John Wintersteller operates a garage shop. No question about that. On a typically sunny day in Santa Monica, Calif., his garage door is up and open and he's working. But don't let the downscale connotations of "garage shop" color your view about his business. Through a deliberate and systematic approach using mostly top-quality portable power tools, Steller Designs tackles projects that much bigger shops would be proud to put in their portfolio.
While the age-old image of the guy in the garage shop is cheap equipment and cutting corners, Wintersteller describes himself as a "precision person." He gravitates toward precise tools, working efficiently to exacting standards whether that's in his 18- by-18-foot garage shop or on a job site in a multi-million-dollar home.
Adopting a system
It was two years ago that Wintersteller discovered Festool portable power tools. He started with the Rotex sander, and then he had a job in Beverly Hills that required a circular saw to cut some big beams, so he added the TS55 plunge-cut saw, CT33 and CT MIDI portable vacuum/dust extractors.
"With these tools I enjoy working a little more," he says. "They give me that just right' in a lot less time." Not only was he enamored of what the tools could do, but he embraced the system approach that is a big part of Festool.
All of the tools come in Systainers, which are cases that snap-lock to each other. They also snap-lock onto the top of the rolling portable vacuum/dust extractors in the system. Rolling bases and cabinets also mate with the Systainers. Wintersteller took full advantage of the system, not only buying more Festool power tools, but also buying more Systainers to store his non-Festool tools and equipment. He can roll stacks of Systainers around his shop or onto a job site with ease.
Although an Inca table saw connected to Oneida dust collection is at the center of Wintersteller's shop, he often goes to the Festool TS55 plunge-cut saw for really precise cuts. For example, when he had to make zebrawood veneer wrap around continuously in a cabinet project, he made precise V-cuts in the veneered MDF substrate with the TS55 and its Festool guide bar, using the precision-depth setting of the plunge-cut saw. The saw base rides on the guide bar with no play for accurate straight cuts.
Another way Wintersteller adds precision to his process is by doing full-size layouts for many of his projects. He'll draw details in pencil on sheets of MDF, making all dimensions full-size. He says this helps him deal with construction details on the job site. But he adds that it's also an important tool for his customers. "I deal with customers face to face, and lots of customers have trouble visualizing," he says. "This is so they can be OK with the project, and be at ease with what I'm doing."
He has also used more conventional story poles in the past, but the full-size layouts really work for his customers.
Working with clients
Wintersteller doesn't advertise and gets virtually all of his business through referrals, which is the way he likes it. "I think I get better quality clients that way," he says.
Wintersteller adds that he really likes his clients as people, and that's an important part of his business relationship. He says he even makes excuses not to do a job if he doesn't like the client. When meeting with clients for the first time, he asks them to bring sketches and magazine clippings to help give a better idea of what they want. Then he works up an estimate and any samples that may be required. After he gets a 50-percent deposit, work begins, with final payment due on completion. When he works with general contractors, the payment split is a little different, starting with a 10 percent deposit, then a 40-percent payment when work begins. Progress payments may be made as work continues. Some complex jobs may be done on a time-and-materials basis.
Support from spouse
Wintersteller began his woodworking career with high school shop and trade school classes, followed by construction and shop work, including as a foreman in one shop. On his own it was a struggle at first.
"When I first started it was a very meager existence," he says. His wife was working then and helped support the couple, and there were no children to complicate the picture. He says his wife's help gave him time to develop clients, and now he supports them both.
"I can't imagine how I'd have done it without her support," he says.
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