Black Wolf Design specializes in making the right appearance to match what designers need, especially in high-end residential furniture.

“Black Wolf is particularly good at customization, so if a designer can’t go to a standard furniture company and get something resized or painted, they can come to us, because we can do it,” says Sue Larson, finishing supervisor. “We’re best at customization. That is our niche.”

Distressing and very custom finishing are specialties at the Omro, Wis., company, which began in nearby Oshkosh in 1995. “We are in the Midwest, and the distressed furniture seems to fit well,” owner Terry Sweeney says. “We do a lot of ‘up north’ furniture for cabins and distressed furniture fits in there. But we also do modern, clean, contemporary furniture. We evolve with the market and trends.”

Black Wolf works entirely with designers, mostly in high-end residential. Many times the designer’s clients are doing second or third homes in a different state.

“We’re geared toward custom manufacturing, one-off, bench-made, custom color matching,” Larson says. “One of a kind – that’s what we specialize in.”

“A lot of people out there are doing custom, custom with limits, because of the economy,” Sweeney says. “But some of these companies are not geared for it. Black Wolf had a few larger jobs in the 1990s, but we have gotten back and focused on the designers. The catalog was built by designers coming to us with requests for products.”

Black Wolf provides a high-end custom product, but also a high level of working with customers and providing customer service. Designers can call anyone at the company and get feedback on a particular project, and what would be a good way to pursue a certain look.

The process here is designer-driven. “We have certain designers who know exactly what they want,” Larson says. “We have other designers who are open to other ideas. They ask, ‘Can we get it on a different wood? What will it look like? Do you think it should be distressed if it’s got this kind of top versus this kind of top?’”
While some designers don’t care how the final appearance is achieved, others are involved in every facet, from the drawing all the way through, Larson says.

“We can guide them that way. Especially once it’s drawn, when they send us a picture,” she says. “A lot of times we’ll do something straight from a magazine picture. They’ll copy or borrow something, and want it in a certain color or certain finish, sheen or size.

“We have designers that will fax over a complete drawing with pictures and finish, and send a finish sample in the mail. They say, ‘This is what they want.’ Steve Hartl, our CAD designer, will do a drawing to confirm and send it back to them so they can approve it, and I’ll do a strikeoff sample.

“The designers who know us come here because they know they’re going to get great customer service, a great experience, because we’re small and we want them to be happy and the end user to be happy,” Larson adds. “They can talk directly to me, to Steve Hartl, or if there is a building question they can get Matt McCarthy, our plant manager, on the phone. We’ll give them any information they want and we’ll help them work through their issue.”

The distressed look may have peaked, but it’s still in demand, says Sweeney. That’s what certain designers want. He is also working with a designer in Madison on a new oiled walnut line that is a much more modern niche that is in style right now. “We wanted to hit our target customer with the new line, so they know we’re not all about distressed, soft, country feel furniture,” he says.

Black Wolf works mostly with alder, and stocks some walnut and rift-cut red oak, along with some sapele and wenge. They are using more birch plywood, which finishes well. They’re not doing much with maple or ash, which is harder and heavier. But it’s important to realize that it is the appearance that counts, not what’s underneath.

Alder is being used because that’s what the designers want, and they’ve used it all along. “Designers see our product, they see our finishes, and that’s the look they want,” Sweeney says. “They either know it’s an alder, or they don’t care. They want the finish and the appearance more than a species. They’ll use oak if it’s cerused.”

Shop and software

Projects are drawn in Inventor. A rough mill has a Whirlwind saw with TigerStop positioning system. Solid wood pieces are cut there. A Biessesand Regal 330 widebelt sander and Lazzari sliding table saw are located in the components area. Other equipment includes an Anderson router driven by Alphacam, Weinig Quattromat moulder, and an older Diehl ripsaw.

“We are using hybrid acrylic lacquer now that’s tougher and more durable,” Larson says. “We’re expanding our knowledge base, we’re offering more techniques, and we’re open to trying new things. We’re also using special polyurethane with scratch guard in it for restaurant tables.” They have a sample display board of 22 colors that can used as a starting point.

Everyone here multitasks. Larson is primarily concerned with finishing but can do other things in the shop. Others can help with finishing if needed. Black Wolf has 10 employees, and many have been here for seven years or more.

Sweeney says that the company works with Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, and has several employees who received training there. “They’re my first go-to when we want to hire someone,” he says. “We’ve also started working with Madison Area Technical College.

”We have a good group of people who are passionate about the company,” Sweeney says. “It’s a unique setting, not a cabinet shop. There’s something different coming in all the time, which isn’t always a positive thing. We have to adjust to the flow. The quality level has been consistent. In a small organization, if you’re not working up to the level everyone else is, it’s somewhat self-governing.”

Black Wolf uses manufacturer’s reps in much of the country to get the word out to designers, and attends shows such as the recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair.

Commercial and custom

Black Wolf also works with a few designers for commercial projects such as restaurants and architectural firms. One recent project was making restaurant tables with a distressed surface. They’ve also worked with a commercial customer that does hotel furniture, and another that required high-end food carts.

The company draws on past experience to meet current challenges, including everything from sprayable metal to a special parchment. For the latter, Sweeney located a nearby supplier with “pallets of pelts.” Black Wolf had to work with the material for a while, test it, learn how to get it wet, how to get it around corners, how to wrap it around drawer fronts so it could be used in a special desk design.

“It was also our customer service,” Larson says. “They come to us and really get personal experience that they don’t get at bigger companies. They’re able to talk with Steve or me or whoever it is who can handle their problems. They don’t get that with a lot of companies.”

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