Keeping It All in the Shop & in the Family

An Alabama shop with deep familial roots is looking to “themselves” for outsourced goods.

By Lisa Whitcomb

     
Van Nostrand Cabinets Inc.

Opelika, AL

Year Founded: 1978

Employees: 23

Shop Size: 10,000 square feet

FYI: The shop developed its most popular distressed finish in 1999 called Beauvoir, a multi-colored glazing process with a “bad” sand job.

 
   
     

In 1978, John Van Nostrand finally had had enough of traveling and being away from his family. So he took on a part-time cabinetmaker position as a favor to a friend and liked it so much that he decided to open his own cabinet shop — Van Nostrand Cabinets Inc. in Opelika, AL. “My children were growing up without me, and I wanted to stay closer to home,” he recalls. “I got tired of traveling all over the southeast for my construction job.”

John’s mother and his son Roger soon joined him. “We started out with four people and a table saw. In the beginning we installed a lot of factory-made cabinets and built a lot of odds-and-ends pieces,” says Roger, who is the company’s vice president.

During the 1981/82 winter, the Van Nostrands stopped installing factory-made cabinets and started making their own cabinetry full-time in an effort to control their costs in a deflating economy. “We decided to build everything that we could so we could hold onto our money longer,” says Roger. “There were only three jobs in town that winter, and we were lucky to have two of them.”

More Than One Path to Profitability

Since the early days, the shop has grown and now occupies a 10,000-square-foot space. Twenty-three people work in the shop, including John, who is president, Roger and Roger’s wife Panthea, who is a certified accountant and does the company’s books. John’s mother has since retired from the business. But he has a six-year-old granddaughter, Abbey, and a nine-year-old grandson, Trey, who spend a lot of time in the shop and are quickly becoming woodworking “aficionados.”

     
 
Roger Van Nostrand says that cabinetry for other rooms in the home is growing in popularity. This corner entertainment/ bookcase unit is made from mahogany and has a red mahogany stain.  
     

“Abbey knows the difference between cherry and oak. She is in the shop everyday and thinks that she is the number-one boss and tells the guys so,” says Roger proudly. He adds that Trey is artistic and equally interested in the goings-on at the shop. “Being a self-employed cabinetmaker makes it a family business. It requires long hours and dedication, so when I have to go to a job site on a week night or the weekend, my family usually comes with me,” he adds.

Gross annual sales for the shop are expected to reach $1.5 million this year. “Our goal is to break $1.5 million and it could possibly happen this year. There is a very good chance,” says Roger. He says that annual sales have steadily been increasing since the 80’s. “We don’t understand all that talk about the economy not doing well. We think that it is just tied to interest rates, because we have not had any downtime since 1986 to talk about,” Roger adds. “We have stayed busy and have had more work that we could produce at times. Our biggest problem is that we cannot produce the work fast enough.”

The shop works in a 100-mile radius and produces high-end custom cabinetry and millwork, as well as mid-level apartment cabinetry. “We do not like to put all of our eggs in one basket,” says Roger. “We like to do some of everything. Building high-end cabinetry is fun because we enjoy designing and creating custom pieces. But apartment cabinets are profitable. The setup is minimal and the designing requires just a few sets of drawings, which we can produce quickly.”

Apartment cabinets are good quality; they have raised panel doors and inset Blum hinges. They cost about $2,000 to $3,000 per unit. Costs for high-end custom cabinets for kitchens run between $20,000 and $80,000. Alongside Adam Creel, the shop’s other designer and project manager, Roger says that they are using Cabinet Vision to design their kitchens, and both men are studying to become accredited Certified Kitchen Designers.

In addition to the custom cabinetry and apartment jobs, which is residential work that accounts for 80% of all the shop’s work orders, the shop has also developed a niche for itself in cabinetry for dentist’s and doctor’s offices.

“Our dental work has taken off by word of mouth,” says Roger. He adds that they have also done work for churches, municipalities, a food bank and a youth detention center. “Our cash flow is better when we take on different types of projects,” says John.

All of the shop’s other business comes in by word of mouth, too, as well as repeat clients. “Our customers come to us because we are willing to do anything that they ask of us, from unusual pieces to funky finishes. There are many facets of glazing and crackling that we get into, and that has been a big draw,” says John.

     
 
This ornate birch and alder range hood is 72 inches wide. Fluted columns, onlays and corbels from Raymond E. Enkeboll dress up the unit.  
     

“We just try to be as helpful to a client as we can. We do a lot of big jobs and always have clients coming back in with small jobs for us, like cutting a board. Even though the small jobs are not profitable, it makes for good customer relations. So, we do a lot of extra things for our customers to keep them happy. It’s a form of advertising,” adds Roger. “And it has really worked for us.”

One marketing facet that the shop has tapped into, for the past three years now, is a working relationship with T.H. Taylor Homes. Van Nostrand Cabinets builds cabinetry for Taylor’s model homes and it has provided a wealth of new clientele. “People see the cabinetry and inquire about it,” says Roger. “Then they seek us out to build something like it for them.”

High-Tech Machinery Means Making More Product In-House

The company has a penchant for making fluted arches and elaborate large-scale vent hoods for its kitchens. Roger says that unlike most shops he reads about, his shop is trying to in-source everything it can so it can increase productivity and decrease overall costs. For example, the shop recently purchased a Vega lathe machine so it can begin producing its own turnings, columns and bun feet.

     
I Love Lucy

For all of time, men have loved their machines and have given names to their favorite car or motorcycle. But the men at Van Nostrand Cabinets have gone as far as to name their new Northwood Nestech 85 router “Lucy.” In fact, they “love” their router so much, that John Van Nostrand couldn’t resist pulling a political campaign sign from the side of the road because the name of the constituent was Lucy.

“Our man Willie Washington named her Lucy. He was always talking about how much he loved her, because she increased our production so much that we were able to have the cabinetmaker making more cabinets instead of recutting pieces like he had to before,” John says. “When I saw the ‘I love Lucy’ sign I couldn’t resist. I figured, ‘Well everyone is calling her Lucy and now I’ve got a tag for her.’”

 
   
     

On the other hand, Van Nostrand Cabinets is also outsourcing its own products to other smaller shops in the area. It makes cabinet doors on a new Northwood Nestech 85 CNC router from Stiles Machinery. Additionally, it makes all its own drawer boxes out of pre-finished UV-coated maple on a Ritter Mfg. drawer box clamp.

The shop uses Accuride full-extension side slides on all of its drawers. John says that since people in the south do not spend as much time in their kitchens as people in colder climates, they do not care as much about dovetail drawer boxes.

“We offer dovetail, but people don’t really ask for it. We haven’t made one for a client in almost 10 years. They would rather spend their money on things they can look at, like fluting and columns, or upgrade the wood or put in glass cabinet fronts,” he says

Other machines in the shop include: a Unique Machine & Tool Co. CNC shaper, a Brandt KD68 edgebander, a Northfield planer, a Timesavers widebelt sander, an SCMI gang ripsaw, a Whirlwind chop saw with a TigerStop computerized fence system, a Holz-Her 1265 Supercut panel saw, a Ritter Mfg. dowel machine, a Jet cut-off saw, a Wadkin GD220 five-head moulder, a Torit dust collector and more. John says the shop purchases its onlays, rosettes and corbels from Raymond E. Enkeboll Designs.

Another forte of the shop is its specialty finishes. There are two Binks spray booths installed in the facility. One is for white paint work and the other is for staining and lacquering. The shop mixes all its own colors using acrylic lacquers and stain bases from Wood Finishes and colorants (and white paint) from Sherwin-Williams. “We are able to disguise a wood like poplar and make it appear as if it were a rich wood like mahogany, if a homeowner is looking for a way to incorporate more wood in a room for a lesser cost,” says Roger.

   
Bun feet on bathroom cabinetry is a wildly popular trend with southern homeowners these days. This unit is made from mahogany and has a cherry stain and a black glaze on it.  
     

In 1999, it developed a finish that has become so popular that other shops are now trying to emulate the look, says Roger. The finish is called Beauvoir, and it is a distressed process with a multi-color glazing and a “bad” sand job that took three months to develop. It was originally created in an attempt to match a homeowner’s fabric swatch. “We thought that it was terrible at first and we were ready to offer the homeowner his money back. But then our installer called and said it looked great and the homeowner was really happy,” John recalls. Now the shop offers the finish in a variety of colors.

Expansion Is Inevitable

To accommodate its desire to start producing more components in-house, (like columns and bun feet, which are widely popular with homeowners in the south), there are 10 departments in the shop. This creates space constraints. Still, Van Nostrand Cabinets takes pride in manufacturing as much as it can in-house, and therefore it is looking to expand its facility.

Current manufacturing departments include face plates, doors, mouldings, machining, cabinet building, finishing — “white and wood (stain),” specialty pieces, “back in track” (which is assembly), and final finishing and installation.

“Space is at a premium, and right now we spend a lot of time moving materials around from place to place to get at a machine, which makes us lose a lot of production time,” says Roger.

He says that the shop just purchased a small lot behind its current building and the plan is to someday build another building for wood storage. In the meantime, an addition is going to be built onto the front of the existing building to be used as warehouse space.

“There won’t be any more wasted time moving parts around,” Roger says. He adds that the 1,800-square-feet of additional space will also allow them to take on even more work because they will have more places to store project components. He plans to add more equipment down the line, including a vacuum material handling system for the CNC router.

“We want to be faster for the client. We are not interested in being competitive with other shops in the area. We just want to do a good job and not worry about what other people are doing,” says John. “I never thought we would be where we are today. We are doing more than we ever expected and it is more than we could have ever dreamed for.”

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