While the Philadelphia Woodworking Co. has the ring of an 18th–century furniture shop begun by Benjamin Franklin, it only dates back to 2013 and founder Matthew Smolens.
The 31-year-old is moving into his third shop – a 9,300-sq.-ft. space with high ceilings and a city skyline view in north Philly – with his four employees, machinery and clients from the suburbs. He follows a calculated business approach that revolves around a fairly simple creed: give the clients exactly what they want.
“I’ve never had too much of a desire to do my own designs. I’m more of an engineer than a designer. I like to work within constraints of other people’s ideas more, rather than being a furniture maker making a beautiful thing for people who might want it. That makes sense and that’s how business works now. Being a problem solver and working with other people’s ideas makes sense,” says Smolens.
Not his first choice
Smolens grew up in Doylestown, Pa., earned a bachelor’s degree from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, and has worked with many of the area’s best cabinetmakers.
“Woodworking wasn’t in my family or anything like that but I was always drawn to it and got exposed to it in middle school. In high school I took as many of those classes as I could and ended up getting jobs at local shops in the summers,” he says.
But Smolens also had musical aspirations.
“I had only wanted woodworking to be a hobby back then and didn’t see it as a career. I was in a band and played the bass guitar and that’s what I was focused on that at the time. We did local gigs, we toured a little, and after the first year of college the band got more serious and was approached by a record label. But I decided that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. So I left the band and got another job at a shop in town here, which was for the next five years.”
He also took woodworking classes at the Bucks County Community College in Newtown, went back to Temple for some architectural studies, and enrolled in the art school. But the work experience in shops got him to think about woodworking as a feasible career.
“That whole time I was working for different furniture makers and cabinet makers, they were doing really interesting work. They showed me a different way to live and have a small business, especially in a big city,” says Smolens.
From shop to shop
Smolens started working for himself in 2011 just to see how it was going to go. He started in a small co-operative shop and in less than two years moved to a larger co-op to take on bigger projects. Now he’s expanding again with the new shop, which features a proper spray booth.
“Finishing is not my thing,” admits Smolens. “It’s an art of its own. I have a basic knowledge and so does a guy who works for me. There is a finisher nearby us that we use now and everyone is going there to learn so we can start doing our own. We always did some clear basic finish work but now with booth we will get into it a little.”
Smolens is the designer, estimator, project coordinator and scheduler, and when he’s not busy with all that helps in the shop and sweeps the floor.
“I don’t work in the shop very much. I work onsite pretty regularly. I can’t let go there. That’s when it all comes together and a lot of times clients are there, so you’ve got to be sure things are right.”
The shop is fed work from a secret design firm in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. The shop’s name has also helped to attract customers.
“The name of the business is good and bad,” says Smolens. “It’s very ‘Googleable’, and people call for anything. But I get a fair number of inquiries from people who don’t fully understand the market, to no fault of their own. The state of custom furniture and cabinets has changed with places like Ikea and Home Depot that are cheap. Some people will approach us with that in mind and when I give them a ballpark price they think I’m trying to rip them off or something.
“So we don’t want a sign up or a big public presence because those people come around. I like my clients streamed through architects and designers and builders. They’re pre-screened in a way and know the costs associated.”
The shop does most its work in and around Philadelphia.
“The city’s growing right now,” says Smolens. “There’s a lot of new construction and we’ve gotten some work from that. We also do some work older houses. One of our customers wants a whole new kitchen in a 19th-century farmhouse.”
While he’s moving into a bigger shop, Smolens is trying to be conservative about the future growth of his business.
“I’m a bit nervous about that,” he says. “I want to keep eye on things. The guys I have are great but I don’t think we’re at a point where I can hand off stuff to a person to oversee the work in the shop.
“We are small and I can still be involved and I like that. I couldn’t have 30 or so people working here. We’re not looking to get that big. But I could see having a couple more people here especially as we get into doing more finish work.”
Remember, Smolens is still fairly new at running a shop, a point he concedes.
“I think I’m still figuring out what the heck it is I’m doing here. I’ve only been doing it for a few years and have never done it at the pace that we’re doing it now. Every day we get a little busier and I’m not used to that so I’m just figuring out how to manage a business and make all of these products.”
Smolens recently found an abandoned box in his new space with stationary for the Interior Milling Co., a components manufacturer that had been around for decades. Undoubtedly, it’s a promising sign for the new tenant.
Contact: Philadelphia Woodworking Co., 4530 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19144. Tel: 215-260-0361. www.philadelphiawoodworking.com
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.