Brooklyn’s neighborhood shop

34_brooklyn_1Working with wood is truly Marcy Pesner's passion. It's also nothing new for the owner of Beagle & Potts Woodworking in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I feel, after 25 years, we've created a niche market," she says. "Our clients select us for one-stop shopping for a project that includes everything from design and building to installation. Our solid, dependable reputation, our attention to detail, our cleanliness on the job site and our good humor has all added to our success."

35_brooklyn_1The shop serves the residential market, mostly producing cabinetry and built-in storage solutions. The company's design bent is a mix of Shaker, Adirondack rustic, Cape Cod saltbox and a little New Mexico peppering. These styles are graced with the features of simple geometry, country warmth and classical lines with special attention paid to balancing color, texture and proportion.

Two full-time employees run the day-to-day tasks, but part-timers are always passing through the shop's doors. Pesner likes to give emerging artisans all the opportunities they can have when they go to her for employment. In turn, they help the business evolve with design trends and keep its offerings from being provincial.

"Everybody trains everybody on the job. I don't like any one person to get pigeonholed and I also like the non-competitive spirit that's in the shop. Everyone helps each other out. And everyone is committed to doing a good job because of the pride in creating a good solid piece," says Pesner.

Ambitious artisan

Pesner developed her artistic abilities first at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and then at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture in 1979. She lived in Nyack, N.Y, for a year after graduating and was an artist in residence for Rockland County under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a government program that helped artists find jobs. As part of the program, she was also an art therapist at Letchworth Village in upstate New York.

Marcy Pesner

Owner of: Beagle & Potts Woodworking

Location: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Shop size: 1,500 sq. ft.

34_brooklyn_2Employees: Two full time and three part time

About: Since the doors of the original Beagle Tiles Woodworking opened in 1986 for the purpose of transforming fir ply scraps into deluxe wall tiles, the company has evolved into a full-service woodworking operation offering custom-built storage solutions for residential clients in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Beagle & Potts specializes in unique cabinetry that solves multipurpose functionality problems in tight living spaces in the city.

Annual gross: $300,000

Quotable: “Being a cabinetmaker is about being a therapist to your clients. You really have to sit down with them and carefully translate their concerns about design and function into something they’re really excited about. Then you make a product that matches or, hopefully, exceeds their expectations.”

"As an artist in residence for Rockland County, I built a sculpture which became a permanent installation. After that, I moved to Brooklyn, but I wasn't sure how to make a living. My first job was with an architectural model maker. I worked with him for a year, and then another architectural model maker, and then for a model maker doing special effects for TV commercials."

She opened her own business in 1986, renting co-op space in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood. The business was originally called Beagle Tiles, based on wooden wall tiles Pesner invented and sold. She soon gravitated into building storage and custom cabinetry, while getting training help from her peers.

"I learned a lot of what I know today from a cabinetmaker, Alph Edwards, and my shop mates. I also read a ton of woodworking magazines and catalogs."

As the work flowed in from local residents wanting various home improvements, things got more challenging, but then the economy crashed. After 14 years in Dumbo, she took a job as head of a model shop for a toy company in Manhattan. During the next 10 years she still did woodworking on the side, always knowing she wanted to come back and run a woodworking business full time. When the toy company moved to California, she started Beagle & Potts.

Local clientele

All of Pesner's clients are residential and 95 percent are located in Brooklyn, with a few in Manhattan. They own co-ops, condos and brownstones where permanent renovations can be made. Half of the clients have repeatedly used her services through the years and Pesner has watched several of her clients' children grow up and attend college.

The company completes an average of 14 commissions annually, but last year had to double that number while charging less in order to keep the shop running during the economic downturn. This is the first year Beagle has had to advertise.

"Our clientele is largely by word of mouth, neighborhood Internet resource Web site referrals, Google [searches], and from the Brooklyn summer street fairs. Our client base, as we refer to them, are Ikea graduates - young families looking for unique storage solutions, clients looking for that special 3-in-1 function piece, home office solutions and kitchens. We are currently designing and building with reclaimed lumber, which is so wonderful to work with because of its character."

35_brooklyn_2Most clients reside in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, but the company is now branching into an area called Ditmas Park, the largest concentration of Victorian homes in the U.S., according to Pesner. Beagle is busy renovating kitchens in that area.

Pesner also says that being a woman has probably helped her gain the trust and confidence of her clientele. "I have clients who've told me they prefer working with women because of the quality of listening and the neatness of the job site. No one likes coming home after work to dust and empty soda cans lying about. It's interesting being a woman in this field because there really aren't many of us doing this work so going to lumberyards or hardware stores is always interesting. This company used to be comprised of all women and then it was mostly men. Now it's 50-50."

Design offerings

Almost all pieces are designed using Google's SketchUp program. Pesner proudly states her company doesn't necessarily follow trends. Per each client's request, the company offers traditional, contemporary, and every style in between.

"Usually they want something elegant and simple with classic lines, but mostly they want something that's highly functional."

36_brooklyn_1Aside from the Shaker, rustic and Southwestern design offerings, Beagle has recently started designing specifically for reclaimed lumber.

"Reclaimed lumber is appealing because it has so much character and is rich in texture. It comes with a lot of history and patina. After planing, it's ready for another life. Clients like that, especially in Brooklyn. If they can't afford a country place, what a better idea than to bring the country into their apartment and walk home and, voila, they're in Vermont far away from this large city."

It can't be stressed enough about how important ergonomics are for the inner-Brooklyn clientele. Clients want to be able to make their living room, kitchen and den work in three different ways. Everything has to be compartmentalized, particularly in homes with children. The goal is to pack the most into a small space and that's Beagle's specialty.

A team effort

In a small shop, it's pretty common to cross-train employees in all aspects of the business. But Pesner also makes sure that each employee's primary duties are well defined.

When starting a job, Pesner makes a site visit, takes measurements, talks to Rob Pettit - the shop's designer and work flow maestro - and writes up a quote. Pettit started with the company two years ago as a designer, but has since been trained in client development, woodworking, assembly, installation and finishing techniques.

Once construction has begun, Pesner oversees the quality of the fabrication, finishing and installation. With the help of Margaret Nolan, the company's office manager, finisher and Web site refresher, the team is able to stay on track and meet project deadlines.

36_brooklyn_2Pesner believes that being a low-tech shop is one of the reasons the company has stayed in business so long. The shop's machinery includes a Rockwell table saw with an Excalibur extension table, Baldor 13-hole boring machine, two drill presses, DeWalt 10" compound miter saw, Hitachi 10" sliding compound miter saw, 12" Makita planer, 6" Jet jointer, and Hoffmann spline fastener. Finishing is done in-house.

"We occasionally spray, but most application is with a foam brush," says Pesner. "I've been using Basic Coatings resin/water finish for over 25 years and I wouldn't use anything else. It's got UV protectors so there's minimal color degradation over time and has a striking look and feel to that of an oil-based finish."

The shop is a regular customer of Rosenzweig Lumber in Bronx, N.Y., and Roberts Plywood in Deer Park, N.Y. Hardware is purchased mainly from Lee Valley Hardware, Eveready Hardware and Outwater. Doors and drawer fronts are outsourced from WalzCraft.

36_brooklyn_3"We get our drawers from Eagle Woodworking in (Lawrence) Massachusetts. They give perfect, solid maple dovetail drawers at an incredibly reasonable price. And I always get the owner on the phone. I love that," adds Pesner.

As you might guess, Pesner isn't interested in adding CNC machinery. When the need arises for CNC-machined parts, she outsources to the nearby Tamer and Tamer Fine Woodworking shop. She'd rather work with her competitors than take them on.

"When you're in a small community like this, people are really getting together and helping each other out," says Pesner. "These are tough times and giving other cabinetmakers work and talking to other cabinetmaker friends is a way of keeping [our] community alive."

Steady business

The company remained productive in 2009, even in light of the economic downturn, and has a steady three-month backlog.

Pesner opened a woodworking school, the Beagle & Potts Institute of Higher Woodworking, at her shop last fall. Students have been mostly beginners and classes have been limited to five. She admits teaching can be tiring after a full day of work, but the results are exhilarating, so she is working on ways to balance the running of the school and the shop.

37_brooklyn"I want to teach people the confidence to work with their hands. Our students are people with children and a lot of time, or people who sit behind desks most of the day and want to be creative with their hands. There are a lot of people who want to learn basic skills so they can work on their homes. But, mostly, people really want to work with wood."

The most challenging thing about the woodworking business, she says, is remaining in business in such an unpredictable economic climate. However, there are always other concerns, like how to better manage jobs, make use of outsourcing opportunities, how to streamline certain techniques without compromising the quality, and continue to provide a decent living for those who work for her.

"There's no formula," she says. "The company needs to remain fluid and not resist change. Most importantly, because we're small, we need to work as a team building towards the future of Beagle & Potts."

39_brooklynContact: Beagle & Potts, 267 Douglass St., Brooklyn, NY 11217. Tel: 718-330-0921.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.