The Touch O' the Irish

Woodworker Gabriel McKeagney is a fifth-generation artisan from Ireland using CNC technology to impart his sense of European style in southern California's homes.

By Lisa Whitcomb
Tempo Carpentry & Design Inc.

San Juan Capistrano, CA

Year Founded: 1998

Employees: 5

Shop Size: 2,300 square feet

FYI: The company won top honors in 2005 for its reproduction French Buffet entered in the residential furniture category of CWB's Design Portfolio Awards contest. This story can be viewed in our Design Portfolio archives.

Gabriel McKeagney hails from the County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and from five-generations of family members known for their skills in woodwork, blacksmithing and masonry. Having an affinity for wood, art and math, it was an easy decision for Gabriel to leave school at 15 years old to begin his full-time apprenticeship as a master woodworker.

Before coming to the United States in 1992, Gabriel spent years in Ireland building custom furniture and constructing homes before moving to London to specialize in architectural woodwork reproductions for historical homes. So when he arrived in southern California, a place with little architectural history, Gabriel says he was ready to face the challenges of creating woodwork for the sunny desert region.

Initially, Gabriel worked as a freelance finish carpenter/woodworker before opening Tempo Carpentry & Design Inc. in 1998 with his wife Eileen. He says he decided to open the business "after working in those fine homes. I really identified the quality products that people were wanting but couldn't find. I also discovered during this time that I had a real talent for doing detailed work."

In the early years, the operations of Tempo Carpentry & Design were small, so Gabriel worked from his three-car garage while Eileen managed the business part-time from home. In 2000, the couple decided to incorporate, and Eileen left her other office job to work at building the business with Gabriel full time. The business grew quickly and Tempo's operations were moved into its current larger facility in San Juan Capistrano, CA, in 2003.

This ornate kitchen was constructed using French-style components from the Avignon line, which is one of three in the company's new Tempo Collection. A sage glaze with gold undertones was applied to the components.

During these early years, Eileen took on various hats, many of which she still wears today, such as managing the office and creating marketing materials. Gabriel worked on projects, ranging from simple box building to cutting architectural mouldings and hand-carving intricate designs in wood.

Soon it became evident that the shop's forte lie in creating unique and challenging architectural woodwork and designing period reproductions from original masters. So fittingly, Gabriel decided to focus the shop's talents and resources on these niche markets in order to be more profitable. In 2006, the company completely gave up box building, and it outsources all finishing and most installations.

"I realized that it was not profitable for us. Our strengths are in carving originals. We have a great sense of design and engineering. We like to make the firsts, the masters, something really beautiful," Gabriel says.

Adding Production Into a Custom Shop

Using the traditional geometry and strong aesthetics the company is now known for, Gabriel and Eileen recently decided to launch a new line of architectural parts that reflect these qualities.

"In addition to doing many great custom projects, intricate ceilings and carved masterpieces, we wanted to expand the business in a unique way," Eileen says.

This 5-foot tall "Good Friday Cross" was carved for Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano. It touts Romanesque architecture and features bloodwood and purpleheart woods and gold leaf.

The Tempo Collection includes doors, drawer fronts, legs, stiles, aprons and crowns. All are CNC routed from hardwood or MDF. There are three styles: the French Avignon, the Spanish Navarra, and the Italian Tuscan.

Any woodworking shop can purchase components from the collection. "It's a really exciting venture for us," Eileen says. "All the box builders have to do is go into the home, build the boxes, look at our drawings and put the pieces together."

To achieve this type of "mass" production in a small custom shop that specializes in one-offs, the McKeagneys own a Terrco carving machine, Shopbot CNC router, Williams & Hussey moulder, Powermatic tablesaw and a Jet planer and sander. Gabriel says the company is planning to buy another Shopbot CNC router at the end of 2006 to increase its production capabilities, as the Tempo Collection is sold nationally.

"Since we bought our Shopbot CNC router 21?2 years ago, it has allowed us to offer more art to our clients," Gabriel says. "Owning one has been a beneficial change to our business. However, working with technology didn't come easy. Initially the learning curve was tremendous, mainly because our products are so diversified.

"Since we hadn't produced the same project twice, the CNC router had to be reprogrammed everyday. This made it hard for me to find a qualified CNC operator who was willing to change the setup so frequently. After going through five operators, I invited my brother John to come in and run it. John has a degree in law, but he is artistic like me. He self-trained on the machine and loves running it."

Another reason why Gabriel likes having a CNC router in the shop is that it makes it possible to produce labor-intensive pieces more quickly. These pieces are then finished by hand-carver Francisco Martinez.

"The router is like having many machines in one," he adds.

European Style Makes its Mark in Southern California Homes

One of Gabriel's missions as a custom woodworker is to create pieces that are exceptionally artistic and architecturally pure, Eileen says.

Carving a Piece of Personal History

Created in the Celtic oral tradition, Gabriel McKeagney carved this traditional Bard's Chair and Music Stand from mahogany.

When it comes to making traditional Irish furniture, Gabriel McKeagney uses only the finest hardwoods, like mahogany, to carve and craft his heirloom pieces.

"As an immigrant coming here, I had an urge inside me to make some pieces of furniture that are reminiscent of my culture. The pieces in my collection are complex to build. They have allowed me to artistically vent something I needed to get out. Creating these pieces has been part of my immigrant's journey," he says.

Steeped in traditional Irish lore, McKeagney says his furniture pieces celebrate the cultural rebirth of Celtic tradition. "Truly original in their designs and inception, the furniture I've created reflects a deep understanding of Celtic history," McKeagney says.

Working with an innate knowledge of the Book of Kells and the Celtic oral tradition, Irish furniture is attractive to the eye, functional in the home and fascinating to the imagination, he adds.

These Irish furniture pieces and others can be viewed and purchased from Currently, Bard's chairs, music stands, musical Celtic spoons and quaint mushroom table and stool collections are available. McKeagney is presently working on other original designs, including a romantic Celtic bed and a regal Chieftain's chair.

Gabriel works with designers, homebuilders, architects and owners to develop ideas, but he also creates his own designs flavored with different facets of European styling.

"There is very little architectural history in southern California, and I feel that my designs reflect my knowledge of replicating woodwork for historical buildings. The designs and the quality of our work strengthen and reinforce areas in our clients' homes that would otherwise be bland," he says.

During the design process, Gabriel will research wood species and architectural time periods if he is reproducing a design. He then takes digital photos at the home and brings the printouts to his desk. There, he hand draws his initial designs right on the photos to see how the project may look when it is finished. Then he transfers those ideas into AutoCAD with the field dimensions from the home and reproduces the images in ArtCAM.

However, creating original designs is the easy part of the business, Gabriel adds, noting, "Running the business side of things is not as easy. It is hard to find competent woodworkers for the shop. It is also difficult to prepare a bid on a one-off job appropriately. As my production manager Scott Keene will tell you, we have never been too high yet," he laughs.

"It is even harder to get clients to understand the pricing that goes behind good design and beauty. Quality doesn't come cheap," Eileen notes. "Some people do not value the artistry, even though they have the budget. It's frustrating, because of the lack of architectural history in this part of the country. So far the appreciation and longevity are just not there."

However, Gabriel is quick to note with a laugh that he accepts the challenge of educating others about fine woodwork. "I consider myself to be well-rounded enough that I might actually succeed."



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