Co-op helps jump start shops
By Jonathan Benson
May 31, 2014 | 7:00 pm CDT

There are several ways to generate the capital needed to start up and operate a shop with enough equipment and space to be competitive, but most of them involve borrowing a lot of money to start out and then more borrowing with each new expansion. With business loans so hard to come by, shops might consider the different path taken by Jeff Dahlquist, owner of  Dahlquist Studios in Alexandria, Va.

In 1992, Jeff and two friends, Robin Youngelman and Pete Schlabecker founded a cooperative shop in a 9,500 square-foot space just three miles from downtown Washington, D.C. They did much of the initial set up work themselves, including putting up walls, securing the necessary permits, wiring in the machines and running air lines throughout the shop. The co-op was named Alexandria Center for the Woodworking Arts and became known in the area as ACWA (pronounced "aqua").

The group quickly grew to include about 13 members, which was the capacity at any given time. In the 17 years since, it has undergone many changes as more than 30 members passed through its doors.

Members have not only included furniture and cabinet makers, but also wood turners, sculptors, a painter and other artists. Through it all, the co-op has helped nurture several successful businesses, acting as an incubator for start-up woodworking operations. Once established, some of these businesses moved off to larger locations of their own. Dahlquist Studio's business steadily grew right along with the co-op.

Dahlquist was able to acquire more space until he reached a point seven years ago when he was able to take over the lease and continue to rent out some of the space.

Spirit of the co-op  

Forming a co-op offers more than just the financial advantages of being able to afford a larger space and more machinery, according to Dahlquist.

"There are several other advantages to working as co-op," he says.

"These include the exchange of ideas and labor by the members. We always learn new information from each other. An on-going education continues as new members come in. We often will give each other work when we get busy."

If there is a need for a person with expertise in one area, such as wood turning or veneering, there is a good chance that there will be someone right there. Dahlquist added that "There is also access to individuals with experience in disciplines other than wood. These areas of expertise have included photography, computers and metal work. Another advantage is the camaraderie and friendships that have developed."

Long-term success  

Of the 30 or so former co-op members about about two-thirds of them remain in the woodworking field. Some of the members that stayed in the field moved out to be able to grow their businesses or to relocate to other areas of the city. Two members created a partnership that does residential remodeling, and they still maintain a presence at the co-op so they can use the machines.

Another member recently moved back in as the current recession made his own shop too expensive to maintain. A network was created that gave referrals, recommendations and leads that extended across the country as former members moved farther away.

"The co-op works best if everyone is working toward the same goal, which has usually been the case," says Dahlquist as he acknowledges there have been some disadvantages. "It can sometimes take longer to get things done, because the organization needs to cater to more needs."

He recommends that anyone contemplating setting up such an enterprise should consider the pros and cons before getting started (see the sidebar on page XX). The personalities of the members should be considered to make sure they are compatible, he says.

Outgrowing the co-op  

As the owner of the ACWA co-op building required longer leases and the machinery became larger, it made sense for one person to take on more responsibility. The neighborhood was becoming more gentrified, which was beginning to affect the rent. Dahlquist Studios was also growing faster, as well, and needed additional space.

In 2002 the co-op was dissolved and Dahlquist took over the lease. Even though the space is no longer cooperatively run, the spirit of the co-op still lives on. Some of the former members are still renting space and one former member has recently returned. The revolving door and networking system are still in place years after the co-op officially ended.

Higher level of technology  

When the co-op was formed, the original machines in the shop were standard fare for a small startup shop in the early 1990s. The first machines included 10-inch and 12-inch table saws, a small band saw, a 20-inch planer, a 6-inch jointer and other tools. As the co-op grew the amount and the quality of the machinery grew as well. 

A panel saw was added and later replaced. A 36-inch Butfering widebelt sander was added, then a larger jointer and a Crouch 6x50-inch edge sander. As Dahlquist Studios grew and took over more of the space and the financial responsibilities, Dahlquist made the decision that to stay competitive, new technology needed to be added. The shop now has a CNC machine with a 5 by 9 foot bed, a Brandt edgebanding machine, a Casolin 10 foot panel saw, an SCMI shaper, a Casadei jointer and many other machines.

Most of the production designs are now created using AutoCAD software and KCDw software, and then fed directly into the CNC machine. Dahlquist says this has reduced waste from an average project to a few strips of material that fill a single garbage can. That compares to a dumpster full of waste in the past.

Dahlquist Studios has created a niche in the local market by combining cutting edge technology with a small shop environment and highly skilled workers. They are able to take on wide variety of projects both commercial and residential, and produce them with computerized accuracy and efficiency while maintaining a close relationship between the customer and the craftsmen.

Networking to grow  

Dahlquist says that over March and April he has seen the market for residential cabinetry begin to come back a little in his area. The commercial market in the Washington, D.C., metro area has remained reasonably strong to this point, compared to some other parts of the country, he says. 

He does have several projects on the shop floor at this time, but he would be comfortable with more. That means getting out and networking more and taking on a wider variety of projects. As for the future, he says, "I would like to keep this type of work and grow enough to be able to select the projects that I do."

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