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Better with age

Michael Humphries Woodworking recently celebrated its 40th year in business with an anniversary party that honored past and present clients. Located in Northfield, Mass., the turnkey company offers custom design, fabrication, finishing and installation of furniture, cabinetry and architectural millwork.

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Lately, owner Michael Humphries and his 16 employees have been on their toes trying to keep up with the surge of work coming in. It was a different scenario just a few years ago.

“It took about a year for [the Great Recession] to hit us,” Humphries says. “We survived the earthquake, then got hit by a tsunami. It was very difficult. We had layoffs and we merged the two shops we had into one.”

Humphries chose his newer and larger (9,000-sq.-ft.) shop in Northfield over his first shop in Warwick, Mass. “We kept the best tools and the best craftsmen and kept going. It’s worked out well, though, and it’s certainly easier to manage one shop. We have better accessibility here than in the old shop, which is now being rented out for storage and an apartment.”

Originally from Cumberland, Pa., Humphries pursued several careers before earning a living from woodworking. He managed a clothing boutique in New York City, earned a graduate degree in teaching and tried television production in Boston. He eventually worked at a cabinet shop and found his niche. He soon started Humphries Woodworking in a barn next to his house.

Let the good times roll

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The shop currently enjoys a three-month backlog. It’s been completing about 25 jobs per year for the last three years. The client base includes a good mix of architects, builders and homeowners.

“Right now we have a lot of repeat customers who we did work for 15 years ago,” Humphries says. “They’re selling their old homes and buying new, mainly in the Boston area. We also have a core of five contractors who love to use us and come back to us again and again.”

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Recently, the shop has started contacting contractors it hasn’t worked with, hoping to get on their bid lists. The shop’s website is bringing work in, too.

“We get a lot of calls from people who’ve found us on our website, probably three to four a week who say they saw us and ask if we can make something they describe, like a custom table or entertainment center or whatnot. This is our retail side.”

With 40 years under his tool belt, Humphries has seen plenty of trends come and go. The shop has always had the flexibility to build to any style.

“We’ve been doing a lot more modern work than we’ve ever done,” he says. “Beaded face frame is really popular here in New England, but we have not done a beaded face frame in two years. Everyone wants painted slab or Shaker doors or the full European sleek modern look. We’re getting a lot of requests for high gloss, the sleeked-out wet look with a mirror finish.

“Being flexible is very important. Things are becoming more contemporary and [if] you’re stuck only knowing how to do a beaded face frame, things are going to be tough for you.”

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Expanding its market

New marketing ideas are focused on expanding the customer base beyond the Boston area. The idea, of course, is not to have all of their eggs in one basket. Ideally, Humphries would like to have the opportunity to work in Connecticut and New York when the local jobs aren’t happening.

“Business always ebbs and flows,” Humphries says. “We do find ourselves competing every two or three jobs, but we are always very vigilant about who we’re bidding against so we know where we’ll be in the pack. It’s very competitive in Boston. The only time we never bid against anyone is with a direct customer who already knows us.”

The seasoned owner says he’s not about to wind down, but is comfortable having his employees work on the regional expansion project while he pursues other growth opportunities.

“As I approach retirement, I’m thinking about doing more furniture. We always have done furniture, but it’s only been about 5 percent of our business.”

Contact: Michael Humphries Woodworking, 158 Birnam Road, Northfield, MA 01360. Tel: 413-498-0018.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.

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