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Classic Heritage Woodworks

Listing #677   Listed on: 06/08/2008

WOODWEB Content Editor, Ted Cushman, Interviewed Classic Heritage Woodworks in July, 2008.

If you heard that a builder/architect had decided to quit building houses after thirty years and run a one-man cabinet shop, you might expect a pretty laid-back business in the process of gradually winding down. But if you heard that his 27-year-old son had joined him, you might expect a slightly different story — like the story of Classic Heritage Woodworks, a father-and-son outfit in Plainfield, Illinois, run by George Melehan (dad) and Tom Melehan (son).

“Dad was doing about 90 or 100,000 dollars of business a year,” says Tom. “Then over the last two years I came in as a partner, and we have really expanded. This year we are on a pace to do almost $300,000, and I am looking forward to the future to see what it will bring. We hope to hit the half million dollar mark in the next few years.”

Continue Reading about Classic Heritage Woodworks

Manufacturing area
Company Name:   Classic Heritage Woodworks
Contact Name:   Tom Melehan
Location:   Plainfield, IL  60585
Year Founded:   1999
Sq. Footage:   3,300
Employees:   3
Gross Sales:   300,000

Product Specialties:
    Architectural Millwork - Custom Millwork
    Architectural Millwork - General
    Architectural Millwork - Millwork Installer
    Cabinets - Cabinet Designers
    Cabinets - Cabinet Installers
    Cabinets - Closets and Storage
    Cabinets - Commercial Cabinets
    Cabinets - Components
    Cabinets - Custom Cabinets
    Cabinets - General
    Cabinets - Kitchen & Bath Cabinets
    Cabinets - Residential Cabinetry
    Cabinets - Store Fixtures
    Carving - Architectural Ornamentation
    Finishing - General Wood Finishing
    Furniture - Custom Furniture
    Furniture - Furniture Designers
    Furniture - Furniture Manufacturers
    Furniture - General

Shop Equipment:
    Delta - Unisaw 10" Table saw
    Delta - DJ-20 8" Jointer
    Ramco - 37/60 Wide Belt Sander
    Craftsmen - 10" Radial Arm saw
    Other - 15" Hitachi Miter Saw
    Delta - Dust Collection
    Delta - 17-968 Industrial Drill Press
    Other - AEG Compound Miter Saw
    Porter Cable - Omnijig 24" Dovetail Jig

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Company Description Continued

As a trained architect, George handles most of the design work — “old school,” says Tom. “Pencil and paper on a drafting table.” Tom handles most of the business end, including sales. They split the shop labor 50-50, and also share the installation work, although if they’re busy or have a big install they may add one temporary worker. “And we have somebody in the office to handle billing, phone calls, and email,” says Tom.

Sales involves a lot of cold calling. “We’re starting to take on a lot of business to business work,” says Tom. “Before we were 99% residential, selling to the consumer, but now we are picking up some interior designers who refer work to us, some carpentry companies, and there are three builders now who we do work for.”

George’s background in homebuilding helps for communication with the builder customers. “In fact, we did a whole house in December for a first-time builder,” says Tom. “He had gotten out of a professional career and decided to become a builder, and my father ended up consulting for him throughout the whole project about how to build houses.” It’s a plus on the technical end, too: “It helps out with knowing how stuff is going to fit into a home, having a good idea of structure and load bearing considerations,” says Tom.

Like drafting, production is old school: mostly face-frame construction (“we only do frameless for something like a closet”), relying heavily on the Unisaw for panel processing and hand-held tools for assembly. “We’re planning on buying a slide saw,” says Tom. “We’re looking at an Altendorf for about $15,000.”

The Unisaw can handle the work, says Tom, but it has limitations. “We do all rabbeted construction for our boxes,” he explains. “We use 3/4-inch veneer core for everything, all high-grade veneers. But the Unisaw is not great for crosscuts, because you risk getting kickback and having a half a sheet of plywood come flying at you. The two of us have trained hands, and we can do it with enough finesse to get it through there and make a nice cut and not hurt ourselves. But you do run a risk using that kind of machine for doing all your large crosscuts, especially on big entertainment centers that are nine feet tall. You’re cutting a ten foot sheet -- crosscut -- it can get a little hairy. With the sliding saw, you push against the fence. It doesn't sit on the table, it rides above on ball bearings. And if we had that setup we would use the slide saw to do all of our crosscuts and rips (and you can do nested cutting) — and then we would just set the Unisaw up with a dado to do all of our rabbets.”

Is there one piece of equipment they couldn’t do without? “Our wide-belt sander,” says Tom. “That was a Godsend. It’s a Ramco 37-inch by 60-inch model with a 20-horse motor, a real nice machine, and we picked it up from a shop that was going out of business for a thousand dollars. I think originally it was $35,000, and it works perfect.”

Before the wide-belt, says Tom, the Melehans were using an orbital sander to flush up their face frame joints, after sweating the joinery as accurately as they could. “We still produced a nice product back then, but it was much more labor intensive and took much longer,” he says, “especially on a big job. The first big job that we did, after we got the sander, we probably saved a day and a half of labor in sanding.”

Now, the pair assemble their face frames out of 13/16 stock and run the entire frame through the wide-belt to sand the whole surface smooth and make the joints flush. “Tolerances are to one thousandth of an inch,” says Tom. “Our consistency has gotten so much better. You never have any question, when you set it up next to another cabinet, will it be the same depth or will you be off by a sixteenth. It’s always going to be exact to within a thousandth of an inch. That has really helped us out.”

Now, the big challenge is managing growth. Says Tom, “Some months we say, ‘Boy, we could really use an employee,’ and then the next month it’s slower and we say, ‘Wow, if we had that employee to pay we’d be in trouble right now.’ But doing the business-to-business work, any new client you pick up could give you an extra $100,000 a year, and that is a huge jump for someone the size of us. You have to seriously think through every move you make. Somebody approaches you and one side of you is going, ‘Oh, this is awesome, we’re going to pick up all this business and we’ll be working with another really good shop,’ and then the other side of you is going, ‘Uh-oh — where is this going to lead?’”

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The editors, writers, and staff at WOODWEB try to promote safe practices. What is safe for one woodworker under certain conditions may not be safe for others in different circumstances. Readers should undertake the use of materials and methods discussed at WOODWEB after considerate evaluation, and at their own risk.

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