In a good year, Heartwood Custom Woodworks in Eagle, Colo. averages $2.5 to $3 million in sales with a 16,000-sq.-ft. shop and 14 employees. Last year, as if anyone needs reminding, wasn’t so good. Sales dropped to $2 million, mostly due to Covid-related delays. But an influx of permanent residents bodes well.
“Our local resort communities are in the midst of a real estate boom due in part to people leaving urban centers to relocate to the mountains in search of the outdoor lifestyle we enjoy here,” says owner Carl Jordan. “Often, new buyers will remodel the properties they buy in order to put their personal touches on them. Thus, the demand for work for all trades has increased.”
Jordan grew up in Eagle Valley, a small town about 30 miles west of the Vail and Beaver Creek resorts. He learned from his father, a cabinetmaker, and an apprenticeship with Wilfred “Willie” Glasbrenner in Avon, Col.
“Out of high school I went to college for a couple years and, not being sure of where I was headed with that, I came back to Vail where I worked in a ski shop until the apprenticeship opportunity presented itself. I liked working with my hands and creating things, so I stuck with it.”
Right place, right time
Jordan started Heartwood with his wife, Janet, from a small garage in Eagle. The business moved to its current location, an industrial park, about a year later. Growth happened fairly quickly. Then, as now, Colorado attracted wealthy visitors and investors to the resort communities of Aspen, Vail and Beaver Creek. Heartwood was well-positioned and suited to serve this market with its exceptional work.
“The early 90’s was a busy and prosperous time for construction and development in our area so there was a lot of work and consequently, the business grew and so did our workforce,” says Jordan.
Although the company has serviced clients’ needs in California, Florida, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, local jobs are the norm. General contractors are the primary source of leads, with some referrals from architects and designers, and the occasional cold call from a homeowner.
“We completed a large project recently for a stunning home built in Estes Park at the edge of the iconic Rocky Mountain National Park. The home and property were unique with the house positioned on a ridge at 9,500 feet elevation overlooking Longs Peak on the Front Range with dramatic views.”
Heartwood does custom commercial work on occasion. Its last major job was a cannabis dispensary in Aspen.
Designs over the last 10 years have leaned heavily toward mountain contemporary style, combining clean straight lines, flush panel doors and matched veneers. A recently completed townhome in Aspen, nicknamed the Land Yacht, embraced the clean look of a yacht with lots of lightly figured anigre. Popular finishes include natural tones, stains and paints of various sheens, as well as durable protective finishes such as Milesi Topcoat.
“One trend we see is the desire to make the wood looking like its natural form,” says Jordan. “Whether it’s walnut or white oak, people want it to look as natural as possible so trying to apply the best protective finish can be challenging. We use one- and two-degree finishes that are very flat so there’s no sheen from them.”
Straight from the Heart
Almost everything at Heartwood is fabricated in-house thanks to state-of-the-art equipment, except for outsourced dovetail drawers. Investments in automated machinery has made things more efficient and helps it avoid most supply chain issues.
Major equipment includes a Holz-Her Uni-Master CNC machining center, Biesse Akron edgebander and Regal sander, Homag Drillteq dowel inserter, Martin sliding table saw and planer, SCMI shaper and jointer, Grizzly resaw band saw, and Northtech straight-line rip saw. Everyone on the shop floor has an iPad to oversee project updates and changes.
The Uni-Master, purchased 15 years ago, was the first big step. There was a learning curve, but the machine has been invaluable, according to Jordan.
“The challenging part there was the software,” he says. “We bought it in 2005 and it literally sat there hardly used for the first six months because it took that much time to develop our programs while producing woodwork using our older machinery and methods. After that, it was another six months of awkward use. Once we made the switch from the old to the new, we haven’t looked back.”
Jordan’s ongoing focus is to secure more quality craftsmen. He believes they’re about two builders short right now.
“Like a lot of shops nowadays, we’re always looking for a new employee. They’re hard to find, especially skilled ones,” he says.
To help attract new talent, Heartwood recently upgraded the two-bedroom apartment they rent to employees only, usually one bedroom per employee. This gives employees moving to the area a chance to get to know their surroundings before committing to longer-term housing.
A partnership with the wood technology program at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan. has helped by bringing five summer interns over the past five years, as well as one permanent full-time employee. Heartwood regularly participates in PSU’s company presentation days which introduce students with prospective employers.
“For a while there was a big gap where a lot of high schools gave up their wood technology programs and they’re starting to come back. You hear about the need for trades in this country. So, I’m hopeful, while it’s hard right now, maybe in the future we’ll have better resources.”
Jordan knows he will create a succession plan, probably sooner than later. But that’s down the road.
“I guess what I like most about the business and the industry we’re in is we’re transforming ideas and designs into something physical that you can touch and see. Custom woodwork brings joy to our clients and to us who love this craft. Some of our projects take two to three years from design and construction through completion. You get to know the owners quite well and seeing their appreciation for what you do is what motivates and satisfies us.
This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.