Photo courtesy of T.J. Hale Co.

Editor’s Note:
2010 marks the 20th anniversary year of Custom Woodworking Business. The premiere issue of the woodworking magazine featured 10 companies in a special section devoted to “Custom Woodworking Success Stories.” When the 10-year anniversary rolled around, we revisited those companies, finding nine still in business and eight willing to be interviewed. To celebrate the 20th year, we searched them out again, this time finding just three available to be interviewed. In the following article, they discuss their takes on the state of custom woodworking, how things have changed over the past 20 years for themselves and in general, as well as their outlook for 2010.

Ten years ago, T.J. Hale Co. of Menomonee Falls, WI, was described as a “major player in the store fixtures industry.” In 2010, the store fixtures company still is thriving in that market, despite the slow economy. Chairman Jack Hale discusses the influences on his company and the store fixtures industry as a whole.

Hale says one of the biggest changes in the store fixtures niche has been in lead times. “Today, customers seem to want jobs done significantly faster, and they want lower prices. How can this be? Technology has helped us increase our efficiency. We also import selective components and materials from China and elsewhere. The quicker lead times require us to be able to respond, and this can be a competitive advantage.

“Another sign of the ‘new normal’ for our industry has been the demise of many old line woodworking firms. We believe we have to be able to change faster and be more efficient or we will be left behind,” he adds.

“Technological changes, among them CNC equipment and software, have given us the ability to remain competitive despite the loss of craftsmen working in the field,” Hale continues. “Years ago, any of us in this business relied on European craftsman who immigrated to this country. But when they retired, we had to emphasize training and technology to fill the void they had left. The situation was made worse by the fact that our schools had cut vocational training, such as wood shop."

 Kajur Kulp specialized in high-end custom woodwork, like what he did for this private rail car, before he closed his company five years ago. He now enjoys woodworking strictly as a hobby.

“It has been sad to see the demise of high school technical education programs,” he says. “Young people aspiring to join us don’t come to us with the same technical background. We still see young people coming to us with potential, but the stress on budgets has made so many schools cancel their tech curriculum.”

Hale believes there is still a demand for cabinetmakers. “We are fortunate in Wisconsin to have a good work ethic. Programs like WoodLINKs have done much to try to reintroduce tech programs to schools, but not enough school boards have bought into the program yet.”

T.J. Hale works with clients across the country. “We employ 120 to 130 at our peak season. Our work can be somewhat seasonal. Several years ago the company employed 160, but the lower number is more indicative of us working more efficiently with fewer people,” he says.

“In the store fixture industry, change is constant. For retail store interiors, each chain has its distinctive look...and retail is so very competitive that successful retailers must respond to new trends and update their image or they will be left behind,” Hale adds. “Retail has been hit hard in the recession...but we see positive signs that things may be turning around.”

Carr Lumber & Manufacturing Fine Tunes Its Focus
Randy Carr, owner of Carr Lumber & Manufacturing, Bedford Park, IL, traces the roots of the family-owned business back to its founding in 1927 by the original owner, Walter H. Schenk. “When the company went bankrupt in 1932, my grandfather’s brother became the first Carr to own the business,” he says. “After he had a heart attack, my grandfather stepped in to run it and it has been owned by a total of three Carrs over the years.”

When Custom Woodworking Business interviewed Carr about the company in 1999, he said adapting to customer demands was the key to the company’s success. Since then, he has continued to fine-tune that approach.

“We stopped manufacturing industrial crating and packaging six years ago, selling that portion of the business to a former employee,” he says. “We also had been doing specialized construction work, such as wooden bridges and restoration, but decided to focus more on other areas.

“We have added one new market to our mix of work and increased our efforts in another,” he adds. “We do work for testing labs on various wood-based products...We also do heat-treating of wood packages for export. The emerald ash borer made work of this type especially important.

“A ‘new’ product just added to our mix is maple parts that go into electric motors,” he continues. “These date back to the original motor designs in the 1930s and 1940s... I believe we are the only ones still making the wood parts.”

When asked about the changes in his industry niches, Carr said the slow economy has definitely been hard on traditional lumberyards and architectural millwork shops, particularly because of the dramatic slowdown in housing starts around Chicago.

“The shakeout is far from over,” he says. “We got hit when the housing and industrial markets collapsed, but have managed to do well in spite of it. Our large corporate accounts were slow to make their orders. Things got put on hold, but eventually many customers have started back up. All things considered, we had a pretty good finish to the year compared to where it started.”

Carr says he has seen an uptake in business in some areas. But he fears that construction might lag behind the other markers. “I hope I’m wrong, or this could go on for some time” he says.

A Studio Woodworker Shares Lessons Learned
Kajur Kulp closed his Asheville, NC, company, Hardwood Design Inc., which was going strong 10 years ago. But the slow economy had nothing to do with it.
“We focused on high-end custom furniture and cabinetry, and that market was almost immune to the economic slowdown,” he says. Kulp founded the business in 1985 in Charlotte, but later relocated to the mountains near Asheville. Today, no longer in the custom woodworking business, Kulp wants to share what he learned.

“I was like a lot of people in my end of the business. I had my office and shop on the same property as my home,” he says. “In my case, a divorce made it necessary for me to sell all the property. I couldn’t afford to buy out my ex-wife and keep the business. I think people with a shop at home need to know that if life or your family situation changes, having a business at home might leave you with nowhere to go.”

Kulp also would reconsider the product mix of his business. “We focused on complex, high-end work. I think I would have included more production-type work,” he says. “With the work we did, we limited our ability to produce higher volumes. It can be a trap for a woodworker to be involved in very labor-intensive projects.”

Hardwood Design clients were split evenly between commercial and residential. “We made a lot of boardroom tables and furniture,” Kulp says. “We were known for our veneer work and did unusual projects, such as the interior of two privately-owned rail cars.”

Kulp says that he is very impressed with the current state of custom woodworking, however. “There has just been an explosion of talented woodworkers and furniture makers, which offers a wonderful selection for consumers,” he says.

“I’m also impressed with the array of equipment available for custom shops,” he adds. “Technology that was formerly suited only to high-production shops is more affordable and scaled to the needs of a smaller shop.”

Kulp closed his shop some five years ago and is back to doing woodworking as a hobby. “I’ve come full circle,” he says.

He now works for a company that imports and distributes granite and marble slabs and enjoys it. As to his former career, he is sure custom woodworking will survive the ups and downs. “There will always be a demand for quality specialty woodworking,” he says.

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