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Custom woodwork can bring warmth, strength and permanence to an office or home

Custom pieces are often made from wood salvaged from home demolitions or downed trees in the area. The pieces are beautiful but can be pricey.

Partners Bob Scavilla and Kim Kalishek work at a handcrafted table created for their company, FourFront, by fuugs Woodworking of Philadelphia.
Partners Bob Scavilla and Kim Kalishek work at a handcrafted table created for their company, FourFront, by fuugs Woodworking of Philadelphia.Read moreCourtesy of FourFront

Pre-coronavirus, the FourFront marketing staff met each day around two handcrafted wooden tables, with imperfections in the salvaged rustic yellow pine reflecting its age. The tables create an important centerpiece in the office, the company’s partners say, worthy of the expense and the attention that went into their design.

“We’re in an old factory building in the Wayne Junction area of the city, which has now received a historic designation,” said Kim Kalishek, a partner in FourFront, a digital market and analytics company. “With a wooden floor, brick walls, high ceilings and big windows with lots of light, the tables had to fit with the space.”

Kalishek collaborated with craftsman Greg Fuguet of Fuugs Woodworking to design four tables for the office. Three made of yellow pine — two for meetings and one for meals — cost about $2,000 each, and an heirloom quality, sleek, black walnut conference room table ran $5,500.

“We love the feel of wood and the warmth that it brings to the space,” Kalishek said. “We wanted the tables to be a centerpiece in each room, and it was worth that investment. The tables are solid — the tops are thick, the tables are sturdy and they feel like a central gathering place. It gives the feeling of strength and permanence.”

The wood was salvaged from a home that had been torn down in a Philadelphia neighborhood. “Can you imagine something like that going into a dumpster when it could be repurposed?” she added.

Fuugs creates large wood slabs sourced locally, dries the wood, and stores the slabs in its Awbury Arboretum sawmill. Their furniture is produced in Harrowgate.

“I have access to large pieces of wood with history already imbued in them,” said owner Greg Fuguet, who helps clients design each piece. “I’ll usually recommend the lumber for its color, durability, or price point and tell them the history of where it came from, which is often a big selling point.”

Much of the company’s wood comes from Awbury Arboretum trees that were damaged or needed to be taken down. Fuugs’ custom-made products are more expensive than manufactured goods — about $250 for a stool, $500 to $1,500 for a coffee table, and $5,000 for a Dutch pullout table.

“One thing that separates me from Ikea or West Elm is the sustainability, working with this organic medium that’s local and based in our watershed,” said Fuguet, who started the business in 2015. “The pieces are heirloom quality, handmade by people in your city, traditional woodworking.” Finishes are all plant-based, avoiding any toxic chemicals and plastics.

Homeowners often turn to custom woodworkers when looking for a perfect fit.

“If someone has a really specific idea of what they want, you can’t buy that in a store,” said Matt Smolens, owner of Philadelphia Woodworking Co. in Germantown, specializing in high-end custom residential built-in cabinetry and furniture.

Since opening in 2012, the company has seen tremendous growth due to a demand for high-quality products. “It was just me in a closet-sized shop space by myself,” he recalled. “Now I have a 10,000-square-foot shop and 10 employees.”

Despite the added cost — four to 10 times higher in some cases, he said, “the experience of working with someone to create something custom that’s almost like an art piece is very different than buying something in a store.”

Matthew Genkin of Gladwyne has worked on several projects with Smolens over the last five years, including floor-to-ceiling cabinets and shelving for his family room, a desk and bookshelves for his home office, and a dog gate.

“Everything is custom measured for space, and it’s particularly relevant in an older house, where you’re dealing with odd measurements that may have off-center angles,” said Genkin, who also worked with designer Shophouse, based in Philadelphia. “We entered with a broad-strokes vision of what we wanted, and Matt would run with it, coming up with details in the woodwork that we couldn’t have even imagined.”

His dog gate, which matches the surrounding woodwork, was made in 2018 for $2,580. The goal was to keep Sweet, his Clumber spaniel, upstairs, but Genkin didn’t like the look of prefabricated gates.

Not all custom work is created equal, said Jason Thompson, owner of J. Thom Residential Design and Interiors in Center City. He encourages homeowners to do their homework, making sure the company is reputable and stands by its work. It should have a track record, both in experience in making the product and in providing a warranty and customer service afterward.

For example, “if something breaks down from a hardware standpoint or if there’s an issue with the finishing or if there’s warping or cupping,” he said.

Genkin agrees. When the computer keyboard pull-out tray for his desk had an uncomfortable lip, Smolens took it back and reworked the design at no cost. “I didn’t realize how important that was until I experienced it,” Genkin said.