Furnituremaker Makes Commitment to Using Certified Woods
Wiggers Custom Furniture is dedicated not only to using certified woods in its projects, but also to encouraging other woodworkers to do the same.
By Helen Kuhl
A lthough most people think of children’s cartoons as little more than entertainment for the under-6 set, one such television program pretty much changed John Wiggers’ life, at least from a business point of view.
Wiggers owns Wiggers Custom Furniture Ltd. in Whitby, Ontario, Canada, a business started by his father in 1967. Eight years ago, when his son was 4, Wiggers came home to find him upset after watching a favorite cartoon program -- a show where environmental superheroes battled environmental disasters each week.
“This particular week, the villains were evil furnituremakers that had a machine that was gobbling up the rainforest and spitting out tables and chairs,” Wiggers says. “My son knew that I was a furnituremaker and he asked me, ‘Are you one of those bad guys?’ While I explained to him that I felt we were doing a good job, I thought, ‘Do I really know where the wood is coming from? Do I know what’s behind what I’m using?’”
Wiggers says that he started taking a close look at the materials he was using, how he was using them and how productive he was. He talked to his veneer supplier, Andrew Poynter at A&M Wood Specialty in Cambridge, Ontario, who at the time was involved with the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection (which has since been absorbed into other groups).
As he gathered information about sustainably harvested woods, Wiggers became committed to using certified veneers and plywood core and alternative species as much as possible. His company is a member of the Forest Stewardship Council, an international umbrella group that represents environmental, business and social interests and has an accreditation program to certify the forest management certifiers SmartWood and Scientific Certification Systems. Wiggers Custom Furniture also is FSC-certified, and a number of its current projects carry a tag attesting to their being made from sustainably harvested materials. Wiggers says his goal is to reach 100 percent.
Wiggers grew up with woodworking, since his father, Johan, built and refinished furniture for neighbors in his basement before starting his business in a shop attached to the home in 1967. Johan Wiggers’ specialty was fine veneer work, which he had learned from his own father in Holland. Having emigrated in 1953, he eventually brought his parents and his family to Canada as well.
Although the elder Wiggers is semi-retired and has turned over management of the company to John, he still can be found in the company’s veneer department, doing complex layups. “I am very proud of John. It’s nice to have someone so capable to continue the business,” he says. “I’m proud that he wants to carry out the same level of quality.”
When John started working for the company full-time in 1981, after graduating from college, there were 4 or 5 employees. Today, there are about 15, including one craftsman who has been with the company almost from the beginning.
Wiggers has always specialized in high-end custom furniture. Its pieces are contemporary in style and feature a lot of exotic woods, reflecting John’s personal affinity for Art Deco. Most sales are to customers in the United States, Wiggers says, because it has a bigger market than Canada for their style of furniture. List prices range from $15,000 for an inlaid dining room table to $18,000-$25,000 for an exotic wood sliding door wall unit.
About 70 to 75 percent of the company’s work is in “private label” furniture built for both large design houses and individual furniture designers, including many well-known names. The other pieces are commissioned work and Wiggers’ own designs. All of Wiggers’ own custom work is done using FSC-certified plywood core, and Wiggers is trying to convert his other customers to using the same substrate as well.
While the certified plywood is more expensive than other substrates, Wiggers says that it is not a great factor in the type of custom work he does, where most of the cost is in labor. “It may make a few percent difference in the final cost of the piece to use a certified plywood instead of MDF,” he says, “But it’s not really a great consequence to the final price.”
His main concern at the moment is availability. “In order for me to convince my private label customers to change over, they have to be convinced that quality material is going to be readily available. And right now, there are no mills that are 100 percent dedicated to doing this,” he says. “But the market is growing, and we are in the process of sourcing the materials. There is a supplier in Oregon, but when you are shipping product this far, on the one hand it’s responsible in terms of the trees. But can you justify burning all that extra energy to bring it here? So we are in the process of working that out now.”
Wiggers says that beyond the certification issue, he likes using plywood core. “It’s nice to machine, it’s light and it’s quite strong,” he says. “It’s a nice material to work with.”
U sing certified veneers or alternative species is another priority for Wiggers. His efforts in that regard are helped by his having about 88 different species of veneers in stock, roughly 140,000 square feet. His inventory includes more than 100,000 square feet of unusual veneers from the 1920s and ’30s, purchased from A&M many years ago. The inventory originated from an old New York veneer company that had gone out of business. The proceeds from the sale were used at the time to fund the startup of WARP.
“There’s Madagascar rosewood in there; there is one crate labeled ‘sabarona,’ which I’ve never been able to find anything about,” says Wiggers. “There is mozambique, afromosia, pau ferro and other unknown species. It’s exceptionally thick, and some of the flitches are 16 feet long and up to 36 inches wide.”
Wiggers says that he often has input in suggesting veneers to customers and he will try to steer them into using the beautiful species he has on hand. But he adds, “I imagine that when I’m looking at retirement, there will still be some of that old veneer in stock.”
In addition to its fine veneer work, the company does its own finishing and is known for its high-gloss finishes, Wiggers says. “Some people recognize our pieces based on the finish alone. It’s a combination of polyester and polyurethane. They are trickier to spray and require special techniques to work with. There is a lot of labor that goes into our finishes.”
The company uses Chemcraft-Sadolin products, and most finishes are natural and clear. “It’s not that other companies can’t do this finish,” Wiggers adds, “it’s just that they don’t want to spend the time it takes to do it right.”
Although the bulk of the company’s work is designed by others, Wiggers himself does a lot of the engineering and decision-making about how pieces are built. The company uses glue and dowels, as well as some splined miter joints for its casework. It uses European-style hinges from Grass America and Accuride drawer slides. Specialty hardware comes from Hafele.
The shop is still in the original building, which has been expanded several times over the years and is now 11,000 square feet. The veneer department includes a Casati guillotine, a Kuper stitcher from Stiles Machinery and an Italpresse hot press, as well as a few old hand tools brought by Wiggers’ father from Holland.
The newest piece of equipment in the shop is a Thermwood 67 5-axis CNC router, purchased in 1996. It is used to produce unusual shapes, solid pieces for table edges and sculpted table legs, among other things, Wiggers says. Other machinery includes an SI16W sliding table saw and a Sandya widebelt sander from SCM GROUP USA, a Holz-Her edgebander and a Samco stroke sander.
The finishing department includes a positive-pressure, air makeup room with a spray booth that is about 600 square feet. They use DeVilbiss pressure pots and some cup guns; air mix guns are required for the polyester.
There is a separate area for polishing, featuring an Agla polishing table on which flat pieces are buffed for 10 to 15 minutes. There is a separate area for hand-wiped finishes and sanding in between coats.
W iggers says that he likes having the mix between private label customers and doing his own designs. “Even though a lot of the private label design work is custom, they are repeats of similar designs, so it gives a certain monthly flow of work that I don’t necessarily have to get my hands on,” he says. “It’s not like a conventional custom job where every thing is designed and built from scratch and you have to agonize over every single detail.
“It also keeps things running through the shop that go toward paying the bills,” he adds, “so it frees me up to every so often build my own designs.”
He says he has always had a personal interest in designing and enjoys it as an artistic release. “I wouldn’t mind doing a bit more of it, if I had the time. But right now I’m into running the business, as my father did,” he explains.
Currently he is occupied with plans to construct a new building for the shop, doubling its size. His plans call for a facility that is environmentally responsible in as many areas as possible, including solar heat and light, solar wall panels to power the back-up lighting and computers, an organic toilet system for dealing with wastewater and broadleaf trees strategically placed to cool the building naturally in the summer. He also will add a new dust collector.
“To me, you can’t have an environmental interest in one area and not in another. One thing feeds on another,” Wiggers says. He hopes to construct the building and move next year. This is in addition to his goal of having 100 percent of his projects FSC-certified eventually.
But besides being forward-thinking in many areas, Wiggers also is interested in simply maintaining the high level of quality work that was started by his father.
“It’s an ongoing effort on our part. There is a certain philosophy that my father has always had and it’s just taking something and continually trying to improve it,” Wiggers says. “We’re kind of restless that way. We will always look at our work and say, ‘How can we do it better?’”
Wiggers also shares what he calls the greatest compliment he ever received.
“Several years ago we had a client who was terminally ill. Despite his failing health, he was determined to finish a renovation to his home so that his wife would have a comfortable place to live after he was gone. The two of them would periodically visit our shop to monitor the status of the work we were doing for them. One day, as the two of them were walking out to their car, my father overheard him say to his wife, ‘You know, Dear? God smiles on this place.’ Nothing that has been said before or since can ever top that.”
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