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Taking the Plunge

Dan Mosheim's woodworking career started out as many do — in a crowded garage. But the owner of Dorset Custom Furniture in Dorset, Vt., aggressively pursued his passion, and now owns a six-man shop complete with CNC capability.

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Mosheim graduated from Penn State with a degree in business logistics. With no desire to pursue that route, he worked as a carpenter from 1974 to 1980 before moving to Vermont. There he started his garage shop and hasn't left the Green Mountain State since.

"I was pretty small until 2001," Mosheim said. "I started out alone for about a year, had one employee around 1987 and since 2001 I've had at least four full-time workers."

Early on, Mosheim made the decision that he wasn't going to build kitchens. Instead, he's focused on custom furniture, specifically dining tables, sideboards, occasional and game tables, seating, desks, beds and case pieces.

Flair for design
Mosheim managed to develop a knack for design, which remains a large part of his business today.

"I'm a collaborator," he says. "I design, in collaboration with my clients, to what they want and it is really just seeing how many of my clients have ideas that I never would have come up with on my own. I listen to people and go back and forth, and I also do this a lot with the guys in the shop. I ask what they think and sometimes you get to these amazing places that you would never get to if you were just left in a room with a drawing board."

The second floor of his shop serves as an office, design center and home for his 50" x 100" MultiCam 1000 Series CNC. Mosheim is not a software fanatic, but does use Autosketch by Autodesk and Enroute tool-pathing software.

As the years have passed, Mosheim has included an increased amount of inlay work in his furniture. So he was intrigued with a friend's sign business that featured a CNC router. Mosheim performed a cost analysis and decided to follow suit.

"I had some cash so I put 25 percent down and financed the rest. I realized I didn't have to really run it that much to pay for it," said Mosheim. "We've had some issues that we've had to learn and I don't recommend it for people who are easily frustrated by complications because it's got a serious learning curve, unless you're someone cutting plywood cabinets. We do all kinds of curves, radius and inlay work.

Owner of: Dorset Custom Furniture
Location: Dorset, Vt.
Years pro: 33 years
Employees: Four full-time, two part-time
Education: Penn State, degree in business logistics
Quotable: "I wish I knew more about accounting, that's one thing I can say. It's a hard business to have a balance between doing a lot of work you don't want to do to make money, and doing things you want to do to pay the bills and hopefully put away."

"Also, the person running the machine has to be interested, capable and paying attention every second. They also have to be somebody who will stay very focused on cleaning and making sure that the monthly maintenance is done precisely. We had a problem recently, which required sending [parts] out to Idaho for $400. Turns out MDF dust had collected in the breaker box and we were getting irregular voltage."

Mosheim estimates that he runs his CNC an average of 10 hours a week, which includes running some jobs for other shops.

"We can get along without it, but I was looking at it the other day and we have done enough outside work this year to [make] four or five months' worth of payments," said Mosheim. "By no means would I say that those projects took a lot of our time. We make a lot of chair parts for people, chair legs with mortises ,We've developed some techniques to make it real easy to do a round table with leaves. I'm totally happy with it."

Intricate work
The CNC has enabled Mosheim to create some special inlays using materials such as mother-of-pearl and green abalone.

"We did some beds last year at a house at Stratton [a Vermont ski resort] where the clients wanted a winter motif and a summer motif. So we did a bear on some snow which was actually burl and white mother-of-pearl. And then we did a deer in the grass, which was more burl and green abalone. It can get really complex. We had another client recently who wanted an inlaid family crest of arms, which was pretty challenging. There was a fox and all kinds of stuff going on."

The shop's clientele is all over the map. Dorset is in the heart of southern Vermont's ski areas, which is good for business. But roughly 40 percent of the orders are from out-of-state, and most of that is generated through Mosheim's Web site.

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"We've had a real good run with the Internet in the last three years," he said. "I've had a Web site for a long, long time, but it didn't really start to happen until two years ago when people began to get high-speed Internet."

As a result, Mosheim no longer exhibits in galleries. He's had some recent success working with interior designers and architects, but it's not his first choice.

"There are so many complications as to how interior designers and architects charge for their time," he said. "I prefer to work directly with the client for a number of reasons. Generally I want to get what they want, not what the designer wants. The other thing is that it can complement the flow of information if it has to go from the customer to the designer to the builder to the guys on the shop floor."

Mosheim has learned to take his own photos of his furniture and has found that to be quite helpful.

"It makes you look at a piece of furniture differently. It makes you look at it in a variety of different lights. It really makes you look at what it is that you have done. You see it differently than if you were just carrying it out the door."

Providing a thrill
About four years ago, Mosheim started taking in restoration work, which he and everyone in the shop finds as a source of enjoyment and education.
"It's a nice break from making something new. You get to see how people did things that you would have never thought of. It's always an interesting problem: what do you do to fix it and what do you leave alone. When people pick their stuff up they are invariably thrilled, like more thrilled than if they got a new piece of furniture. The only stuff that's worth the kind of money that we have to charge to fix it is stuff that is really nice or has been in their family a long time."

With the economy what it is today, Mosheim is experiencing an off year. However 2003 to 2006 were extraordinary.

"I don't know how companies can keep increasing their sales every year without exploding. I can't. Our sales are down, the hours that we are working are down, but we're still paying the bills. We still have a good supply of work coming in; we have a decent backlog right now.

"I have about 60 percent repeat customers every year; I have to find about 40 percent of my new business every year. And some of these people have really expensive collections of stuff. They have a way that gets our best stuff out of us. They're fun to work with; they're engaged in the process. They know when to push for what they want and when to let go and let us do what we know best. They are supportive so when I ask them for money, they pay me. It's just wonderful and if I had to say one thing about my business it's that the people I work for are so supportive almost without exception. If they don't hold up their end of the bargain, we leave. People that are really good, they get really good work. I hope they feel that our prices are fair. A lot of selling a piece of furniture is educating people as to why it costs what it does. It becomes part of people's lives in a way that when you buy from a furniture store it doesn't necessarily become."

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Mosheim has had to stop providing health insurance to his employees because it's too expensive. The people who have been with him the longest get two weeks' paid vacation, seven paid holidays and personal days. So, essentially he gives his employees 20 paid days off a year.

In the shop
The shop is well stocked with a Rockwell Unisaw, Powermatic 66 table saw, 25" wide belt and hollow chisel mortiser, SCMI 20" planer, 12" jointer and 24" band saw, Grizzly spindle sander, JDS Multirouter, Jet 16" band saw, Jet and Oneida dust collectors, Miller welders, Hypertherm plasma cutter, and Festool Domino.

Mosheim gets almost all of his wood from Irion Lumber in Wellsboro, Pa., and treats it as a valuable resource.

"I try to be as responsible as much as I can. I'm using more and more recycled lumber as people ask for that, which is kind of fun. We make a lot of our own veneers and some of our designs are puzzle-like veneers. We cut 1/8" veneers on the band saw, and then run them through the planer and the wide belt sander."

Mosheim works with one son, while another operates a nearby metal shop. They've started to collaborate on tables with wood tops and metal bases.
"I'm really happy with the kind of work that is coming in and the projects people are asking us to do," added Mosheim. "We often get people pushing us to do new stuff and those customers are really desirable.

"We're always on the lookout for new things to learn, new techniques, new design. It's really our goal, to have some fun and make a living." 

Contact: Dan Mosheim, Dorset Custom Furniture, 23 Goodwood Lane, Dorset, VT 05251. Tel: 802-867-5541.

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