A class act

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A class act
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Cliff Spencer used to tread the boards. Now he sizes them, shapes them, sands them and finishes them. The 35-year-old former stage- and screen actor has taken on a new role as a custom furniture maker. His thriving business in Marina del Rey, Calif., serves clients throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Cliff Spencer Furniture Maker has a staff of nine, including five in the shop, two in the office, and the owners, Cliff and his wife, Leigh, a formally trained graphic designer. In operation since August 2004, the company is expecting sales this year to reach $375,000, a jump of almost 60 percent over last year’s $235,000. Last January, the firm moved into new quarters, giving it 3,500 sq. ft. Nevertheless, says Spencer, “We are still squeezed for space. The evidence is the 10' x 20' container sitting out front and blocking half our driveway. We need it for storage.”

Cliff and Leigh Spencer
Location: Marina del Rey, Calif.
Established: August 2004
Shop size: 3,500 sq. ft.
Number of employees: 10, including the owners
Specialty: Cabinetry (modern and traditional), custom furniture, eco-centric materials, finishing (to the trade)
Species used: Walnut, cherry and maple, as well as non-traditional species such as mesquite, elm, Pacific Coast maple, eucalyptus and sycamore. “We search out reclaimed lumber, backyard trees and lesser-known hardwoods, many of which are fast-growing and have positive ecological benefits.”
Clientele: General contractors, architects, interior designers and individual home owners
Equipment: Striebig panel saw, DeWalt chop saw
From the Web site: “A business is only as sustainable as it affects the environment. We coach our clients in making environmentally savvy choices for their health and to support of the future of our global environment.”

Spencer, born in Birmingham, Ala., had dreams of making his living on the Broadway stage. When he got to New York, however, after graduation from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., he found that acting jobs weren’t plentiful. He got a few parts, mostly low paying, and had to find other work to fill in the gaps.

“I started doing whatever anyone needed around the theater — lighting, costuming and set-building,” he says. “That led to a job at Saks Fifth Avenue, one of the most upscale department stores in town, where I learned how to build cabinets and benches, and to create displays and signage. We worked with all sorts of materials and on all sorts of projects.”

When it became clear he wasn’t likely to support himself with stage parts, Spencer, still bitten by the acting bug, decided to try Hollywood. At age 25, he went out West and discovered film parts weren’t any easier to come by than stage roles. Once again, his newfound woodworking skills came in handy, and he built sets for movies, working his way up to the position of production designer/art director for low-budget independent films. “I kept busy, but it wasn’t rewarding,” he says.

I’m not building that
Spencer had his epiphany one day while working on a film that needed a 14' high, fire-breathing pelican. “There was a small woodshop down the street from where we were. I walked through the door, asked for a job, and got it.” He was almost 30, and it marked the beginning of his phasing out of acting and focusing on furniture. It was also at about this time that he met Leigh, a Los Angeles native who would become his wife in 2004, the same year they started their business.

First, Spencer had to get Hollywood out of his system, and that happened in the pristine air of the Rockies. “Leigh and I had a chance to house-sit for one of her friends in Aspen, Colorado. Up there, I had time on my hands, and I filled it by getting a job at a great cabinet shop, where I worked not only on the shop’s designs, but started to build my own portfolio.”