Cabinetmaker’s Strong Suit Is Versatility
Maryland woodworker Bill Hergenroeder loves to learn new techniques, which gives him a wide variety of skills to incorporate into his work.
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
A desire for a new career led Bill Hergenroeder into woodworking. A passion for marquetry, veneer and inlay work has kept him in the business. “Inspired and passionate” is how he describes his reaction to his work. “I began my working life in healthcare, but decided I would prefer working for myself, working with tools and materials,” he says.
Hergenroeder had worked in construction for summer jobs in high school and college, but he worked as a registered nurse after earning his degree. His first woodworking job was building a bookcase. “The customer was satisfied, I got paid and decided I wanted to explore doing woodworking full-time,” he says.
Hergenroeder made the move to woodworking full-time in 1986 at the age of 35 and says he has never regretted it. “I love the independence of being self-employed. I also love manipulating tools and materials. I could have been just as happy doing glass or ceramics or steel or tin. I love shaping materials into something and using tools to get there.”
His early work consisted of mostly casework orders, what he calls “the big box, pretty-face styles” that earned him a reputation and repeat business. “All along the way I studied with various woodworking experts, and I learned that I liked creating more elegant designs, fine-furniture type designs in addition to the bread-and-butter items, like entertainment centers. I would say a third of what I build each year is designed to hold a television,” he says.
Hergenroeder says home offices are also popular commissions in his market. His clients like painted finishes, as well as cherry and mahogany. “I have talked with other woodworkers who only work in walnut, but it has been 10 years since I worked with walnut,” he says.
He believes in continually honing and adding to his skills. For Hergenroeder, continuing education includes yearly stints at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, IN, and the Olde Mill Cabinet Shoppe in York, PA. He has studied with woodworking experts such as Frank Pollaro, Paul SchÃÆÃÂ¼rch, Marc Adams, Bob Flexner, Frank Klausz, Eli Rios, Don Williams and Ian Kirby.
“I am big on travel and education. I devote time every year to taking classes around the country that will increase my skills and knowledge,” he says. “Attending classes like those offered at Marc Adams’ School is very invigorating to me. The school typically features 35 instructors who offer 60 different one-week classes. That’s where I learned marquetry and inlay. The classes are very focused and concentrate on a particular skill. The hands-on element of learning is very helpful.”
Cabinets, and a new direction
“I made a series of three demi-lune tables featuring various combinations of fine woods and inlay patterns,” he says. “One features sapele with satinwood, with a bellflower inlay and a scallop-design top and mahogany body. Another features makore and rosewood banding, ebony stringing and a mahogany body, while the third is made of freijo for the top with a Carpathian elm burl skirt that features lemonwood and walnut floral motifs and a maple body.”
Hergenroeder modified the height of the tables, making them 36 inches tall, a design he considers more appropriate for today’s larger-scaled homes. “The tables are great examples of what I can do and would like to do. I will be placing the ads in markets in Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington, DC, hoping to attract clients who want fine furniture designs,” he says.
Hergenroeder has enjoyed continuous success over the years. Revenues for this year are up 25 percent over the previous year, he says. He credits several key factors, including repeat customers, work with remodelers, advertising and having built a solid customer base in his community.
“I believe in keeping good communication with clients,” he says. “I gain a customer’s confidence in my ability to do the job by showing him previous work in an ever-expanding portfolio and by talking about ideas, methods and materials. You can gain a client’s trust by supplying a referral list and also by taking the time to answer all his questions.
“For many clients, the largest hurdle is the cost of custom work, but I think most people feel it is well worth the price to get exactly what they want,” he adds. “It is important to tailor a piece to the client, to find out exactly how they plan to use it.”
A recent example of such a piece is a built-in maple bookcase/entertainment center, surrounding a fireplace, which features what Hergenroeder calls “bells and whistles” to fit the customer’s needs — slide-out towers for VCR tapes and other media, speaker cloth, garage doors on top for storage and glass doors to highlight the client’s collectibles.
“I encourage a potential client to visit my shop to see the kind of work I do. People paying for custom work often like to get ‘involved’ in the process,” Hergenroeder says. “I have what I call a ‘show-off wall’ in my shop filled with examples of marquetry and inlay. I tell clients ‘custom’ is when you get exactly what you want. The price tag for a wall system at IKEA might be $1,400, while mine might cost $4,000 to $5,000. But with me, clients know they will be able to participate in the process every step of the way.”
Hergenroeder’s sales average $100,000 annually. He credits his versatility as another factor in his success. “If a client wants a paint-grade piece, I can supply that. But I can also do plastic laminate, fine woodworking with a variety of stains, antique repair, fancy marquetry and commercial as well as residential work,” he says.
An example of his versatility is a wine tasting table, recently built for a Baltimore-based wine seller. “The table, done in canarywood, is notable for its design, construction and the striking wood,” says Hergenroeder. “Brian Thim of Rita St. Clair Associates designed the table, which features curved work for the circular table and legs and has a cut-out middle. Canarywood, a wood similar to tulipwood in color, was a unique choice and part of the design’s success, because it is a very light-colored and festive wood, especially compared with the dark wood you often see in restaurants, bars and wine shops.”
Hergenroeder adds that the curved pieces were an interesting challenge. “Curved work always takes more time. I made a pattern for the pieces. The table was a big hit with the client and designer,” he says.
Another recent commission included a desk and matching bench in striped mahogany ply and solids, designed by Hergenroeder to be used in a condominium lobby. Graceful lines, striking grain pattern, tasteful upholstery and a touch of inlay in the desk gives the pieces a distinctive, custom look, he says.
Hergenroeder calls himself “a big fan” of fine furniture woods, which he puts to beautiful use. For instance, a dramatic-looking wall-mounted table teams plum pudding mahogany with wenge. A built-in dining room server in a curved design combines Carpathian elm burl offset and curly maple borders. Also, if the design calls for it, Hergenroeder will add glass, inlay, gold trim or other accents, and he often mixes a variety of woods.
“I like rosewood, mahogany, sapele, walnut burl, padauk, Carpathian elm burl, makore and wenge, and holly is a nice wood for trim. I use it when I want to accent a darker wood,” he says. “I like to team various woods with accents like mahogany or quilted maple.”
A nice, efficient shop
He shopped for a new scroll saw for veneer work and a new compressor at the recent International Woodworking Machinery and Supply Fair in Atlanta. Hergenroeder says he likes to attend IWF and also subscribes to a number of woodworking periodicals as part of his education process. He says he has amassed a library of about 80 books related to woodworking.
Hergenroeder says some of the most challenging work he does , as well as some of his favorite, is with inlays. “Inlay takes time to do properly. It is intricate and exacting work, but it is a technique you can learn with practice,” he says. “I practice by doing picture frames and boxes. Marquetry or inlay work is slow, because it’s all about making pieces of a puzzle and then putting the puzzle together. Marquetry has been described as ‘painting with wood.’”
As another decorative element, Hergenroeder recently acquired 10 different types of banding from the collection of famed Parisian artist Buffard Freres, which he says is the finest in the world. The banding was offered for sale in a Lee Valley catalog. According to the catalog, the banding had been stored in a Parisian warehouse for half a century, virtually untouched. Of the 8,000 styles that Buffard made in the late 1800s and early 1900s, only about 200 styles remain. The banding can be used for inlay in turnings, small boxes and case goods or for architectural detailing.
Hergenroeder plans to incorporate the bandings in future fine furniture designs and says he loves the link it provides from the past rich history of marquetry. “Buffard Freres’ banding was bandsawn, not sliced, and all the layers are face grain. It’s beautiful work,” he says.
Hergenroeder describes his career in woodworking as an evolutionary process. “I sort of started out pushing a broom in my early construction job days, and now I work full-time for myself and do veneer, marquetry and inlay work. There is a great sense of beauty in woodworking that propels me. I am passionate about learning more and doing more complex designs,” he says.
Hergenroeder’s newest venture will be taking a carving/turning class this fall. “It will be something completely new for me,” he says. “Like I said, continuing education keeps the passion intact.”
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