Going with the flow

flow1J.D. Elsmore of J.D. Custom Furniture in Sparks, Nevada, proudly honors full-service custom woodworking requests including, but not limited to, entertainment centers, kitchen cabinets, office desks, bookshelves, Murphy beds and fireplace mantles. His company motto is: “If you can’t find it in a furniture store, call us.”

Located just outside the city limits of Reno, he serves clients in western Nevada and eastern California. A fifth-generation cabinetmaker in his mid-70s, he wants to keep the business going as long as possible.

“I’m at the age right now where I’m kind of going with the flow. I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to work, but I’ll keep at it as long as I can. I just turned 74 in May. My son might want to take it over. I do the bookkeeping, plans, estimates and run the jobs. I’m always on the job when we actually put the projects together at the customers’ home or business,” Elsmore says.

Elsmore, originally from Los Angeles, started in landscaping.

“I didn’t want to do what my dad did when I finished school and he was a carpenter and a woodworker,” he says. “I went to work for my uncle, a landscape contractor, and he taught me the business and I ended up getting my contractor’s license. I went out and did all sorts of things like make waterfalls and fountains in the San Fernando Valley area. Then, after a while, people asked me to do a patio here and there, as well as gazebos and garden gates. Then they started asking for room additions.”

His son, James, also became a landscaper. But Los Angeles was a tough market in the mid-1990s, forcing James to find work in Reno. He talked his father into going as well.

“Then I realized that with both of us doing landscape contracting in Reno that we’d be at each other’s throats on bidding so I decided to open up this shop. I reverted back to my dad’s career and have loved it ever since I got into it. My son joined me years later.”

flow2Elsmore is now in his fourth shop, a 3,000-sq.-ft. facility near the Truckee River.

Broad client base

Elsmore says he mainly serves the Lake Tahoe and Carson City areas. Most jobs are within a 45-minute drive of Reno.

“My work is primarily residential, but I do remodels in some smaller office buildings, the local university (University of Nevada at Reno) and Ace Hardware for its store in Sparks. I just want to have the work. I’m not too fussy about where it’s coming from. I just want to keep busy and keep my guys busy.

“We make all of our own cabinet doors and drawers. If any project is more of a challenge and I need any special parts, I give my plans to my neighbor and he cuts them out for me on his CNC router.”

Finishing is a shop specialty, particularly matching colors in a client’s home.

“I have changed my finishes to a water-based lacquer and sealer. I do everything in-house and have a sprayer and I’m doing it like that mainly because of the environment and so the fire department doesn’t bother me as much because no spray booth is needed.”

Elsmore is referred to as the “Birch Man” for his skill at making the wood look like other woods.

flow3“I do a lot of stuff in birch,” he says. “With birch, I can change the stain colors to look like nice hardwoods like cherry so people don’t have to pay the price of cherry, but they have a nice finish like cherry.”

Steady workflow

“Competition is not as bad as it used to be. Competition is one of the reasons so many cabinetmakers have left the business and their leaving is one of the reasons why we’ve been so busy right now because I’ve hung in there. My son and I are both drowning in work.”

Elsmore says clients believe he charges a very fair price for his work, which he arrives at by figuring material and labor costs. Work comes by referrals from customers, contractors and material suppliers. Others find him by “stumbling across his website.”

The shop has had as many as eight employees. Elsmore is down to four now and attributes any success to their hard work. But finding experienced help has always been difficult.

“Mostly everybody I hire I have to train. I put in for help at my state unemployment offices, but no one ever has any experience. Then when I have someone that really has experience they want to make more wages than I do,” he says with a laugh.

He offers his employees medical insurance. His basic business plan is to keep overhead low, which hasn’t allowed for frequent machinery upgrades.

“I don’t think I’ll purchase anything automated at my age. My family all lives into their late 80s so there’s a good chance I’ll be around. But if the business does well enough and I could afford some new machines right now, that would be great.”

flow4Lessons learned

Ironically, Elsmore says he should have started woodworking earlier. “If I could redo some things I would have gotten some formal training in this field. I had nobody teach me anything. I watched my dad, but I put all of those years into landscaping that I could have spent learning woodworking skills.

“I understand they don’t have woodshop classes in school anymore and that’s bad. That’s really where I got my training. I was an A student in woodshop and also in graphics classes.”

Elsmore and his family have taken to western Nevada, which he describes as a safe and friendly place to do business.

“When I moved up here in ’97, my wife didn’t want any part of it and I was up here for two months by myself getting started. She didn’t want to move to the desert, but our son talked her into it. She had never seen Reno, but she started to like it a lot. A big thing was leaving all of her friends behind and starting over, but today she will never go back to L.A. because of the congestion there. There is congestion here, but not like that.”

Contact: J.D. Custom Furniture, 722 Spice Island Dr., Sparks, NV 89431. Tel: 775-690-8859. www.jdcustomcabinets.com

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue.

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