class to wealthy clientele. “They are not typically your first-time homeowners. They are usually people who have gone through the process before and know exactly what they want. I have people come in to see me with notebooks full of ideas,” he says, laughing.

Rogers says the shop’s first big break came when Old Dominion worked on NASCAR driver Ward Burton’s home. “At first Burton’s architect hesitated about using us because we are from such a small town. But Burton and his builder Jimmy Cliborne insisted that the architect use as much local talent as possible,” says Rogers. “Since then, I have developed an ongoing working relationship with the architect.” Prior to this job, Rogers had been doing smaller jobs but says, “The Burton project created a lot of opportunities for me. I was making cabinets, but I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do [before this].” Additionally, he says he was competing with a number of other shops in the area for what little mid-level cabinetry business there was. “The bottom line around here is that people take on any job, it seems, just so they have something to do,” he says.

Rogers never says no to doing something new. “I’ve always wanted to do better than just average. The bigger the challenge the better. That [philosophy] has helped us stay a step ahead of our competitors,” he says. “A lot of people are set in their ways and they won’t try to create anything new. They don’t care to satisfy their customers’ needs and wants and that is something that we try to do. We try to give customers exactly what they want,” he adds.

Backlogged projects, even with today’s economy

Even with the recession in full swing, Rogers says he has seen no slowdown in his business. “We are doing great. Right now I have a 10-month backlog in the shop,” he says. In a ratio of 50/50, the shop constructs its face-frame cabinetry for new homes first and remodeling jobs second. This is because new builds are usually on a much tighter schedule, Rogers adds. The shop does not advertise because all business is procured through word of mouth and repeat clientele.

Cherry and maple solids and veneers are what’s hot in high-end southern kitchens these days. “Last year cherry was chosen by homeowners most often. This year it looks like maple is the most popular, so far,” he notes. Rogers, who does all of the finishing, says that he is seeing a surge in the use of glazes instead of ordinary stains. “On just about every job we did last year we applied a glaze,” he adds. On cherry, people are choosing to use a VanDyke brown tinted glaze or sometimes a fruitwood glaze applied to painted surfaces because it gives the wood a dark shading, which adds depth to the color, something that cannot be achieved with stain alone. A Dover white glaze is used on maple most often because of its translucent quality. Rogers works with his customers on the color and provides a sample of the stain and wood chosen, “so they know exactly what they are getting.

Glazed cherry kitchens, like this one, with mitered corners, appliques, feet and decorative mouldings are extremely popular with homeowners right now, says John Rogers. Photos courtesy of Kenneth J. Martin.

“People really want [their cabinetry] to look like a piece of furniture rather than a standard cabinet style,” Rogers says. To accomplish this, Old Dominion Woodworks uses a lot of corbels, turnings, feet, and crown mouldings on its cabinetry. The shop makes all of its own mouldings and turnings except for corbels and dentil mouldings, which purchases from Hafele America. Fashionable high-end kitchens are also getting away from what Rogers calls “double-duty cabinetry,” which is pull-out shelves and drawers behind doors. “I try to tell the customers the disadvantages of double-duty cabinetry. It takes an undue toll on the cabinet doors if the clients aren’t extremely careful,” he says. “Most people have gone away from shelves that pull out and have gone back to stacked drawers.”

Homeowners are also opting for stepped up and stepped out cabinetry. “We try to give the client a deeper cabinet, so the sink is not against the wall. We don’t necessarily use a 24-inch box. Instead we use 24 inches to 27 inches deep on the bottom, and 12 to 15 inches deep in the top,” he says. Just about all of the appliances in the kitchen have panels on them, and Rogers says he gets a lot of requests for pantries that pull out. Other popular features include bowed cabinets; stone, cultured marble and solid surface tops; rope mouldings, wine racks and leaded glass.

Production – one project at a time

Rogers says he hand draws and uses KCDw’s software when designing kitchens. “I like to use the software for straight-line cabinetry and for giving my clients a rendition beforehand that shows them what they will be getting. However, I prefer to draw all radiuses and ornate work by hand.” The shop generally works on only one project at a time, a practice which has made the shop known for its truly custom quality and craftsmanship. “We don’t try to get involved with two or three projects at a time. This helps everyone involved [with the current project] stay focused on the different setups for that job,” says Rogers.

While much of the sanding is done by hand, all of the pieces are machined first. The newest pieces of equipment in the shop are a Hendrick Pro-V vertical panel saw, and a three-year-old SCMI Superset 23 moulder, a machine which Rogers says has “really helped with the tolerances, and the parts being machined are free of defects.” The shop grinds all of its own knives for the machine. Rogers believes this makes Old Dominion Woodworks stand out over other shops in the area because it can create any custom profile that a customer wants. In addition to the moulder and the panel saw, the shop houses other machines, including an SCMI Toolset 20 grinder, a Delta 24-inch planer, a Powermatic 60 joiner, a Dewalt 16-inch radial arm saw, a Mattison 14-inch straight line rip saw, a Sandingmaster 37-inch wide belt sander, a Woodtec boring machine, an SCMI R8 router, a Williams & Hussey moulder, a Pistorius SC12S miter saw, a Hoffmann MU2 dovetailing machine and a Dustek air cleaning system.

As of late, Rogers says he is seeing a larger demand than ever before for radius work. The shop lays up veneers for use on bowed pieces. Rogers says the shop makes all of its own solid wood door and drawer fronts, and it installs all of its own work regardless of the distance between a project’s final destination and the shop. He uses no melamines at all, constructing drawer boxes from red oak for stain grade and maple or poplar for paint grade. Cabinet boxes are made from 3/4-inch plywood. Full-extension drawer slides from Accuride and Duomatic hinges from Hafele America are used in all kitchen projects. “Our goal is to send a customer home with something that he is proud to own. We strive very hard to go through the materials from beginning to end in order to prevent defects from getting out. Very rarely do we have any problems once a project leaves the shop.”

Rogers has no showroom because each kitchen is unique to its owners. A typical high-end kitchen costs between $40,000 and $55,000. Rogers says the success of a design hinges on a customer’s involvement with the process. “Involve the customer from the beginning, explain the good and bad points about their ideas and let them make their own choices. People will tell you what they want and need out of a cabinet, and how they want it to function. I work with these ideas until I can get as much as possible into the design of the kitchen,” he says. If he runs into design problems while trying to fulfill requests, then Rogers brings the client back in and works with him until “he’s happy with it,” he adds.

Passing on traditions through apprenticeship

Rogers says he has no plans on moving away from his current location, because he does not limit the physical area in which he will service his clientele. “I would like to continue working on unique high-end cabinetry and millwork projects. I hope to see them continue to be challenging in terms of their design, finishes requested and construction,” he says. “That is the biggest joy [of custom high-end kitchens]. No two jobs are alike because everybody wants their own kitchen, and that is a unique thing.”

Rogers also has a young son and daughter who will someday presumably take over his business or expand it in yet another direction, the same way he did with his father’s business. In the meantime, however, “My biggest problem is finding someone eager to learn and who wants to challenge his or her abilities. I find that, for some reason, many people do not want to give 110 percent, and that is the reason why we’ve stayed small,” Rogers says. But staying small has been a good thing because he can keep better control over the projects that go through his shop. “At one time we were working with eight people, and would have two projects running at the same time. It was almost impossible to keep on top of everything and everyone. Now, we have better control from production to installation.”

Finding good employees is a hard task for any custom woodworking shop owner. Rogers says he is actively searching out local woodworking programs in hopes of finding an apprentice. He is looking for a person to whom he can share his knowledge, commitment to quality and love of woodworking with. “I’ve talked with the local high schools about it, and they are helping me to look for the right person for this position, someone who will learn the trade and stick with me for the long term. Someone who enjoys the craft as much as I do.”

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