Dan Perrin of  Perrin Woodworking Inc.,  located in Charleston, S.C., likes the challenges posed by homes dating back to the earliest of Colonial times. This work may not be for everyone, but it is something that's worked because of Perrin's practicality.

"One key to our success is the fact that there are not a whole lot of people who like working with the 150+ year old homes in this area. These houses can be quite out of level, which poses some major challenges."

In the wake of the housing and real estate crisis, Perrin is seeing much more renovation work on existing homes rather than new construction jobs. His theory is that people are trying to improve what they have since these are not the best times for selling real estate.

Most of the work Perrin does now is residential cabinetry, but he's recently expanded beyond older renovation work to include more recent updates, like renovating some rooms in a high-end resort hotel and marina on Charleston Harbor.

Though this is the company's first major commercial venture, 75 to 80 percent of its regular work remains residential kitchens and entertainment centers. Much of that work is concentrated in historic downtown Charleston.

Keep things simple

Perrin still does all his shop drawings by hand and takes a small drawing board to work out a plan for prospective clients at the time of his visit. When Perrin does an estimate, he mainly breaks things down into linear footage. The shop also receives a lot of plans and will take estimates off plans as well.

Perrin has also taken a somewhat conservative, cautious approach when it comes to technology by keeping hi-tech equipment to a minimum. Though this process might not work for other cabinetmakers, it has been a good fit for him.

"We seem to be doing our cabinetry and woodworking all right the way we are," adds Perrin. "I haven't gotten into the whole CNC machinery route to date. At the moment we're not looking to make more cabinets. We kind of like it where we are right now; it gives things a little handmade touch.

Affordable equipment

At the time Perrin first started his woodworking business in his garage, he had a panel saw, a table top planer and a couple of hand tools. Despite his growth over the years and moves into larger quarters, he has stuck to a philosophy that's worked well for him: never buy any equipment that you can't afford.

"I've always felt if you need a tool, don't go to the bank to get it," says Perrin. "If things get slow for you, everything's still paid for. I think a lot of people get into trouble by mortgaging their machinery. If your machinery goes down, you're still paying the mortgage on it. I prefer to take a little bit longer by doing it on a table saw than having a CNC machine sitting around that's struggling to pay for itself."

With such basic tools as their Powermatic table saw, Saw Trax panel saw, Powermatic joiner, Jet planer and band saw and computer, which Dan's wife Katy uses for business dealings, they find they're able to do their work just fine.

Restoration challenges

Restoration work is not that much different than working on a regular house, says Perrin. You just have to take into consideration that the floors might be three to four inches out of level in a room.

When Perrin measures the job, he takes a level with him and goes through every room in which he'll be placing cabinets to see what he might encounter. If the room is going to be very far off level, Perrin will build each base for each cabinet accordingly and then shim them all level.

Perrin makes his bases and cabinets independent of each other and levels the bases all the way around the room first; then he puts the cabinets on top of them. A five-inch base, for example, might be needed on one cabinet and a four-inch base on another. In factory cabinets, the bases are integrated into the cabinets.

Perrin does not use trim strips on anything, but scribes everything to the wall. If the wall is out four inches, from floor to ceiling, they will put a five-inch scribe on it. It will be tight to the cabinet at the bottom and have four inches of scribe at the top.

"The box has got to be level, no matter what the wall is doing. We'll put the cabinet up against the wall and level it before using a pair of scribes, then run my line down it with what is basically a compass that's adjustable in and out. I think it's a cleaner look.

"With a factory cabinet you would level it and if it was two inches off the wall at the top, you'd place a trim strip over it to cover it up. But we try not to do that."

Finishing the job

Early Charleston homes were chiefly built with heartwood pine from the local forests. Most of the woodwork in the homes is painted, with very little stain-grade woodwork. Therefore, matching wood types is usually not a concern.

Perrin avoids wood finishing, something he's never enjoyed. Instead, he hires Charleston-area finishers to do this work. "Wood finishing is not something I know," says Perrin. "I've finished some furniture. But as far as finishing off a whole set of cabinets, it's worked best for me to pay someone else to do it and have it done right.

"We also prefer to have a lot of our finishing work done onsite, finding that we get a better product in the end," says Perrin. "Our prime reason for this arrangement is to avoid damage to our cabinets during transport to the job site."

A green future

Despite the strong links to the past, Perrin has kept an interest in the future by building its first sustainable, green kitchen. Perrin is working with  Wurth Wood Group, which supplies certified-sustainable wood to the shop. A friend at the Sustainability Institute of Charleston is working with Perrin to get them  LEED -certified. The push for certification came about as a result of a potential customer approaching Perrin, interested in a LEED kitchen.

"The main emphasis with this is how you buy your products and making sure you're not wasting too much material in your shop," adds Perrin. "The push is to reuse as much of your material as possible, even when it comes to office waste. Much of the effort involves awareness of how you're doing things in order to not waste as many trees or as much energy in the long run. We're still in the process of learning all about it and should have the objectives met in early 2008 if all goes well."

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