With super-size TVs and new technology, the challenge for custom woodworkers like Brian Haughey is to design and build appropriate casework to house residential media centers. Click here to see Web exclusive pictures from BH Woodworking.

Haughey built this media center with LB Interior Design using maple and contrasting stains. Photo by John Hanson.

The entertainment center in homes is often the center of the universe where the family gathers to watch television, listen to music or even do homework on a computer. With the advent of big screen plasma TVs, and complex stereo and surround-sound home theater systems, the woodworker who builds the casework to house this equipment faces a unique set of challenges. These cabinets often must fit unusual nooks and spaces and be measured to fit the equipment they are housing. Customers may also ask for unique features, such as additional storage, hidden components (like the TV screen itself) a computer area or purely aesthetic elements, making each unit a truly custom piece and requiring all the hurdles and extra thought processes involved in bringing such designs to life. Brian Haughley of BH Woodworking in McHenry, IL (www.bhwoodworking.com) has developed a successful niche by focusing on building custom entertainment centers.

Working alone out of a meticulously clean and organized 1,800-square-foot shop, Haughey creates casework in a wide range of styles, from traditional to modern. “Sometimes they look like entertainment centers; sometimes they don’t,” he says. “They are all hybrids.”

One case in point is an entertainment center built in an odd-shaped nook that features a laptop station and file cabinets. Another unusual job featured a TV screen that came out of the side of a bathroom cabinet, so the customer could watch TV in the bathtub.

“That was a challenge, because structurally the cabinet had to have no side,” he says, “and yet still have a functioning front door.”

Uneven walls, tight spaces and especially stone fireplaces are other obstacles to overcome.

“I just always assume the walls are crooked,” Haughey says. “I use a hand-held Leica laser to measure distances. And with stone fireplaces, you come in after the fact and you have to scribe to the fireplace. I don’t care who you are, that is difficult.”

Haughey does no advertising, yet has annual sales in the $100,000 to $150,000 range, strictly from word-of-mouth. His jobs are generally in the north and western suburbs of Chicago, and he says he can trace all of his business back to work he did 10 years ago in a townhome complex in the city. His customers were then young married couples. When they started families and moved up to bigger homes, they remembered Haughey’s work and called on him again.

Additionally, through one of these clients, he was introduced to a designer who, in turn, introduced Haughey to another designer. Between former clients, referrals and his design contacts, Haughey has kept busy for the last decade, averaging a new job every couple of months.

Click above to see Haughey give a walkthrough of a project currently in progress.

One-Man Band

Haughey started out building furniture on weekends, before working in refinishing and for a production cabinet shop. Striking out on his own, he spent nine years in a leaky barn before moving to his current location. He has no employees and handles every job himself from start to finish.

“Some people are good at managing people,” he explains. “Some are meant to be tucked away in a woodshop. I am the latter.”

Haughey does all his own estimating, accounting, sales, ordering, building, finishing and even installing, and says the main challenge as a one man shop is time management.

“I am always torn,” he says, “because when I’m working in the shop, I probably need to be in the computer room doing a design or doing an estimate, but I want to be in here. And then when I finally switch and I’m in there on the computer, I know I need to be out here. I’m always tortured that I should be doing something else. I’m not someone who can spend two hours a day in the office. When I get in the workshop, I go nuts for days, and then I’ll go back to the office in a panic. Time management and wearing multiple hats is the biggest challenge.

“But,” he adds, “having deadlines is great motivator.”

Although he does draw his designs on the computer, puts his cutlist into a self-designed Excel spreadsheet, uses optimizing software and prints diagrams and part tags, Haughey’s shop setup is fairly basic. It consists of a table saw with homemade slider, old Rockler router table, planer, chop saw, custom-built spray booth, dust collection and a hand-held iron for edgebanding. He uses Confirmat screw assembly, which he says is AWI-compliant, and gives him the advantage that he can take apart the cabinets and put them back together without anything slipping.

Haughey says he uses very little veneer and only a few exotic woods, such as crotch mahogany. He sticks mostly with domestic woods such as cherry, maple or walnut and paint grade woods such as poplar and soft maple for painted cabinet finishes. He also says that rift cut white oak seems to be a hot wood choice right now.

Entertainment centers can be both decorative and practical.

The woodworker says he has not had any requests for “green” material as of yet, but that he has been researching it and can offer it upon customer request. He also minimizes waste by donating his scraps to a local Boy Scout troop for them to use in woodworking projects.

He says he tries to avoid getting involved with the electronics part of the entertainment system, due to the complexities involved, but that he has had to, rather reluctantly, become knowledgeable in the area in order the assist his customers.

TV lifts are another hot option that Haughey has usually not been requested to include yet, perhaps due to price. However, he does note a trend of returning to the traditional entertainment center look, which often ironically includes building a false wall behind the flat screen TV to bring it out further and provide a hidden wire chase. Haughey says his customers seem to be going away from the look where the flat screen is simply hung on the wall with wires trailing below.

Haughey also builds bookcases, garage cabinetry and some kitchen and bathroom cabinetry. He also says that “the most helpful organization solution for families with children he can provide is customized mudroom cabinetry.”

A job that offers up different challenges every day, membership in a cooperative organization like the Cabinet Makers Assn. and working closely with clients and designers to produce exactly what they want, keeps new father Haughey happy with his career choice, solitary as it is.

“Each project is different,” he says. “When you are sanding 100 pieces, it’s not that enjoyable, but the finished product is right around the corner. When I’m done with a job and get to step back with the customer and look at it, that’s the best part.”

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