At first glance, Carl Johnson and Alison Swann-Ingram appear to be an odd combination to have merged their separate woodworking businesses into Franklin Street Fine Woodwork in Tampa, Fla.
Johnson retired as the chief construction inspector for the city of Tampa and began woodworking on a full-time basis. Swann-Ingram grew up in England, moved to the United States and, after working on her house, took up woodworking.
"I wanted to do something different and I had been doing woodworking since I was a kid, not that it ran in my family because my dad tried hard, but he wasn't very handy," says Johnson. "For me it was self-taught, reading books and building things and tearing things apart. So I've always built furniture since I was probably a young teen."
About six years ago, at the age of 48, he retired and started working out of a 1,000-sq.-ft. shop in his house.
For Swann-Ingram, her journey to woodworking was more circuitous. She grew up about 50 miles west of London, went to Chile when she was 18 or 19 and met her husband, who was in the American Special Forces. Once she finished college, she moved to the United States and eventually settled in Portland. Ore.
"It is a wonderful city and we bought a really old house and there was a major project every weekend," she says. "They were all very big jobs and, through that process, I accumulated some tools and construction-type skills. I found a piece of beautiful figured quilted maple and built a table out of it and that was really my first woodworking project. I'm not really sure how things stayed together because there wasn't any real joinery in it, but I had so much fun doing it that my husband said, 'You like this, so go to school for this.' "
She attended the Oregon College of Art and Craft, started making things that didn't fall apart and sales followed.
Owners: Alison Swann-Ingram,
Shop: 3,500 sq. ft., opened in November 2009
Other shop functions: Teaching woodworking classes
Supporters of: The Furniture Society, CERF
On combining shops: “There is a great synergy between the two of us. We definitely have different strengths and, from my perspective, I’m a little flighty and I get my obsessions, I have to do this shape or that thing, [focus on] the aesthetic aspect of things.”
After Johnson retired, there was an article in a local newspaper about Swann-Ingram's shop, which was located right up the street from his. One day he decided to drive over and check it out.
"I introduced myself and it was like a hallway, less than 500 sq. ft.," Johnson recalls. "We ended up working off and on doing a few projects - bars, custom bookshelves and other projects. When we found out that we worked together well and got along on a personal level, we decided to start partnering together and [she] immediately moved out of that shop. We consolidated our shops and moved into one of the cigar factories. It was nice for a shop because they have 12' to 14' ceilings. They were built at the turn of the century, they're brick. The biggest problem we had in that type of building was power."
"We started working together and had some wonderful working opportunities come our way," Swann-Ingram says. "For the longest period of time we [operated as two businesses]. As small projects came along, they would belong to one or the other business. But if they were big projects, we would work on them together. We have slowly and steadily built a wonderful base of clients who really enjoy the custom furniture process and have come to value the odd aspect of what we do."
The new shop
Desiring a shop with more space, the two purchased a building in summer 2008 near Stetson University's College of Law in downtown Tampa. As far as they can tell, it was built between 1914 and 1920. It had to be gutted and the plan and design process took about six months.
Construction began in January 2009 and they moved into the shop in August. Johnson says one of the difficulties was getting the old shop cleaned out. What do you take? What do you throw away? How do you prepare the machinery to be transported? He says it was a very hard move.
The 42'x85' shop has dust collection underneath the floor. For comfort, they built a floor system that consists of 2x6 joists on end and then dual layers of 3/4" plywood so the floor has a certain amount of give, yet is still very sturdy. The building also features high ceilings and a large glass front that provides a healthy amount of natural light.
"Fortunately for us, our clients were so forgiving and said don't worry about it. We know you're moving and when you finish, then you can make our piece," says Johnson.
Two product views
With disparate backgrounds and experience, Franklin Street Fine Woodwork is able to produce a variety or work from "not so artsy" things such as windows, doors and gates to custom furniture that has become increasingly complex.
"The custom furniture pieces are much more involved and much more creatively demanding; so it satisfies both sides of the fence," Swann-Ingram says. "I worry about the feel of a piece, but Carl brings so much precision and mastery to a piece. It's like two sides of a coin. A piece without his skills or my skills, I don't know ..."
"She sees things that I'll never see," he says. "What happens here when we start down the path of building a commission piece, Alison is a very good sketcher so she'll start a series of sketches. She is a faster artist than I'll ever be. So she'll start up with some design concepts and the whole time she is sketching it out, I'm telling her why we can't build it like that. But she'll say you'll figure it out. Actually, it is a great process because, as we are designing something, she'll come up with the rough design concept, start nailing down details and then we start kicking back on fine-tuning the design concept."
They build models of part of a project or sometimes an entire project to see how different cabinetry would be combined together properly. On occasion, a life-size model has been built out of 1/4" plywood and taken to a client's house and put in place so they can be assured that the scale proportions are correct.
"The doors, gates and windows we work with general contractors on, but we really don't do much commercial work," she says. "Occasionally we'll have somebody come and say can we build a reception or a cool bar for a nightclub, but because our pieces are sort of signature pieces they tend to be more for the high-end residential clients. We don't do any production runs."
Although they recently started using Google SketchUp, they are not a strong CAD shop and have no intention of being one as they find it to be a rather cold process. When they do use it, it is after the design process is complete, but before construction starts so they can see things in a more 3-D rotational mechanism.
"When I'm sketching something, I'm talking about how to build it because of the slowness of the process of sketching," Swann-Ingram says. "I'm also thinking of the qualities that the piece needs to have and CAD doesn't do that. It doesn't relish and enjoy."
"For me, what we do works," notes Johnson. "I am very happy with the path that we are on. When the economy was booming, we would stay nine months out, now we're probably five to six months out. I don't want to mess with what works for us. We never advertise and everything we do is by word of mouth. Alison and I have discussed this before. We're extremely fortunate. We don't take it for granted. We've had things come our way that I could have never dreamed of. It's not like I could have gone out, banged on doors and gotten these projects. They just happen."
The business has an extensive Web site and occasionally the two will put a few small pieces in gallery shows.
Another example of the differences between the two is that Swann-Ingram readily admits she often likes to design pieces with an Asian influence and enjoys working with metals, while Johnson likes traditional furniture, mainly 18th century reproductions.
"I like that style, those moldings, those proportions," he explains. "I love working with mahogany, I love working with cherry and the richness it takes on over a period of time. It never goes out of style and it's beautiful. So Alison brings out the different side to some of that."
Franklin Street Fine Woodwork primarily builds custom furniture for individual homeowners that are usually referred by previous customers. The business does work with architects and interior designers who already have the design that they want and just need a specialist to build it.
"The clients are generally professional folks; usually they are really busy folks ... and it's always sort of an education process," she says. "They start to realize that a piece of furniture isn't just a thing, it's a living thing. They can pour their heart and soul into it and make it into something that is extremely personal to them.
"I think that is why they come back to us because they realize that they're not getting disposable furniture. They are getting these signature pieces that mean so much more to them than anything they could out and buy."
Because of the drop in construction, they're selling fewer doors, gates and custom entryways. But their remodeling business has increased. The woodworkers don't feel they are bidding against other businesses, especially in the greater Tampa area.
"When we compete nationally, yes, it is a tougher market and there a lot of really awesome folks out there we have respect for and admire," Swann-Ingram says.
"But if someone comes and says so-and-so down the street has bid $10,000 on this buffet, can you do it cheaper? We don't go there; we don't want to give into those scenarios," Johnson adds. "We like people who say, 'What would you two charge us to build this?' "
Now that Franklin Street Fine Woodwork is up and running, the two owners are naturally excited about lies ahead. With an understanding clientele, a backlog of commission work and a great working relationship, Johnson and Swann-Ingram are knowingly involved in a unique working relationship. The other positive of having the shop operational is the two can get back to what they love - building custom furniture.
Contact: Franklin Street Fine Woodwork, 1609 North Franklin St., Tampa, FL 33602. Tel: 813-223-3490. www.franklinstreetfw.com
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.