Expansion a Key Word for Woodcraft Specialties of Wisconsin

This small shop grew from a cabinet refacing company to producing high-end custom cabinets and millwork, with further growth in the works.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

 

     
   
    These open bookshelves in cherry are 10 feet wide and 12 feet high, equipped with a rolling library ladder.

Woodcraft Specialties of Wausau, WI, specializes in custom cabinetry and millwork for any room of the home or office. Owner Jeff Plautz founded the company two decades ago and has shepherded it through many expansions and changes over the years. Since 1980, the firm has grown in size and scope, and the changes — and expansions — are not over yet.

Originally, Plautz focused on cabinet refacing work. His first shop was located in his father’s garage. “We originated the concept of refacing in this area,” he says. “From day one we have manufactured most of the materials we use. We began by manufacturing cabinet doors and gradually expanded into other areas of the home. Instead of refacing, we were doing the kitchens from beginning to end.”

That work led to other-room cabinetry and architectural woodworking commissions for home and offices. While he continues to offer the refacing services (as well as kitchen design using modular cabinetry in a separate division, Renew-A-Kitchen), the company’s focus has shifted to custom work, which comprises some 75 percent of its business annually.

Before beginning his business in 1980, Plautz had worked as a carpenter. “I went to school to learn woodworking, but the technical school emphasis was on carpentry rather than cabinetry. When the recession started and carpentry jobs dried up, I decided to put my faith in my abilities and open the business.”

Plautz’s instincts were right and have continued to follow the pulse of the market, providing custom solutions for virtually all parts of the home from home offices, baths and dressing rooms to high-end kitchens, libraries and dens.

“Our real niche is in architectural millwork and specialty items, such as wall units, fireplace surrounds, kitchen islands and paneled offices. We tell clients that we can hand-build almost anything. We outsource very little,” he says. “Our forte is that we pay attention to detail and look at every project as a challenge. When I am designing for a client, I don’t look for the simplest way to do a job.”

The company offers 17 door styles in ash, birch, cherry, hickory, maple and oak and also offers a line of eight door styles called Woodcraft II in oak, hickory, cherry and maple. “This line is for clients who want a custom look at a non-custom price,” says Plautz.

Woodcraft Specialties has grown steadily over the years. In 1982, it moved to its present location in Wausau, a facility with 11 employees, seven in production and two in management, plus a full-time installer. The firm subcontracts some of its new cabinet installation work. Occasionally, it outsources materials. “We sometimes purchase carved work and mouldings from Raymond Enkeboll and White River Mouldings,” Plautz says.

He is currently planning a 4,000-square-foot addition to the 8,500-square-foot facility and is in the process of selecting new machinery for the shop. “We have the standard cabinet shop machinery and production setup, but we want to add a few pieces, such as a new moulder and possibly a CNC router. We also want to update our finishing room. We spent time touring plants last spring and have a good idea of the direction we want to take in upgrading our machinery,” says Plautz.

“Basically, we want to add machinery that will help us do the detail work that is so important in our architectural millwork. However, I feel fortunate that I have been able to employ the kind of craftsmen who have the skills to do the unique, detail-oriented work, too. We have a great staff here,” he adds.

Woodcraft Specialties is thriving. But Plautz says any business owner must be ready to fine-tune operations along the way.

 

     
     
   
  This painted fireplace surround features cabinets and open bookshelves with curved glass, grilled doors.  

“A few years back we felt our production process could stand some overhauling,” he says. “We heard of a program offered through our local tech school and we invited them in to watch us work and offer some suggestions. From the conferences, we decided to form work cells in each production area, such as dimensioning, face frame and cabinet assembly, etc. Although the reorganization involved a considerable change in the way we handled our production, the changes have resulted in a much better work flow. We also revamped our office, adding computers and Cabnetware software to the CAD software we had been using for kitchen design.”

Plautz says the increased communication between supervisors and production personnel helps “keep everyone on the same page. We also keep in close contact with our clients, making them a part of all decisions. We begin a job by asking a lot of questions, and then we do a rough layup for the client’s approval. Good communication helps assure that the customer knows exactly what he is getting.”

The present equipment in the shop includes a Holz-Her vertical panel saw used for cutting sheet goods, a two-head Timesavers sander, an SCMI T130 shaper for raised panel doors, a bandsaw and table saw from Jet and a Safety Speed Cut vertical panel saw. Other equipment includes a 24-inch Powermatic planer, a Griggio shaper for running stiles and rails and a Ritter face-frame assembly system.

Plautz uses a conversion varnish finish for most projects, a process involving up to eight steps which he says gives a durable as well as beautiful finish. Cabinet interiors are constructed of melamine or wood veneers and feature 3/4-inch adjustable shelves. Hardwood face frames, doors and drawer fronts also are 3/4 inch.

In reflecting on Woodcraft’s change in market focus, shop foreman Lee Kluz says one of the reasons the company moved into architectural work is that it is a lot more interesting. “It is a very creative area with a lot of design possibilities as well as challenges,” he says.

 

         
         
       
      This birch paneled room features a tray ceiling.

A portfolio of past work tells the story best. One client with a new home featuring 16-foot ceilings commissioned 13-foot-tall built-in bookshelves of cherry, equipped with a rolling ladder. The same client’s main living room features a wall unit with crown moulding that is bumped out three to four times for an interesting look.

“We go for more than just the normal straight lines to add detail and interest,” says Kluz. “In the kitchen, islands are an area where you can provide details that set the design apart. One of our specialties is islands with ‘floating’ seating, matching paneled light soffits and carved trim.”

Another distinctive project featured a custom-built armoire set inside an expansive entry, complete with limestone pillars and paneled archway. Yet another job involved a room built around a client’s antique desk purchased in France. Fireplace surrounds, detailed his-and-hers dressing rooms and paneled ceilings are other custom jobs that fill Woodcraft’s portfolio.

While the business has a Web site (www.woodcraftspecialties.com), it does very little formal advertising. “Most of our work comes from referrals and word-of-mouth,” says Plautz. Residential work for both new housing and renovations is a big part of what it does, but the company also does some commercial work.

“We use Cabnetware software for many of the designs and cutlists, but we find we do a lot of hand drawing for the custom work and really detailed furniture,” Plautz says.

He adds that he likes to work out sketches for the more intricate designs by hand. Most of all, he likes the creative aspects of custom work. “When you do custom, there is never any ‘same-old, same-old.’ Custom clients are savvy. You have to give them something that’s functional, but that also fulfills a dream,” he says.

Plautz also says that his custom cabinet clients are usually knowledgeable about wood and styles. “Cherry is very hot right now with our high-end clients — one home we did featured 4,500 board feet of cherry. Mahogany and maple also are popular. Woods, looks and finishes tend to go in waves. A while back, Shaker-style doors in clear maple were the rage. They are still popular, but we are seeing a rise in knotty maple and hickory for the rustic look in kitchens.”

Most clients are from within a 60-mile radius of Wausau. In the future, Plautz says he would like to expand into major metropolitan markets beyond Wisconsin, possibly Chicago and Minneapolis — continuing the company’s tradition of growth.

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