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A class act

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.

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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.”

When Leigh started to get homesick for her family, the couple moved back to the L.A. area. Cliff Spencer Furniture Maker was launched on the most meager resources. “Our first location was just a bit of subleased bench space from another shop. I started out making pieces on spec to designs I created,” says Spencer. Anything he couldn’t sell — tables, rocking chairs, casework and more — he gave as gifts, just to build some word-of-mouth for the fledgling business, and to have something to put up on the Web site,

By early 2005, there were some slight signs of progress. Cliff worked in the shop, and Leigh offered advice, helped with some of the designs, built the Web site, and served as chief marketing officer (while still holding down an outside design job — and she is now also the mother of a 2-year-old son named Scout). What the Spencers learned is they function well as a team.

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“Our first big break,” Spencer recalls, “was when we connected with Living Green, a Culver City home furnishings store that started showing some of our designs. Slowly, custom projects began to come our way. One of the early ones was a music stand for a violinist, a well-known studio musician in Southern California.”

One job leads to another
The next big milestone for the young firm started with an ad in Los Angeles Magazine, announcing the creation of a green home, and inviting suppliers to participate in the project. The Spencers made an initial call, left a voice mail message, but received no reply. As Cliff remembers it, he figured it was a lost cause. At Leigh’s urging, however, he called again, reached a live person who warmed to his suggestions and introduced him to the homeowners. “We wound up building bamboo casework in the laundry room and several individual pieces throughout the home,” says Spencer.

The green-home effort led to a meeting with architect David Hertz, whom Spencer identifies as “a pioneer in sustainable building.” Through him, the shop secured a commission to do all the cabinets and some staircase work at a home he had designed in Venice Beach, Calif. This led to more publicity.

Another strong contact was Russell Orrell, a contractor who features traditional designs. “This enabled us to build a portfolio in a variety of styles,” says Spencer. The shop was on its way.

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With volume and interest increasing, Cliff and Leigh recognized there was a lot they needed to learn about running a business. They called in a business counselor, who urged them to hire more people, and to pay all his people enough to ensure they would be experienced, have good skills and a high level of intelligence.

In 2005, with two employees already on board, Spencer hired three more, including shop foreman Danny Molina and installation specialist Roque Nauta, both of whom are still with him. Until January, there simply wasn’t any room for more people, since the company was sharing space in a 2,500-sq.-ft. shop.

When an opportunity arose to lease a space with 3,500 sq. ft., Spencer grabbed it. “We hired two more people for the shop — David DeCristoforo and Rigoberto Rodriguez, who focuses on finishing. I also have an office manager, Jessica Trandel,” he says. Earlier this year, he hired one more, Kacey Schaffrath, who is working on drafting and design, and also will be the first woman to work on the shop floor. All these, plus Waldo Alfaro, a graduate of Los Angeles Trade Technical College, make up the staff.

Reclaiming the past
Today, even though Spencer says, “my hands are in every project,” he is now able to devote most of his time to designing, handling client contact, and doing cost estimates. And every once in awhile, he will personally craft a project that intrigues him, such as two rockers that were made from seating that came from Fenway Park in Boston.

This particular use of “old wood” is an extreme example of Spencer’s wish to run his business in as sustainable and eco-friendly a manner as he can. “A big part of my motivation is my son, Scout. I want him to have a future on this planet.”

Thus, Cliff Spencer Furniture Maker uses as much as possible, wastes very little, and even donates the sawdust it generates to local gardeners, who use it for composting. “Whenever we can,” Spence explains, “we use reclaimed lumber. Our main sources are the wineries of the Napa Valley, and we are also beginning to get some from the Santa Barbara region. We have also built gates from a cypress tree that fell down during a windstorm in Monterey. That tree came from a company called Earth Source in Oakland. They sell both virgin and reclaimed lumber, and we received the entire yield of the tree, already milled and dried. There is still one slab left, and that probably will become a bench.”

Spencer also searches the Internet for backyard trees that have either toppled or had to be removed. “There are many benefits to working with reclaimed lumber,” he asserts, listing all of the following:

• It is sustainable; there is no lessening of the Earth’s resources.

• It is available, and so much is viable.

• It is “fun” to seek out new woods that haven’t been used before, and that may not be available or affordable in the virgin state

• It is exciting to face the challenges that sometimes arise with reclaimed lumber, e.g. twists and cracks that may be found in wind-fallen trees, or finishing solutions that must be found when working with oak that is stained from use in wine manufacturing

“We have not yet worked with any endangered species, which, of course, can only be allowed if the wood has been previously used,” says Spencer. “We are looking forward to that,” he adds.

The owner does, however, acknowledge one hurdle that must be overcome when using reclaimed lumber: “Although 10 out of 10 customers say they like our designs using this material, only two out of 10 will actually buy it. We believe that over time, and with all of the positive publicity now being devoted to finding green solutions, that more and more consumers will come to see the value in this type of construction.”

Looking ahead, Spencer says, “Leigh and I have a forward-looking business vision that goes 10 years into the future. We hope to have a company that offers diversified lines, including cabinets, wood furniture and upholstered furniture. And we want it all to represent the highest quality design and manufacturing standards.” n

Contact: Cliff Spencer Furniture Maker, 13435 Marina Del Ray, CA 90292, Tel: (310)-823-0112.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.

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