Pushing the Limits
Doing the unusual jobs ‘that nobody else wants to do’ is standard fare at Philip Sicola Designs.
By Helen Kuhl
For Philip Sicola, traveling in uncharted waters has been a way of life for the past 35 years or so. That was when he first struck out on his own as a high-end custom furnituremaker in the Los Angeles area and decided that in order to find work, he would have to take on the “impossible” jobs no one else wanted. At first it was a struggle, but ultimately a smart move. Today, Philip Sicola Designs Inc. in Gardena, CA, does $3 million in annual sales and accomplishes some of the most creative work in the industry.
“I thought that I would do everything that nobody else wanted to do and that I wouldn’t have any competition,” Sicola says. “I did it and I was correct. But the reason nobody else wanted to do the stuff I was doing was because it was very hard and almost impossible to make money doing it.
“For example, we did a pop-up TV cabinet in 1968. I had to make all the parts, all the gears; there were no mechanisms to buy back then. I charged $500 for it and it cost me $7,500 to build,” he adds. “I never told the client how much it cost me, so he started ordering more of them. My strategy was that I got other work from him, too. I really thought I would figure out how to break even on the TV lift within a year, but it took me five years. However, it got me started because I got the reputation for doing things nobody else could do.”
Despite the unfortunate pricing of the pop-up TV cabinet, Sicola did manage to stay afloat and grow, with sales doubling each year for many years. One of the fortunate occurrences that helped him was meeting a young designer named Steve Chase when he was just starting out. Chase became quite prominent, and Sicola did work for him all over the world for 25 years, until his death. “I got a lot of experience doing high-end custom work for Steve, and I learned a lot in that period,” Sicola says.
Working with designers or direct with customers, Sicola designs most projects himself. As part of the challenge and creativity involved in custom jobs, he works with many different media besides wood, learning what he needs to know as he progresses. In addition to the more traditional veneer layup and hand-carving, his shop does metal work, glass work, and once it even created an unusual ceiling treatment out of foam, mesh and sand. Sicola has developed unique contoured burl veneer panels, which he incorporated into several projects and, most recently, invented a patent-pending process for doing curved work at a fraction of the time and cost of normal methods (see sidebar for details).
Sicola’s company also was one of the first to use LuminOre, a sprayable composite metal coating that won a Sequoia Award at last year’s AWFS Fair in Anaheim, CA.
“We didn’t know whether it would sell. I had to invest a lot of money to get a license for it and be trained, and I didn’t make any money from it for about two years,” he says. “I had to take the risk of doing it because I was one of the first. But that’s kind of what we do, and that’s the fun part.”
A custom shop ‘on the big side’
“There are a lot of three- to six-person shops doing really good, high-end custom work, but I don’t believe there are many like ours that do so much work at that level,” he says.
Shop equipment includes a Griggio SC 3200E sliding table saw, Holz-Her 1405 edgebander, Striebig Automat vertical panel saw, an Ayen SKB 50 line boring machine and a ShopBot CNC machine with a 4-foot by 8-foot table. Veneering equipment includes a Mayer veneer saw, Joos hot and cold presses and 16 vacuum frame presses.
The finishing department is about 120 feet by 30 feet and includes a spray booth equipped with Binks Mach 1 HVLP sprayers for traditional finishes and a separate 20-foot by 8-foot spray booth for applying LuminOre.
Each shop employee has his own workstation, and each handles a project from start to finish, including installation. “Our employees take a lot of pride in what they build,” Sicola says. “If they know they are going to install it, they build it better and they install it better.”
Every woodworker in the shop is a master cabinetmaker, Sicola adds. While the company does a lot of training, employees also must possess basic skills in order to be hired. As part of the interview process, prospective employees take a written test and build a sample project, all without pay. The project is a simple cabinet, including doors and drawers. “But a good cabinetmaker will have the skills to do it,” Sicola says. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
He adds that half the people who try out leave in the middle of the project, because they realize that they are not skilled enough to make it in the shop. He also says that he gives the written test to identify people who are skilled woodworkers but may not have good verbal skills or speak well during interviews. Sicola says that he has rarely had problems finding skilled help. But he does pay employees “what they are worth” and creates a good working environment in order to retain them.
Having a good workplace atmosphere is not something Sicola himself enjoyed early in his own career. He trained with a master craftsman, E.R. Stewart, in a Los Angeles shop, working part-time while he went to UCLA. “I worked for him for about six years, and I quit four times and he fired me three times during that period,” he says. “He was one of those taskmasters, and he himself had apprenticed for a European cabinetmaker who, as he told the story, had a wooden leg and would take the leg off every Friday and beat him with it.
“My mentor had a very stern attitude about doing cabinetry. But the quality of his work was incredible and I wanted to learn, so I kept my mouth shut,” Sicola adds. “It was an experience.”
Pricing for ‘perceived value’
The idea of pricing on the basis of “perceived value” requires a different mindset for a custom woodworker, Sicola says. “When a cabinetmaker starts his own business, he figures prices by thinking, ‘It will take me 10 hours, I’ll have so much in material, plus a certain percentage of overhead,’ and that’s how he figures the cost. But I don’t. In high-end custom work, what’s important to the client is the perceived value. Money is not an issue. I base my price on what I perceive to be the value of the project, and then I work backwards to figure out what to do to equal this value. That’s how I do all my jobs.
“The perceived value is partly from the client and partly from you,” he continues. “You both agree that something is worth $10,000. It may only cost you $500 to build, or it might cost you $12,000 to build. You have to control your own costs to stay within the budget you create. I have sold things where the actual cost to build them was only 10 percent of the price and I have sold things where the cost was 130 percent. That’s what you call the learning curve.
“Once I realize what the value of a piece is, I won’t come down on the price. However, it does take a little bit of nerve to do that and say, in essence, ‘I really do believe in myself,’” Sicola adds. “And it’s risky. I give prices on a job before I even know how to do it. I’m on the leading edge all the time, and I think pricing is one of the hardest things in this business. I don’t always succeed in making money, but most of the time I do.”
Sicola also says that his standards are very high and he always give his clients the value they expect. “The perceived value has to be real, you can’t just make something up,” he says.
Sicola recognizes that he has been fortunate in finding his level of customers for 30-plus years. He also notes that if he makes a mistake and loses money, he never tells the client because he doesn’t want to lose his credibility and reputation for being able to do anything. He also does not believe in over-charging anyone. “If I don’t think a piece is worth $10,000, for example, I don’t charge that, even if I could get it,” he says. “That would be violating my own value system.”
Despite the risks involved in constantly doing innovative work, Sicola thrives on the creativity required. “I keep thinking that one of these days I’m going to step out too far and fall on my face. And I have, but I pick myself up and do it again. I don’t like failing, but I regard it as learning,” he says. “But I love the work, and I’ve been able to travel all over the world. I never would have been able to do that otherwise.”
Sicola figures that he has built about $85 million worth of custom furniture since he began. “I started out not knowing anything about anything,” he says. “If someone had told me that I would end up with a company like this, I would have said that they were crazy.”
Although innovations are an everyday part of life at Philip Sicola Designs, one particular new development has blossomed into a separate company for its inventor, Philip Sicola.
It began a couple of years ago when the company got a job that had 40 non-radius curved doors, which meant making a separate form for every door — a very time-consuming and expensive operation, Sicola says. “I didn’t want to do that, so I started thinking about it. I thought about it for about three weeks and then, all of a sudden one day I said, ‘I’ve got it.’”
What he “got” was how to develop an infinitely adjustable, re-usable form to create curved panels, which reduces the amount of labor required to make curves by “about 20 times,” Sicola says. He tested his idea by doing three 5-foot by 10-foot non-radius panels that made an “S” curve “and they all came out perfect,” he says.
He went on to apply for a patent for the process and set up a new company, CurveTec, to produce curved panels for other woodworking shops. The company is housed in a small office and production area in one of Sicola Designs’ two buildings. There is a Web site, www.curvetec.com, where potential customers can learn about the service and even place an order.
“We can make curved panels with or without veneer in any shape or size, with no set-up charge and no minimum order requirement,” Sicola says. “We can do true radius, “S” curves and non-true radius curves. Our tolerances are within 1&Mac218;32 inch. Everybody says it sounds too good to be true, but we do it.”
Sicola adds that CurveTec not only is starting to get curved panel orders from other shops across the country, but also gets requests to build the entire curved cabinet because many woodworkers don’t want to do it themselves.
“CurveTec is getting more and more requests for us to build the curved cabinets, too. So CurveTec refers the job to Philip Sicola Designs and we bid on it,” he says.
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