On the campaign trail and in his first State of the State address in February 2017, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice talked about boosting furniture manufacturing in West Virginia.
One of the most successful furniture manufacturers in the state is in Berkeley Springs.
Gat Creek, which produces handcrafted solid wood furniture, is among the highest-quality furniture made in America. Gat Caperton, 50, is the owner and CEO.
“We bring a truckload of wood in every week. That truckload typically comes from the Frank E. Wilson Lumber Company out of Elkins, West Virginia, and we’ll unload it and literally cut through a truckload of lumber a week,” he said.
Gat Creek specializes in premium Appalachian hardwoods – mostly cherry, maple, ash and walnut – that grow within a 250-mile radius of Berkeley Springs.
“What I often like to tell both our customers and our suppliers is – the best furniture comes from the best wood. And we’ve got fantastic wood all around us,” Caperton said. “We have fantastic suppliers in terms of mills and drying operations that really give us a fantastic product. No one has done a better job that we’ve done here in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York in maintaining a healthy, vibrant, growing, diverse forest. It also happens to be a forest that has the most beautiful woods in the world.”
The people who unload the lumber sort through it, board by board.
'A Big Check, but a Lot of Work'
“In manufacturing, we’re very conscious of what you automate, and what you don’t automate. When you have variability in the input, like a board of lumber – and I promise you every board here is different, they’re snowflakes – we try to keep wide boards, the randomness and the natural variation that makes wood so beautiful – we try to capture that,” Caperton said. “And so here at the front end where we are making panels and the beginning parts for furniture, it’s all done on a board-by-board basis. So we are manufacturing panels that become furniture, instead of buying engineered panels that we cut up.”
Next, the boards move to an automated part of the process -- a bank of three sophisticated machines that use the latest technology to cut furniture parts, such as a table leg. It’s called CNC technology, or a computer numerically controlled machine. These machines can do the work it used to take 30 machines to do in an assembly-line fashion.
“[The machine] will take a square or rectangular board, and cut it into a three-dimensional shape for a leg. This technology has changed the face of manufacturing in this country – especially with woodworking,” Capeton said. “It is wildly fast and wildly exact in what it does, and it gets better every year. These machines are $350,000 machines – a big, big check – but it does a lot of work.”
A Changing Business
Gat Creek started out in the 1960s as Tom Seeley Furniture, which specialized in antique reproductions. Gat Caperton purchased Tom Seeley Furniture in 1996, and continued that tradition, but also introduced more contemporary lines. Today, the company employs 140 people who work from 6 am to 2.30 pm, five days a week. Outside this facility, they also employ 20 independent Amish and Mennonite workshops that supply furniture to Gat Creek.
After the sophisticated technology area that creates panels and parts, there’s an area of 40 or so individual workstations.
This is not traditional assembly-line manufacturing.
“Each of our folks that are builders here has their own workbench. They specialize in five or 10 pieces, and they’ll build the entire piece of furniture at their bench. When they finish building it, they’ll sign it, date it and then they’ll send it to the Finishing Room to be finished,” Caperton said.
Paige Wagner builds tables, for example.
“It’s very interesting, because each one is different. All the woods are beautiful, and you know that the table you build is going to be in someone’s home for a hundred years. And we sign everything that we build, so they’ll know,” she said.
Wagner said she’s built almost 4,800 table to date.
A table-builder will typically build three or four tables a day, though each one may be different. Not far from Wagner’s workbench is Chuck Hampe, who builds table bases. He happened to on his very last shift at Gat Creek Furniture during our visit. He joined the company a long time ago.
“Thirty-one years, six months and 27 days,” Hampe said, adding that he’s built 64,872 table bases during his time with the company.
Each piece here is made-to-order, including pieces for special projects such as bespoke furniture for courtrooms or university offices.
Rick Kidwell lays out and builds the prototype of each new design.
“I’ve worked here 34 years, and I do something different every day, so I’ve got the best job in here,” he said. “And you always get a sense of accomplishment – it’s like mowing the grass – when you get done, you see where you’ve done something. I get that feeling every day.”
CEO Gat Caperton said people often ask how people learn these skills – not many people are natural bed-builders or table-builders.
“We essentially have an informal apprentice system here,” he said. “We’ll bring people in who have the aptitude for building, and we’ll typically start them with another builder and have that person build really simple pieces of furniture. After a few weeks if they’re good at it on one or two different pieces, they’ll get a third or fourth piece. Ultimately, the folks who are the best will have the biggest portfolio pieces they build, and they’ll build the most difficult pieces.”
This type of handcrafted furniture doesn’t come cheap. As Caperton likes to say, it’s what people buy the second time they buy furniture, not the first. It’s also the sort of furniture that lasts a lifetime, or possibly two.
But, if given the right capital investment and larger-scale production, Caperton believes West Virginia could become a major manufacturer of mid-priced furniture.
“We’re a niche manufacturer, but it doesn’t have to be that way. West Virginia manufacturers will never be the cheapest guys, but we could certainly be at a point where you could manufacture for the masses,” he said. “Every once in a while you get discouraged, because you see someone importing something at a ridiculous price, and I like to remind myself that the best-selling car in America is not the cheapest car in America – by a long shot. And so, we’ll never build the cheapest furniture in West Virginia, but we certainly could be building the best-selling furniture in West Virginia.”
Caperton said a majority of the people in his operation are women, which you might not expect in a woodworking shop.
“About 53 percent of our workforce is women,” he said. “Until recently, I was the only guy on the management team, so there’s a majority of women in the management team, and a slight majority in terms of production.”
Finishing the Pieces
Moving from the builders who build the furniture into where it’s finished, there are pieces of furniture in every direction you look.
“Everything after it’s built comes into our finishing room. It’s a two-step process – the first is putting a finish or a color on it, which could be a stain or distressing or whatever visual effects you would like,” he said. “The second part of the operation is putting a catalyzed lacquer on it. That’s a protective coat that’s clear, that protects the wood from moisture exchange, primarily water.”
Caperton said it runs very much like the woodshop – he has to decide what to do by hand, and what to automate.
“So the first step – the color work – we do not only by hand, but board by board, so you get a beautiful piece of furniture at the end of the day,” he said. “Once that’s completed, it dries overnight, then move on to our finishing room where we’ve done a lot of automation. There we want consistency and cleanliness, so we’ve got an operation that is much like an operating room. We manage all the air inflow and outflow so that we keep it as a ‘clean room’ environment. And we use a lot of robotics there that allow us to spray surface areas that you can’t do by hand – pretty cool technology.”
Though Gat Creek Furniture had its ups and downs through the housing recession, Caperton said 2017 was the company’s best year ever.
The West Virginia Timber series has been made possible by the Myles Family Foundation.