Woodworker's success runs against the recession's grain

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2010 - 9:55 AM

Brian Grabski has built a solid business making one-of-a-kind woodworking creations and paying meticulous attention to detail.

Brian Grabski
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The recession has been unkind to area woodworking firms, but Brian Grabski’s shop has thrived with a focus on “artistic, one-of-a-kind” design and construction.”

Photo: Dick Youngblood, star Tribune

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Geoffrey Olinyk, shop teacher at Champlin Park High School, says Brian Grabski was one of his best students, describing him as "an incredible young man who pays attention to detail and settles for nothing short of perfection."

Grabski, proprietor of a busy custom woodworking business that specializes in what he calls "artistic, one-of-a-kind" design and construction, is "a totally dependable young man who will sort through 500 boards to find the perfect grain," Olinyk said.

Which raises the question of why he gave Grabski a "C" in his last semester at Champlin Park.

Grabski, 27, sheepishly offered an explanation: "A friend and I liked to go to breakfast before class, and we were often late," he said. "So we'd sneak in the back door, put on our safety glasses and pretend we'd been there all the time."

"They thought they were getting away with it," Olinyk said. "They weren't."

It was an amusing blip in an otherwise solid woodworking career that started with neighborhood projects in high school and morphed into a Minneapolis-based business Grabski calls Designed & Made Custom Woodworking.

The four-year-old company has grown at a 29 percent annual rate to reach 2009 sales of $96,000, including a 13 percent jump last year despite the recession. Not bad, considering the recession's impact on the woodworking business.

Grabski said his suppliers -- lumber, hardware and lacquer sales reps -- estimate that about 30 percent of local cabinet shops have closed since early 2008, with one of them estimating that upwards of 30 metro area shops have gone under.

Most of Grabski's growth has been generated by referrals from clients taken with his focus on intricate inlays, elegant burlwood veneering, authentic distressing and uninterrupted flows of grain from board to board. He said a major project can mean up to 40 hours on the design alone, with the average being about 20 hours.

All of which adds up to some time-consuming touches that hoist the value -- and the price -- of his work.

An average kitchen cabinets project, for example, will cost $12,000 to $18,000, a three-piece bedroom set will run upwards of $15,000 and a medium-sized entertainment center will go for about $7,000.

But customers aren't complaining.

Grabski's "attention to detail" produced a bedroom set that is "beyond words," said Laura Lejcher of Albertville. "His creative, classy touch in the design and woodwork is unmatched by anything we could find on the market."

Mike and Suzi Fannon in Excelsior waxed even more poetic, describing the work Grabski did on their home office and walk-in closet as "a marriage of elegance and function" with their walnut grain matches and seamless burl veneering.

"We call it our 'Ralph Lauren room,'" the couple wrote in an e-mail to Grabski.

Then there's the $16,000 pool table he built for former Minnesota Wild forward Mark Parrish, complete with hand-made walnut, cherrywood and birdseye maple inlays of the Wild logo and Parrish's last name inlaid at each end and designed to match the font that was on his Wild jersey.

"Brian's creativity and craftsmanship have combined to build us a truly unique and beautiful pool table," Parrish said. It's a "one-of-a-kind piece that will be a family heirloom our kids will enjoy."

Matching wood grains and elegant finishes aren't the only appeals. Grabski also favors intricate designs such as drawer fronts on an entertainment center that drop down to provide access to a video game console or DVD player, a trash cabinet that pops open via a foot control when hands are full and a hand-crafted bookcase with a secret compartment built into what looks like a normal molding.

Made for his parents, the hideaway requires that drawers be pulled out to a specific point for the latches to slide open, after which wood dowels that slide out must be manipulated in a certain way for the hidden door to swing open.

"I've been building things since I was a kid -- a go-cart, bike ramps, that sort of thing," Grabski said. Then he discovered woodworking classes at Champlin and graduated to some serious construction.

He and a friend remodeled his parents' basement, built custom fences with intricate gates for relatives and installed doors, windows and moldings for neighbors and friends.

"We had friends who were making $6 to $8 an hour at their summer jobs," Grabski said. "We were making $18 to $20 an hour."

More important, "I just loved the work," Grabski said. "And I discovered I was good at it."

"There's only one problem: His revenue stream flattened out this year as he approached full capacity for a one-man operation. Yet he resists the notion of hiring workers who do not match his focus on "artistic woodworking."

His short-term answer: Hiring less-skilled help to do the sweeping, sanding, basic assembly and other mundane chores off his schedule.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com

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Brian Grabski