Opportunity Knocks and the Door Opens for Sindelar Fine Woodworking
This Michigan shop’s eye-catching millwork brought referrals and expansion into a new high-end market.
From the sand dunes and forests of southwestern Michigan to luxurious high rise-buildings on the other side of Lake Michigan is about 90 miles, as the crow flies. But it was an easy leap for John Sindelar, president of Sindelar Fine Woodworking in Edwardsburg, MI. Referrals from satisfied customers were the springboard for his successful move into the high-end Chicago market across the water from his shop.
Sindelar learned the woodworking trade as a youth in Berrien Springs, MI, at the side of his father, a building contractor. Eventually, his desire to build fine cabinetry led the young man away from housebuilding and into his own business. Sindelar Fine Woodworking was established in 1977 in nearby Eau Claire, MI, and later moved to Edwardsburg.
As his first professional projects, Sindelar built architectural woodworking for custom homes and auto dealerships in southwestern Michigan. In the early 1980s, not more than five or six shops in the area were involved in the kind of high-end work he was doing, he recalls. His company’s reputation grew rapidly.
Within the next 10 years, the shop graduated to what Sindelar calls “higher high-end” woodworking in Chicago’s Gold Coast area. He says that fabrication and installation of custom woodwork for a single condominium unit in that area typically totals about $400,000.
It was Sindelar’s work on the reconstruction of the former Playboy Mansion in Chicago into condos in 1996 that actually was the “knock on the door” for his company, Sindelar says. The impressive millwork furnished in all six units caught the eyes of architects, interior designers and general contractors. Word of mouth led to so many referrals that the company now bids most of its work in the Chicago area. Sindelar Fine Woodworking frequently teams up with L.R. Development Co., a well-known North Michigan Ave. contractor.
Recently, in the 18-story Mayfair Building, near the Drake Hotel, Sindelar Fine Woodworking provided interiors on seven floors, as well as a beautiful inlaid reception desk. The company furnished paneled walls, window seats, bars, bookcases, offices, cabinetry, doors and trim for a dozen luxury units. The clients preferred cherry, anigre or maple for those jobs, and each unit varied in design.
Although Sindelar continues to work in metropolitan buildings being renovated or remodeled, he categorizes it as new construction because he starts at the studs or bare walls. For out-of-town projects, he measures the job on location, settling design and contractual details while he is there. Millwork is manufactured and finished in his 30,000-square-foot Edwardsburg facility, then shipped to the site for installation by union carpenters. “We have a good group of finish carpenters in Chicago who like to work for us,” he says.
Even while those “higher high-end” jobs were underway, Sindelar says there was another knock on his door — literally — that provided further opportunity.
Another Edwardsburg firm, Georgie Boy Mfg. Inc., which builds motor homes and recreational vehicles, was having difficulties with a component supplier. “One day, the owner knocked on my door and asked me to take over the job of furnishing all the cabinetry and woodworking,” Sindelar says. “That kind of bread-and-butter job is good training for my people before they go on to higher-end architectural woodworking.”
The shop employs six full-time woodworkers, of whom four are women. Although everyone can operate any piece of machinery, Sindelar says, he prefers that women take care of finish sanding and inspection because “they have a fine eye for details.”
Shop machinery includes an Onsrud router, veneer vacuum press, Griggio panel saw, SAC widebelt sander, Sicar five-head moulder, three Delta RS 15 saber saws, Mattison edgebander, 26-inch Buss planer and a Belsaw planer. Other equipment includes a Holz-Her case clamp, a Samco stroke sander, Alexander Dodd’s dovetail machine, Blum and Grass hinge presses, and a shop-built tenoner.
Sindelar has a somewhat unusual system for assigning jobs in his shop. He puts up a schedule of projects, listing what has to be done, but doesn’t select employees for any particular task. “I don’t delegate. They pick,” he says. The shop operates on a 40-hour flex schedule with employees managing their own time. They come or leave whenever they like, as long as they work 40 hours, he says. He credits this flexibility for his low turnover in employees.
Current projects call for furnishing oak podiums and the altar for a South Bend, IN, church and interiors for a Hyde Park, IL, condominium building. Sindelar says he finds bookcases and kitchens to be the most profitable type of assignment. But his favorite tasks, and the most fun, are inlay and marquetry. He takes them on to help keep his sanity, he says. “The harder the design, the better I like it,” he adds.
Elevators and reception desks show his artistic skill, as does the home of one of Sindelar’s own suppliers, Keith Butus, owner of Wood Parts Int’l., Elkhart, IN. Sindelar built the stairway for Butus’ home in three parts, then created a brass and fiddleback maple compass inlay for the landing.
Kitchen cabinets are bird’s-eye maple and fiddleback maple, enhanced with a purchased rope moulding detail. Sindelar Fine Woodworking manufactured all the custom cabinetry and trim for the home and built Mission-style tables for dining and occasional use.
The project uses some unusual wood species. Exterior doors are 3-inch solid sucupira preta, with jambs 112 inches thick, Sindelar says. Exterior walls are mahogany, and floors are ipe. This assignment came about because Sindelar had been buying lumber and veneer from Wood Parts for 20 years, he says.
“While delivering to us, the owner had watched some of our work in progress and liked what he saw,” Sindelar says. Then opportunity knocked again. “I guess we were the first woodworkers he thought of when he decided to build a spectacular home.”
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