Designing to sell
October 16, 2009 | 12:00 am UTC

Larry Haws loves to sell his work particularly to homeowners. And if the job is large, or complicated, that's even better. "I have fun building high-end stuff," Haws grins mischievously. "I like it. And if I get to design it, and I come up with some cool idea, then I get to figure out how to build it, too."

The lanky Californian, owner of Sacramento-based Woodskills, exudes an enthusiasm and level of excitement that makes it easy to see why people seek him out to build their custom cabinetry. To put it simply, Haws makes the process fun.

Woodskills designs, sells and builds high-end cabinetry, and many of the shop's jobs are so large they take several months to complete. Most jobs are for homes that are 6,000 to 8,000 square feet.

However, what might be surprising to some is that Haws designs his jobs with paper and pencil (and occasionally, with 1/4" MDF), and the most elaborate piece of equipment in his shop is a 10-inch customized Grizzly cabinet saw.

Capitalizing on strengths

Before opening Woodskills in 1998, Haws worked in a lumberyard, a sawmill, three furniture plants and three cabinet shops. It was in the latter that he learned cabinet building and became well-versed in cabinet shop machinery. However, since none of the shops used CAD for their drawings, Haws learned to do drawings by hand, something he still does today. "For complicated cabinetry, I draw pieces out full-size on a 1/4 inch MDF template and pull my sizings from that," Haws says.

When it comes to selling his work, Haws focuses heavily on his design skills. That, together with his natural energetic personality often has the effect of a one-two punch. "I really am excitement and enthusiasm-oriented," Haws says.

Making the sale

When Haws meets with a client for the first time, he comes with his "secret weapon" an album of professional photographs of his work. However, he sets that aside when he arrives and asks clients to describe what they want, keeping the atmosphere low-key and casual. Then, at an appropriate point he'll mention that he has a photo of something similar that he has built, and asks if he can show it to them. "They say 'Oh, yes!' and they get excited, and that's where I begin to build excitement between the client and myself," Haws says. "And I keep building on that excitement until it's time to close the deal and sign it."

While Haws says he works with any material a client specifies, most of his projects are in maple or cherry, though he notes that knotty alder is very popular right now. Most interiors are finished in white melamine, with some clients requesting pre-finished maple interiors. He uses rigid thermofoil in most secondary baths and laundry rooms.

Design ideas

Haws is passionate about designing, and he uses a number of different elements to enhance his work. They include double- and triple-stacked crown mouldings, mouldings at the bottom edge of upper cabinets, stacked base mouldings, turnings, machined columns, furniture feet and carvings.

Other ways that Haws enhances his projects include using multi-step finishes, as well as creating furniture-style pieces such as hutches, mantel-style hoods and armoire-style refrigerators.

What is becoming a "signature piece" for Haws is a highly detailed, arched valance above sink windows. Recently, two of Haws' clients came back after signing their contracts and both asked for valances. "I didn't push for those in my presentation because I felt that their budgets didn't justify the cost of them," Haws says. "However, because of the great photography and my excitement and enthusiasm, the valances sold themselves."

Shop tour

While Haws collects a good amount of money for each job, he's unlikely to spend that money on CNC machinery. Haws doesn't believe in spending large sums of money on machines unless their performance justifies it. "A CNC router will cut out my jobs, but cut-out is typically only five to ten percent of the labor in one of my projects. I'll spend a ton of money on a machine if it's going to do a large percentage of my job," Haws says. "But if it's only doing 5 percent of my job, why would I want to spend all my money on that?"

In addition, for years Haws has primarily built face-frame cabinets. However, a recent review of market trends convinced him that the time had come to include frameless cabinetry in his offering. A recent remodel of his shop was done to enhance frameless workflow.

In his shop, material is stored on a rack near the 10-inch Grizzly cabinet saw that Haws uses for all his panel processing. The saw is customized with an Excalibur sliding table attachment, over-arm blade guard, splitter and T-square rip fence by Biesemeyer, along with other after-market accessories.

After ripping his material on the Grizzly, Haws mounts the Excalibur sliding-table fence for the cross cutting part of his milling operation. From there, it goes to an edgebanding table. "Because I am a low-tech kind of guy, I have a really small edgebander, the smallest you can get," Haws says. "I use that for some things and for other things I just use the iron."

Next is the Blum boring machine to drill for shelves and hardware, then on to the assembly bench. A Grizzly shaper and band saw complete the shop's complement of machinery.


Being a one-man shop has its advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage for Haws is when he has to do a multi-step glazed and distressed finish on a large job. For those, Haws calls in some help. "I use my friendly relationship with my finish shop to my advantage," Haws says. "They have enough available floor space to let me deliver and store a couple of trailer-loads of cabinetry in their shop while freeing up my floor space to complete the rest of the project."

Another challenge for Haws is one that all solo owners face: needing to be in two places at one time. "It can be difficult to meet with new prospects and generate proposals while trying to keep on schedule with projects already in production," Haws admits.

Designer, not cabinetmaker

Haws is currently taking classes now for kitchen design through the National Kitchen and Bath Association with an eye to becoming an NKBA-certified kitchen designer. Haws plans to have a design showroom with high-end cabinetry, similar to existing design showrooms in the area, but with one crucial difference: the cabinetry will be his, with his close attention to detail, craftsmanship and expert installation. Nearly all design showrooms, he says, consist of badly installed box cabinets.

Haws ultimately plans to advertise himself solely as a kitchen designer and not as a cabinet shop, as the highly lucrative San Francisco market is dominated by designers, not cabinetmakers. "I don't do that many jobs. I can do half a dozen jobs in a year, but they're going to be good jobs. So I don't need to step up how many I do, what I want to do is step up the level of the work," Haws says. "If I get stuck in some 18,000-square-foot house and it takes me an entire year, I'm OK with that, as long as it's the right work for the right money."

Haws isn't concerned that being "out of circulation" for long periods of time will have a negative impact on his business. "I might not be able to take care of everybody there for a while, but when they find out that I'm on a huge high-end project, they understand."

Advice to others

Haws joined the Cabinet Makers Association in 2001, and he credits it with providing him education in all areas, from building a better drawer to how better to handle customers.

"I encourage other small shop owners to join and be active in the CMA. The online forum is a wealth of knowledge. You can ask a question concerning a dilemma you may be having and within a few short hours receive several very qualified answers from knowledgeable cabinet shop owners all over the country," Haws says, adding "Joining this organization is the single best decision I have made in my entire career as a cabinetmaker."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

About the author
Ken Jennison

Ken Jennison was a senior editor at CabinetMaker and FDM magazines from 2006 to 2008, writing more than 70 articles about cabinet and furniture manufacturers. He is currently director of acquisitions at Hearland Historical Properties LLC in San Francisco.