Woodworker Finds the Right Mix of Function and Form
Thom Gall & Co. uses the latest technology and ideas to create its entertainment centers and cabinetry.
By Sam Gazdziak
Through its 36 years of operation, Thom Gall & Co. has stayed involved in both the production and custom side of the woodworking industry.
"When I started my company, we were doing a line of production cabinets," Gall says, "but I was always doing custom woodworking on the side. I always had a spot in the shop that was set up for custom woodworking.
"We do a lot of repetitious stuff like dental laboratories, which is our bread and butter," he adds. "I also have two full-time craftsman that are capable of building anything."
Thom Gall & Co. of Newport Beach, CA, specializes in laboratory benches and workstations. The company also diversifies into building high-end custom yacht interiors and homes, including entertainment centers.
When working on an entertainment center, Gall believes that form follows function. "My experience is that the components almost define what the cabinetry is going to look like, along with the designer and the homeowner," he says. For example, one of his customers had a 100-inch TV along with two other monitors and additional electronics equipment that needed to be housed in a custom unit. In a case like that, Gall says, the components have to be laid out in a certain way that's functional, "and then the form almost just takes place."
Gall finds out exactly what kind of equipment the owner has and builds the center around it, rather than building a cabinet and adapting the equipment to it. One center had a series of electronic components, all operated by one remote control. The company hid all the components behind smoked glass, taking care that none of the cabinetry interfered with the infrared sensors.
Gall also leaves room for equipment expansion. "You can get a system done, then someone will come out with a DVD player that no one has ever heard of, and they toss out their VCR. So the design has to be pretty versatile.
"When I look at the design of some pieces, I've noticed that the woodworker has built around each little piece and tried to custom fit everything," he continues. "I like to see the equipment hidden a little bit."
Work on an entertainment center, from initial planning to installation, can take anywhere from six to eight weeks, Gall says, adding that his design sensibilities generally mesh well with designers' ideas. "The marriage of the two - a designer's ideas and my awareness of functionality - usually comes out with a happy medium."
Gall says he keeps up with new hardware products and incorporates them into his designs. He adds pull-out slides in his entertainment centers, so a component can be easily removed or wires can be accessed. His company was also the first to use the Grass Nova pull-out drawer slide in a kitchen.
"I think that's the most fun part of the business, along with turning out quality work," he says. "I think it's fun to incorporate new products and new techniques and discover new equipment, whether I buy it or not."
Although Gall has always kept an involvement in woodworking, he took a hiatus for five years to do other things. It was new technology, specifically the introduction of European technology and the 32mm system, that got him involved in the business again.
Upon his return to woodworking, he did the interior and, eventually, the exterior, of a 50-foot cigarette boat. "The owner of the boat gave me carte blanche," Gall says. "We walked in and he said, 'I want the whole interior removed. I want it to look like the inside of my house.'" Gall estimates that he does about one yacht interior a year.
One boat project became a bit more challenging than the company expected when the owners bought a 50-inch rear-projection TV for one of the rooms. Unfortunately, the only way to get the TV to the room was down a small spiral staircase. So, Gall & Co. took the TV apart, got it to the room, and reassembled it. "That was really challenging, taking a rear-projection TV apart and then reassembling it without anybody knowing you did it," Gall says. "The room it was going in worked, but it was difficult getting it in. Nobody thought of that."
Thom Gall & Co. has grown to an eight-man shop with 4,000 square feet of space. The company is planning to move to a new shop in the next couple of months that is double the size.
Two of Gall's employees used to run their own shops in the area. Gall initially asked if they would subcontract with him for a couple of projects that he was working on. The projects kept coming in, and both men have since closed their shops and work with Gall full-time now. Thom Gall & Co., which generated $600,000 in sales last year, has about two years' of work lined up already, Gall says.
The company subcontracts as much work as possible on its projects, he adds. It does its own cutting and milling for custom-sized panels but has another company do the cut-to-size panels. Drawer boxes also are made by another company. Gall says that it is cheaper for the company to farm out that kind of work than to buy a piece of CNC machinery.
"The guy up the street maybe charges $120 an hour to do cutting on his saw, but he can cut seven panels at a time, and he's more accurate and can probably do it in a quarter of the time it takes us to cut them," Gall says. "We can spend our time doing the things we need to do, and I don't have to go out and buy a $1 million piece of equipment."
Generally, the company does the planning, ordering of parts, assembling and installing on a project. Employees use a Grass Euro-press for inserting hinges and drilling 32mm holes, as well as Porter-Cable routers and Makita cordless drills. Gall uses Blum and Grass hinges in his products.
Subcontracting parts and cut-to-size chores is a practice that is here to stay, Gall says. There are plenty of woodworkers who are happy to manufacture parts on their CNC machines for shops like his. "To them, that's creative, because they get to create the programs," he says. "I'd just as soon create the list for them and see it all come together. I like to see the projects go from start to finish."
Casework for a dental laboratory in Lake Havasu City, AZ, gave Gall just that opportunity. Gall worked with the architect and designer from designing and planning through installation. "That was really satisfying, because we got to see it go from paper to watching the people walk in, put their stuff down and start working," he says, adding that he was able to talk with the employees to make sure everything worked the way they wanted.
Gall says that work for laboratories is becoming an increasing part of his company's workload. One of the appealing traits of his company is its ability to do quick and clean installations on these production jobs, Gall says.
"We like to come in and hit them hard, dazzle them. We get it all ready, doing as much in the shop as we possibly can, so there's as little custom fitting as possible," he says. "We come in overnight, and we can set up a lot of equipment and workstations and get it all done in record time. 'Plan ahead' is my motto."
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