A Resurgence of Old-World Elegance
A Camarillo shop owner reawakens his Californian clients to a cabinetry style that resonates with yesteryear’s charm.
By Lisa Whitcomb
In a quiet mountain valley, where the town of Camarillo lies, a vast sea of stucco homes with brightly-colored tiled roofs can be seen for miles and miles. Inside many of these homes, owners are busy remodeling or updating their kitchens, baths, libraries and offices. Some are choosing to replace their Southwestern-style cabinetry, a common Californian theme, with a “beefier,” Old-World style of cabinetry, which is offered by Woodcraftsman Inc.
Owner Levi Mize says he knew he wanted to build fine cabinetry, back in 1987, when he moved from his small rural home town in Danville, VA, to California. “I always loved working with wood. When I moved here from Virginia, my dream was to have a cabinet shop. I [knew] I had to be in a densely populated area that could support what I wanted to do,” he recalls. Most of the shop’s jobs take place in a 60-mile radius.
At the time, he owned a Ford F150 pickup truck, which Mize says he quite literally had to work out of until he was able to rent a home with a garage. “It was like a dream come true, because that was my first real shop,” he says.
Mize had never worked in a cabinet shop before. He began his career in woodworking with a construction job as a teenager. He took three years of architectural design at a vocational school, and prides himself on being self-taught in the custom cabinetry business. “I love to read, and that is how I learned this trade. I love to create and design and anytime I do [something new], I buy a book and I study,” he says.
Today, the shop consists of himself, his brother-in-law Adam Bingham and Kevin Morris, a high-school student who sought out Mize persistently for the opportunity to learn the woodworking trade, until Mize finally conceded to his enthusiasm and hired him this past January. “Kevin can’t wait until summer when he can come in and work full-time for us,” Mize adds. Mize grew his business gradually, adding machinery as he could afford to. “This is how I have always grown. I have never made a purchase and then had to go out [looking for clients in order] to make the sales to pay for it. All that I own in this shop has been paid for with cash,” he says.
Over the years Mize had acquired several pieces of equipment this way, including a Powermatic 013 edge sander, a Grizzly oscillating sander, Delta Unisaw table saw, Powermatic 15 planer and 27 shaper, a Castle TSM20 face-frame and AT clamp station, a Jet JWBS14 bandsaw, a Blum Mini Press drilling machine, a Laguna Tools 16-in. LT16 heavy-duty bandsaw and more. In June of 2001, he updated the shop’s Cabinet Vision Solid software to the Manufacturing version, and at the same time added an Altendorf F90 sliding table saw, a Laguna M42 boring machine and a chopsaw with a TigerStop positioning system to his shop. Mize admits that with adding so many new pieces in the shop at once, there was a little bit of a learning curve.
Personnel changes cause a setback
But November brought setbacks. At the time, Mize had two full-time employees working for him, Bingham and another woodworker. Around mid-November, Bingham broke his arm in a mountain biking accident and was out of work for six weeks. In addition, that same day Mize received a resignation call from his other employee. “That was a real setback. I went from being on top of the world to the bottom of the barrel,” he recalls.
In a typical week, Mize says the shop would turn around $4,000 to $6,000 worth of work. But with Mize out in the shop alone, trying to make everything work, sales suffered and he had to stop. “ It was a humbling experience for me,” he says. “It has given me a new appreciation for my employees.” Mize says that he always appreciated those who worked for him, but those loses gave him even more appreciation.
Bingham returned back to work full-time in December. “We are back on track again. Since he’s been back we have caught up and are generating new sales again,” Mize says. Although it will be tough to meet the $500,000 sales goal he has set for the shop this year, Mize believes that, “There is still a good chance that we may hit that goal.”
One foot in two cabinetry worlds
“I really like the face-frame. I think that it is a beefier, more substantial looking cabinet. We make our own fluting, and people like [the look of the] flush inset, fluted stiles and rails, and onlays because it has more of a furniture look, more of a real craftsman look to it,” Mize says.
But what really sets his cabinetry apart is combining a face-frame box with an inset door and the 32mm system. Mize calls it a hybrid cabinet. “I take the best attributes of both styles and combine them. I have evolved from what I first built into what I am building now.”
Inside the cabinets, Mize uses predominately white melamine in kitchens and some black for the interior of entertainment systems. He makes his own drawer boxes with glued-and-stapled or dovetailed joints depending on his customer’s preference. He purchases his door and drawer fronts exclusively from Decore-ative Specialties. Mize says he uses Accuride and Blum hardware on all of his work and recommends Caesarstone quartz countertops to his clients.
Clients generally are choosing cherry, black walnut, knotty and clear alder veneers and solids and occasionally exotic species like zebrawood. Mize outsources the veneer layup. He hand sands the cabinets to fit and staggers their heights and widths in the design to give a room depth and personality.
Finishing and installation are always outsourced. While clients can have their cabinetry finished by anyone, Mize says he highly recommends finisher Roger Dennis to his clients. “He is local and he is an artist. All of Dennis’s finishes are hand-rubbed and feel like silk. They are indicative of his work,” says Mize. His installations are outsourced to Randy Rollings. “They are an intrinsic part of this company. [Working with them] has given me the ability to grow because the end product is great, which makes everyone happy and generates referrals,” he adds.
High-end custom cabinetry business in his area can be broken down by popularity into kitchens, home entertainment systems and home offices. “I find that with the computer revolution, more and more people are doing things at home,” Mize says. After these categories, there is a small sprinkling of bathrooms, libraries and other miscellaneous projects. Everything the shop designs and fabricates is fully customized to a client’s needs and wants. “I try to keep it diversified. I don’t want to box myself into a corner and say that I just specialize in kitchens only, because that will cut you out [of potential work],” he says.
Some value-added features that Mize offers his clients is a full design service, including a presentation featuring a three-dimensional representation of the cabinetry before it is built. He also incorporates hand-selected woods. ”If I find something that is beautifully done in nature and add it to a piece [that I am working on], it just makes it something special,” he says. Mize says all of these things contribute to his shop’s success. “It’s not just in the way our cabinetry is constructed, but also the way we present ourselves to the client. It’s confidence and trust, and I like people to know that they are welcome to walk in here at any time,” he says.
Mize has a Web site, but says he is not using it in the traditional sense, but rather as an online portfolio for people who are already interested in his work.
“I do not use it to pull in Web traffic. I send clients to the site as a confidence builder to solidify my company with them,” he adds. In Mize’s point of view, companies should take advantage of the Web because it is an inexpensive way to promote onesself. “If it is done properly and the client [isn’t familiar with] you, then they come away from that site knowing you,” he says.
He also uses the Internet as an information source for himself. “The online community has been especially helpful to me in getting others’ opinions on construction techniques, shop flow logic, machinery comparisons, hardware usage and applications, and other aspects of the cabinetry industry,” says Mize. “I use Cabinet Visions’ online forum and The New Jolly Roger forum.”
He says the latter is great for its unbiased, uncensored opinions on all aspects of the trade. “With so many avenues of information to be had these days, magazines, associations, online forums and books, a cabinetmaker can research and learn new ideas in a matter of days if not minutes,” he adds.
Likewise, clients have the same information available to them, and they are much smarter and more knowledgeable about what is available to them in the way of cabinets today. “It’s not just doors and drawers with a shelf anymore. Clients want pull-out shelves behind doors, more drawers, better storage ideas and better ways of doing things,” Mize says.
Turning a profit in times of recession
With 99 percent of his work residential, Mize says he has not seen a slowdown in the demand for fine cabinetry. “I haven’t noticed a recession at all. I have even increased my prices, and the market is still strong. Right now I am selling more than I should.”
Mize’s philosophy is a non-competitive one. “I don’t try to compete with anyone, because [my company’s name] is already sold. I [always] try to give a really high-quality product.” While he loves the business, he says he is in it to make money. “I will charge what the market will bear. We give a quality product and that is why I don’t mind charging a quality price for it.”
His number one priority is maintaining the high quality and craftsmanship that his shop is known for. This includes an honest business approach. “You tell a client the truth. Even if he doesn’t want to hear it, he will respect you and you will be able to sleep well at night.” That is the way he has always done business, he adds.
Mize says he sees the future of high-end cabinetry remaining strong in his region. “Everything is a trend. But I think that the traditional look is a very enduring style, one that will transcend time because it has a nice clean look,” he says. But even if the high-end market goes ultra-modern, Mize says he wants to be there. “I’ll study, I’ll research. I’ll adapt and evolve and do whatever it takes to give a client what he wants,” he says.
Mize, a Christian, says he thanks God for what he has accomplished. “My goal was to own a cabinet shop when I moved here, and I think that I have succeeded at that. I know that everything I have or ever will be comes from God and I believe that.” But he says he makes no definitive plans for the future of his business because plans change and so do technologies. “I want to grow, but I don’t want to grow too fast. I [like to] keep myself in a position so that my company can adapt or evolve and do what it needs to do to continue to make money.”
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