Family Company Builds Heirloom Furniture

Members of the third and fourth generations of a furniture-making family team up to manufacture custom furniture in North Carolina.

By Hannah Miller

The doorway banner at a small furniture-making company in Morganton, NC, reads “The Robert Bergelin Co.” Underneath, a hand-lettered sign urges, “Please do not let the dog out. She is sneaky — and very fast.”

Bessie the dog, a two-year-old stray, has the run of the factory in a former hosiery mill on East Meeting Street. On a recent day, so did the child of an employee who couldn’t find day care; she napped, then played catch with the dog in the office.

In the 40,000-square-foot shop behind them, Latin music, a favorite of the shop’s workers, can be heard over the whine of machinery.

It’s relaxed, informal and, above all, family. Dad and co-owner Chris Bergelin, a 38-year veteran of furniture designing and building, do design and marketing. Mom and co-owner Marilyn Bergelin keep up with accounts receivable and inspects furniture. (Both are talented at inspecting, Chris Bergelin says. “They can walk into a room and sense if there’s a scratch on a piece of furniture.”)

Son Thad, 27, is in charge of manufacturing, and daughter Jennifer Chaney, 30, lives in another town but oversees the computer operations and graphic design of the company’s Web site (www.rbcfurn.com) and brochures. Some 40 people, 22 of them working in the shop, help them turn out handmade furniture in the company that Chris Bergelin describes as “sort of a hybrid.”

 

     
     
   
  This Mission-style bookcase is in cherry. The Bergelins like simple lines in their furniture designs, which put the focus on the joinery and craftsmanship.  

It is somewhere between the small cabinet shop where one person does everything and the large factory where specialists do everything, he says.

The Bergelins intended to be a completely custom shop when they opened in 1993, but “it took too many ultra-fine woodworkers,” Chris Bergelin says.

They switched to making custom dining room tables, their signature product, and offering customers limited choices of styles and finishes in bedroom, dining room and occasional pieces.

They found the real demand was for quality workmanship. “Custom was a secondary need,” Bergelin says.

Tables, nearly all cherry but some quarter-sawn oak and mahogany, can be any size and a variety of shapes and styles. For customers, “it is like building with Tinkertoys,” Bergelin says. “They are into designing their own tables, basically. They will say, ‘I need to seat 12 people several times a year.’”

Then they will choose from among 14 tabletops, seven aprons, 11 legs and eight pedestals, plus other options like thickness of top and edge detail. The price range for tables is about $1,200 to $4,000.

The company’s brochure lists a selection of the levels of distressing that is available, from “lightly dented” to “just plain wore out,” with the priciest being “wore-out.”

Bedroom furniture has grown through customer demand to comprise at least half the firm’s business. The bedroom furniture, occasional pieces and other dining room pieces come in variations of three simple, clean-lined styles: Arts and Crafts, French and Louis Philippe.

The Bergelins decided “to develop product that was relatively simple to manufacture, putting the focus on the joinery and the craftsmanship as opposed to overpowering design,” Chris Bergelin says.

He personally continues to design ornate furniture for a couple of other manufacturers. But in his own factory, he sticks to simple lines. “There is no place to hide,” he says. “There is only one way to do it if you do simple furniture; that’s the right way.”

There is a lot of inherited pride in the family’s work. The Bergelins are the third and fourth generations of a furniture-making family, and they intend for their handiwork to stay around at least that long.

“It’s fun to talk heirlooms with your customers,” says Bergelin, who attaches tags to each piece saying for whom it was made. One customer last year ordered $30,000 worth of furniture. “When it comes time to disperse the family treasures, each grandchild will get a piece of furniture,” he says.

His grandfather John Bergelin, who immigrated from Finland in 1890, started work in a Michigan furniture factory and subsequently bought it. John’s son Robert, Chris’s father, learned the craft and started his own successful factory, Pine Shops, in the Grand Rapids, MI, area.

By the mid-1960s, Pine Shops had grown too large, Robert Bergelin felt, to train his sons Chris and John as woodworkers. So he started the smaller Robert Bergelin Co. in his home. “My mother (furniture designer Barbara Bergelin) moved the furniture out of the parlor” to make a sanding room, Bergelin says. “Dad used the neighbor’s garage for a finishing room,”

At 16, Chris Bergelin was making boxes to hold string and knives, candleholders, shelves — the usual beginner’s fare. Some are now displayed in his office.

When he graduated from Kendall School of Design in Grand Rapids, he moved to North Carolina and remained there, designing for furniture companies. His brother John went into gold mining in Alaska. The original Robert Bergelin Co. closed after their father retired in the early ’80s.

Seven years ago, Chris’s son Thad, then apprenticing to a high-end North Carolina furnituremaker, said, “Boy, I’d really like to be in manufacturing,” Chris recalls.

The older Bergelin had a shop beside his home where one employee made mockups of his designs. “That was just enough to tempt us to go into manufacturing,” he says. “We had the machines set up.” And, too, he says he had become increasingly disappointed with the quality being turned out by large furniture companies. So the family resurrected the Robert Bergelin Co., specializing in high-quality, handmade furniture.

The factory’s “rough end,” where lumber is selected and the gross cuts are made, has probably the most important production role, according to Bergelin. “Wood selection is so important to what we do,” he says.

 

     
     
   
    This mirror and dresser are in Bergelin’s Louis Philippe style, with slightly more ornamentation than the company’s Arts and Crafts and French-influenced pieces.

He is committed to using renewable species. Within two years, he hopes to be certified under the Forest Stewardship Council program, which means that more than 80 percent of the company’s wood will come from renewable forest resources.

Their furniture features dovetail drawers, produced using a Leigh jig. Drawer bottoms are 14-inch veneer over plywood. Drawers and cases are finished inside and out.

The company recently bought a Weinig Unimat 23E moulder. It is used to make complicated mouldings, like a top rail for a sleigh bed, but also for the mouldings on drawer bottoms.

The company had been spending about $3,000 monthly on mouldings, Bergelin says, and a lot of it ended up in scrap. “Throwing it away was just too painful,” he says, so the Weinig was bought. “We have practically nothing of size going into the dumpster any more.”

All boards used in tables are at least 5 inches wide, partly achieved by using an old-time Porter facer/planer to take the curl and warp out. It’s an extra step, but well worth it, Bergelin says.

A Bosch 1315 hand router on a pivot is used to cut tabletops. “We are only going to cut each table once,” Bergelin says.

All joinery is mortise and tenon, done with a Balestrini tenoner. A Diehl 660 edge jointer is used to tongue and groove panel layups.

Chairs are outsourced, as are premachined squares used in table legs. “We do a lot of hand turnings,” Bergelin says, using a Vega tracer lathe for bed posters and table legs.

Like the company itself, equipment is a hybrid, Bergelin says. Alongside the new machinery, which also includes an Altendorf sliding table saw and a Master ripsaw, there is an old two-spindle horizontal boring machine that is a ringer for one in the furniture museum in Grand Rapids. Bought and electrified by Bergelin’s father, the century-old piece originally operated on a line shaft.

“It wasn’t the guys’ favorite machine to operate,” Bergelin admits, because it wasn’t totally accurate. It got heavy use, however, until a year ago, when the company added a six-spindle Root boring machine.

The company does its own finishing. It has DeVilbiss spray booths equipped with DeVilbiss guns and Aro pumps. The sanding area of the shop is fitted with horizontal low-level lighting, which shows any flaws better than overhead light, Bergelin says.

 

     
     
  Bergelin’s showrooms

“Marketing is always the largest problem of a small shop,” says Chris Bergelin, head of semi-custom furnituremaker The Robert Bergelin Co.

His family-owned company, he says, is blessed to have Hickory Furniture Mart nearby. Bergelin has a 4,000-square-feet showroom in the well-known collection of furniture galleries, allowing prospective customers to see and touch furniture as they decide what to order.

Bergelin’s much smaller High Point, NC, showroom, two blocks from the International Home Furnishings Center, serves the same purpose. It covers 1,200 square feet and, like the showroom in Hickory, it occasionally sells off the floor but is 90 percent dedicated to just taking orders.

Fully 95 percent of Bergelin’s business comes from the showrooms, he says, which operate like “a 9-to-6, six-days-a-week retail store.” The rest is generated through brochures, advertising, word-of-mouth and an Internet site.

The two Bergelin showrooms will soon be joined by another in the Northeast, and then two more, Bergelin hopes. “We are trying to get showrooms over a broad enough area so that if somebody from east of the Mississippi wants to see our furniture, they can get there without driving a day and a half.”

The showrooms carry one of every furniture style Bergelin makes, but not an example of all the options. “There are too many options,” Bergelin says.

“We do not decorate the showrooms, on purpose,” he adds. “The more different our showroom can look from all the others, the more we like it. We want the focus to be on our furniture, not the bedspreads.”

 
     

Each part of each piece is finished individually with an NGR stain, a wash coat, glaze, sealer, one coat of high-solids lacquer and one coat of regular lacquer. Chemical Coatings products are used.

When the company used conventional lacquer, Bergelin says, “We weren’t getting the amount of lacquer on furniture we were happy with.” So it switched to high-solids, which are sprayed in a “clean room.”

Most of the company’s sales are through its showrooms in High Point, NC, and in the Hickory Furniture Mart in Hickory, NC, a collection of some 90 galleries. (See sidebar.)

“The Internet is good to make introductions, but not to sell furniture,” Bergelin says. “Fine furniture is a touchy-feely thing. I don’t know many people who will write a check for $10,000 for a dining room they haven’t seen.”

Yet he sees the Internet as a wonderful tool for the company’s future. “It will allow us to get our name out to people who may be interested in visiting our stores,” he says.

Bergelin says business has grown much faster than the family expected when they began seven years ago.

“It always sounds easy — 'we'll put a few nickels into this,’” he says. Instead, the family found itself working 18-hour days as they rented more and more space.

“It has been fun being together,” he says. “Having three family members working full-time made it possible and bearable.”

They all have different contributions to make, he says. He characterizes himself as the risk-taker, with Marilyn having a “stay-on-point attitude.” Thad tells them what is possible from a manufacturing perspective.

“We all have to be in agreement on everything before we take the next step,” Chris says.

He sees a definite role in the market for small, flexible companies like theirs. “People with money want what they want,” he says. A small company with custom capabilities can give it to them, for example, being able to match a finish or change a headboard, he adds.

“This is meant to be a craft business, not a high-tech business. It takes small shops doing it right to satisfy the market,” he says.

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