When it comes to professional woodworking, there are endless tools and tricks of the trade that can help in cutting corners. But what really makes a woodworker successful is the quality of his experience and the drive to continuously implement and improve on those skills.
Matthew Clark does this and can safely rest on his laurels. The owner of Kent Cabinetry & Millwork in Chestertown, Md., has been involved in all aspects of the building trades from a young age and has always kept his mind open to learning new techniques.
"We've got a saying around here that we can do anything. If somebody walks in the door and wants something built, we can build it," says Clark.
Clark has had up to 18 employees in the past, but currently employs one full-time cabinetmaker, Don Bigger, whose wealth of knowledge is similar to his. The shop started as a large construction company, but Clark realized he needed to downsize. Now the shop produces custom cabinetry and millwork for the residential market.
An early start
Clark grew up in Wilmington, Del., and began woodworking at age 13 when his father bought a summer home in Sassafras, Md., that needed a lot of structural and cosmetic work. Like any student eager to learn, Clark strapped on a tool belt and began framing, hanging doors and adding trim with his father as his mentor. After his junior year in high school, Clark got a job as a carpenter.
"I was a carpenter, not a helper. I made good money and the next summer I was hired back and did it again. Then I joined the U.S. Navy and went to college."
Owner of: Kent Cabinetry & Millwork
Shop size: 4,200 sq. ft.
About: The business emerged out of
Inspirational quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
— Mark Twain
"So I started a construction company where I built and remodeled homes and ended up doing a lot of work on old houses around here. There wasn't any kind of cabinet or millwork shop around, so I started doing it myself."
His company quickly grew to 18 employees, but Clark grew weary of the construction work. He closed that side of the business and focused on cabinetmaking. At the time, Clark had a little 1,500-sq.-ft. shop in Chestertown and he had more work than he could handle, courtesy of a local building contractor who ordered a steady stream of kitchens and built-ins.
Clark moved to his current shop in 2000 when he was presented with a year's worth of work from a client he couldn't pass up. This was when Clark knew he'd reached the point of no return in his career. He was going to be a professional woodworker for the duration of his working years and he was ready to invest.
"I needed more space and more equipment. I purchased new tools, like a wide belt sander, edgebander, larger shaper, hinge machine and an edge sander," he says. "I started getting a reputation and word of mouth helped me out a lot. There wasn't very much competition for custom cabinets in this area back then."
Back then, about 20 percent of Clark's workload was commercial projects. But he has since changed his views on the commercial market being worth his while, and now only about five percent of his commissions are in that area.
"The contractors are really slow in paying and you have to fill out these long forms and wait until they get processed. It really tightens up your cash flow."
A traditional market
Most of Kent Cabinetry's clients are within a 100-mile radius of the shop. The hot spots for lucrative jobs are wealthy subdivisions in the Washington D.C. and Baltimore areas, such as Chevy Chase, Severna Park and Annapolis. The shop has also completed a kitchen for a Chicago customer and did a big job - custom kitchens and moldings - for a condo complex at the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort in W.Va. Clark's portfolio also includes a bookcase for a Navy official in the Pentagon.
The company does everything, but it specializes in entertainment centers, home libraries, bookcases and office workspace solutions. Clark also offers custom moldings and design services.
A small percent of his work comes from designers, in which case they usually supply the specified drawings.
"Around here, the preferences are traditional; raised-panel and flat-panel doors. This area is heavily embedded in the northern European tradition. Occasionally, we'll get a request for a sleeker, modern look. We just did a cherry kitchen down the road with slab flat-panel doors and stainless-steel toe kicks. I'll do whatever they want. We've also fabricated a 25' handrail that took months to build."
Clark's current shop is 4,200 sq. ft. It is not insulated and the gas bill is outrageous, he says. Clark is working on building a green shop with solar-powered heat and electricity. "I have to move as the building I'm in has been sold. I'm looking to build a more efficient shop."
The shop will run off a grid enterprise system that will cost a bit to install, but help him meet the goal of reducing overhead. He's searching for a suitable location, possibly in nearby Queen Anne's County.
The new shop will be smaller, about 3,500 sq. ft. But Clark doesn't want to downsize too much. He has a lot of major machinery to move.
The list includes:
- Blum Mini Press hinge machine
- Bridgewood joiner
- Casadei and Jet shapers
- Crouch edge sander
- DeWalt compound sliding miter and plate joiner
- Delta shaper, radial arm saw, table saw, drill press and line boring machine
- Grizzly combination sander
- Ritter horizontal boring machine
- Rockwell table saw
- Westvaco edgebander
- SAC wide belt sander
- Safety Speed Cut panel saw.
Last year, business slowed down quite a bit and this year it's even slower, says Clark. Currently, there is no backlog. "Two years ago, it would be half a year before we'd pay attention to you. Now you walk in the door and we're going to throw you on the table and pull your money out of your pocket."
Still, Clark is confident that a couple good jobs are coming his way. He's had solid leads from his Web site and says it's wise to advertise with Google, which puts his site at the top of search lists.
As for the state of the industry, Clark finds it outrageous that so many high school shop programs are getting cut. He wouldn't be where is today without the experience. He also can't fathom how an aspiring woodworker would gain entry into the profession without the proper mentor.
"They've got to work alongside somebody that's been doing it for a while; they've got to take up an apprenticeship somewhere. You've got to learn the ins and outs of the business."
Clark had an apprentice for a year, but he left prematurely to start his own business.
"I wanted him to build for me, and he decided he wanted his own cabinet shop. Well, I wasn't finished training him yet. He basically had enough skills to screw a box together. He went out and bought a computer, software and some tools and set up a cabinet shop in his garage - and didn't make it. I saw some of his work and he just hadn't been here long enough. He didn't know enough to make really nice cabinets."
Looking ahead to the future of the trade in general, Clark thinks the cutting of the school programs and a general lack of interest will lead to a depletion of custom cabinet shops and tradesmen.
"I think it's a dying trade. There's always going to be woodworking being done and there's always going to be a call for it. I think there's a natural instinct for man to play with wood, but the kind of work we do ... I don't see there being enough call for it to keep the shops that are existing now in business."
What makes it all worthwhile, says Clark, is the day he finishes a job. "Happiness is seeing the drawing come to life and happy customers with checkbooks."
Contact: Kent Cabinetry & Millwork Inc., 225 Pine Cove Lane, Chestertown, MD 21620. Tel: 410-778-9000. www.kentcabinetry.net
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.