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Made in Alaska

Kurt Echols opened Cabinet Fever, a small cabinet shop in Anchorage, 20 years ago after taking a job offer in the 49th state from some former customers

When cabinetmaker Kurt Echols was given the chance to take his skills to Alaska in 1981, he jumped at the opportunity. It allowed him to experience the northern lights, frozen tundra and eventually open Cabinet Fever, a custom cabinet shop in Anchorage.

Cabinet Fever serves the state’s biggest city and beyond, producing commercial and residential work. Founded in 1999, the four-person shop is on target to hit $800,000 in annual sales.

“We pretty much do all remodels with the residential side, mostly houses from the 70s and 80s. There were a lot of houses built back then, after the [Trans-Alaska Pipeline System] was finished. A lot of people had money, the economy was booming, and there was a big building boom. They were building tract houses with cheap cabinets and particleboard. Now people are older, they have more money, they’ve got those houses and they want to fix them up,” Echols explains.

Cabinetmaker Cameron Gould

Cabinetmaker Cameron Gould

From a woodworking family

Echols was born in Orange, Calif. and moved often with a father in the military. But he was never far from working with his hands. “My dad was a woodworker, so were my uncles and grandfather. My grandfather built wooden boats in Long Beach for whaling ships to come to Alaska, of all places. My dad was in the military but before and after that he was a general contractor and always had some sort of project going like a gun stock or dining room table,” says Echols.

After graduating high school in Washington, D.C .in 1971, Echols moved with his family to Hermiston, a small city in the eastern Oregon. He joined his two brothers in starting a framing company, Echols Brothers Construction, which lasted several years.

“Then I started building cabinets in a barn behind my house. This was before Home Depot came to town and there weren’t a lot of options for cabinets. There were one or two other one-man shops in town, that’s it,” says Echols.

His customers included two brothers who had moved to Oregon after working on the Alaskan pipeline. In 1981, they were headed back and invited Echols.

“They moved back to Fairbanks and called and asked if I wanted a job up there. They were reopening a glass shop that their father had closed. They wanted to start selling cabinets and they remembered me from Oregon,” says Echols, who gave a quick ‘yes’ and moved with his wife and two young children.

Echols got a crash course on the Alaskan economy. “Our economy’s really dependent on oil prices. It’s by far the largest industry up here. So, when oil prices go down, everything goes down. Oil executives get laid off, sell their big houses and leave then a few years later they come back,” he explains.

The glass company transformed into a home center, offering windows, floor coverings, cabinets and appliances. Echols took on selling and installing manufactured lines of cabinetry, as well as building and installing countertops.

“That was the tail end of the pipeline construction and a lot of people in Fairbanks had a lot of money. There was a housing boom with a lot of custom and log homes being built – all new construction. That was short lived. The boom lasted until about 1986 when the economy crashed really bad and a lot of houses got foreclosed on.”

Shop foreman William Morrison 

Shop foreman William Morrison 

A lucky break

As a result, Echols moved to Anchorage and worked for a cabinet and appliance distributor. “I did that for two years, but we were still in an economic slump and I saw the writing on the wall. I moved back to Fairbanks and started working on my own as an installer and did finish carpentry for other shops and private clients,” he says.

While making his way in Anchorage, Echols, an outdoor enthusiast, wound up badly injured in a snow machine accident that ultimately led to hip replacement surgery.

“I got to where it was hard to be a carpenter anymore because it was hard to carry anything. So, I decided to be a salesman again. My friend, Don Kessler, had quite a bit of money from a framing business and put it up to start Cabinet Fever.

“I had the experience and he had the cash, so we started Cabinet Fever in 1999 so I could have a desk job. It’s now in its 20th year.”

In the beginning, Cabin Fever sold cabinets and hired installers because Echols wasn’t physically able. But he got better and bought out his partner around 2002. The shop is at its third location, a 2,200-sq.-ft. space in a quiet industrial complex. The crew includes cabinetmakers William Morrison, Cameron Gould and Ethan Sebwenna, plus office manager Marina Ott.

The shop has everything but a CNC machine. “There are a few large production shops in the area that are always happy to help,” says Echols.

All over the state

The shop’s ratio of commercial to residential work is constantly changing. “We used to do about 50 percent commercial work and that would be all over the state. Now it’s about 25 percent but we’re bidding on more of it. We’ve done a lot in Prudhoe Bay, Barrow [renamed Utqiagvik] and Fairbanks. We did all of the cabinetry in the Fairbanks airport when it was rebuilt and small jobs in the Anchorage airport, too,” Echols says.

“We’ll do work all over the state and it’s a big state. We’ve done work in Seward, Homer, Soldotna, Kenai, and quite a bit in Wasilla. We’ve done work in Nome.”

It’s interesting that southeast Alaska, which includes the capital city of Juneau, is most often served by shops in Seattle, according to Echols.

“We also do some real high-end homes with big kitchens and some multi-units. Clients have varying budgets. We don’t turn any work down, but we probably should. I think we’re the only shop in town that still does repairs on cabinet doors.

“I’m not sure if we make a lot of money on it but its steady money and provides a service. Everyone in town – Lowes, Home Depot, builders and supply outlets – if they get a customer with a broken door or drawer, they send them here. And those people are really happy with our work, so they’ll come back years later for a kitchen or they’ll tell somebody about us.”

The majority of orders are for painted cabinets with Shaker doors. “My sales reps keep telling me white is fading in the lower 48. For us it’s all mostly white. I bet 95 percent of our kitchens are white right now. But some people like dark cherry, rustic alder and rustic hickory.”

The company recently acquired a portion of a modular building unit used during pipeline construction and is in the process of adding heat and ventilation to make it a spray/paint booth.

Owner Kurt Echols

Owner Kurt Echols

Marching along

Cabinet Fever enjoys a great word-of-mouth reputation and receives a regular stream of work from builders and designers. The shop advertises in Alaska Home magazine and through local radio spots.

Echols sees opportunity to increase volume, but his small shop space doesn’t make that easy. “The refacing part of the business is doing so well now I thought about actually starting just a refacing business under the same name and license but at another location with a showroom, salesperson and a spray booth in there.”

Having recently turned 66, Echols is considering how long he will stay working and says he’s always planned on turning Cabinet Fever over to a buyer someday, preferably one of his employees.

“My son [Seth] worked here for about seven years as cabinetmaker. He was really good, and I was hoping someday he’d take it over, but he never really got into the sales or design aspects. He ended up moving back to Oregon.”

Echols, who builds guitars as a hobby, has found a home in Alaska. “I’ve always loved it up here,” he says. “I love hunting and fishing and hiking. I especially loved hiking when I was younger, but I have a four-wheeler I take out and a snow machine. It’s a great place to live.”

Contact: Cabinet Fever, 8220 Petersburg St., Anchorage, AK99507. Tel:907-349-4871. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.

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