Digging Deeper: KPL/KNS Custom Woodworking

Kian Lynch and his team at KPL/KNS Custom Woodworking have brought passion, skill and innovation to their trade for over 20 years.  From intimate residential interior work to large scale projects like Disney’s “Behind the Magic” and the renovation of the Grand Army Republic and the 36th District Courthouse in Downtown Detroit, Kian’s drive to challenge himself and “never stop learning” has led to a successful career in which modern tools and methods are used sensitively to preserve an artisanal approach.  KPL/KNS and Nosan Signature have teamed up for many projects, and are currently working together on the mahogany fascia project at Coventry Lake.  We thought it would be interesting to find out more about how Kian got into this specialized field, and the philosophy behind the beautiful results he achieves, so we called him for an interview.  

Grand Army Republic, Detroit

Grand Army Republic, Detroit

NS:  Let’s get this nerdy question out of the way first--do you have a brand of power tools that you are loyal to?

KPL: In the field, DeWalt.  In the shop we use Powermatic--they make really serious, high quality tools that are precise and that last.

NS: How many contractors work under you?  

KPL: Actually, 90% of the guys I work with are full-time employees.  Some of them have their own companies now, and I’ll hire them in for certain jobs, but for the most part, I don’t hire on a contract basis.  Half of the guys, I brought into the trade and trained from day one, and some of the have gone out on their own now, but I still like to work with them from time to time.  

NS: What makes a good employee? What do you look for when hiring someone?

KPL: Well, this seems obvious, and I hate to say it, but no drug addicts, drunks.  There is a lot of abuse in a lot of the trades...it’s a real problem.  But aside from that, I’m looking for guys who are willing to learn.  People who are open and flexible, but also willing to give me a suggestion or come up with a good idea, because I’m always open to learn something new too!  Work ethic is important.  John, who is on Coventry Lake right now, will stay out in the rain all day and just keep working and won’t complain.  Finally, I value honesty.  When you get to a certain skill level, you know...everyone makes mistakes, but I think that once you’re at the 20-30$ range, you should fix your mistakes on your own time.  You know better, you should admit that and fix it.  I really appreciate when employees take responsibility for themselves like that.  

In our trade, most carpenters do framing and drywall.  Not many people are going to the union anymore, and carpentry skills are being lost.  Basic framing is pretty simple, stairs are a little harder.  A lot of companies hire out the stair jobs because they don’t want to deal with it.  My guys who do stairs make $65 - $70 per hour.  What they do requires skill and takes a lot of planning and patience and being able to visualize the product and the process and how to make it, step by step.  Mantles, wainscoting, coffered ceilings...work that is done on site is a different level of trade, versus people in the shop making cabinetry, and it’s interesting to see how people often come to excel at one or the other.  They are different types of work.  

NS: What was the first woodworking project you did?

KPL: I was really into forts.  I built forts from age six on.  First simple ones, then 2-story, then they were 3-story.  I scavenged the wood and other materials from around neighborhood.  Once I made an igloo in the winter that was so huge it was in the newspaper.  They couldn’t believe a little kid made an igloo that big.  Five of us slept in it.  

Later, I had a shop teacher, Julius Natko, who built pianos and accordions--really cool musical instruments.  He must have been around 80 when he was teaching--he was a very old man, and he also ran the chess club.  I met him in the chess club, when I was in 6th grade, and then I went into the shop to make stuff, and I immediately became his right hand man.  I ended up getting out of classes and spending like half my school time making wood signs for the school.  A lot of shop classes had you do paperwork, procedures, not hands-on learning.  Some kids don’t need that much instruction.  Julius was different.  He just let you work at your level. He showed me how to use the lathe in one day, and then I was making baseball bats and lamps on the lathe after school.  I took wood from the scrap bin, used all free materials, and then I would sell the furniture and stuff I made in school art shows and make money.

NS: Tell me about your family--are there other craftspeople that came before you?

KPL: Well...my mother’s father, Grandpa Ochs made furniture.  He died when I was 3, but maybe it’s in my blood.  I lived in a small town for a while.  My mom was a single mom, and we got this house that was over a hundred years old, and was never fixed up.  I was about 9, and my brother was 14, and we were pretty competent.  We started watching “This Old House,” and going room by room, because we didn’t have the money to do more than a little at one time.  We tore the horsehair plaster and lath off, cleaned, insulated re-drywalled, put the trim back in.  We found beautiful buried pocket doors under these crappy pine shelves someone had put in.  We removed the aluminum siding and scraped the wood clapboard then painted it.  That was how I learned about construction.  

NS: What was the first job that you had in the field?

KPL: My first job was working for a bricklayer.  He wasn’t a nice guy to work for, and 2-3 weeks into it, he was screaming at another employee, insulting him and swearing, and I stuck up for the guy.  The trim carpenter on the same job saw it happen, and was like, “I hate that guy.  You’re gonna get fired, so you should just come work for me.”  I worked with him trimming for about 2 months.  He was a drunk, so not the best to work for either.  I used to make these one-off tables and donate them to charity auctions.  A guy saw one of them and offered me a big job from it.  I brought the job to this boss, but asked him to pay me more, since I had brought in the work.  He refused, and when I went back to the guy who offered the job, he told me I should start my own company, and told me how to do it, so I did it.  At 20 I founded Lynch Brothers, which later became KPL Custom Woodworking.  

I hired my best friend, Neal Piziali.  He died young in a car accident.  He was my best employee, learned super fast, and he became my partner.  Neal’s middle brother still works for me today.  His younger brother also worked with us for years, and now he works for a company that does stuff at the Detroit Zoo.  I went into Pulte Homes and asked them to give me a chance, and just let me do an interior job for free and see what they thought of it, and they started giving me work.  We were also doing display cases for Nextel.  We got jobs and then things moved forward from there.  When Neal bought into the business we were able to purchase the equipment to start the shop.  

The shop

The shop

NS: What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

KPL: The diversity.  Going into a job and having the opportunity to make something that I’ve never made before.  I love to be challenged.  I love to think.  If you do the same thing every day you become a robot.  I think a lot of my employees feel the same--they like to go in there and be challenged every day.  

I had this huge multi-million dollar job a while ago--this guy had me do a ton of really intricate work in his home, and he didn’t care what it cost.  He just wanted what he wanted, and he trusted me to make it.  I made him this table, and then his father passed away, and I made a death plaque for him out of the scraps of exotic wood from the table.  I put a photo of him into the CNC machine and cut the pieces and inlaid them.  His son was so moved--he said it was literally the best gift he’d ever received.  And he’s a millionaire!  I get so much satisfaction from making things that people love.  It makes you feel good, like making a dream come true.

NS: What do you enjoy least, or find most challenging?

KPL: People being late.  [laughs]  A lot of wood today is quick growth wood.  Trees aren’t given enough time to mature.  Twenty to thirty years and they say it’s good enough.  Back in the day wood looked different.  Antique heart pine doesn’t exist anymore.  You can’t get good wood.  A lot of the wood we get is cupped, warped, checked, cracked.  You’re paying premium money for this stuff, and it’s supposed to be sanded and coated and look beautiful.  We just have to make it work.  We can’t complain about it all day, but really, if we only used the wood that looked decent we’d have like a fifty percent loss rate.  Older trees make harder and more stable wood.  It takes eighty to a hundred years.  I also suspect they are speeding up kiln drying.  They are rushing that, and the wood isn’t stable even though it reads right.  MDF trim is becoming popular now because it is consistent and even, but it’s garbage!  It’s a shame.  It doesn’t compete with real wood.  Nosan Signature uses real wood for pretty much everything--they only wouldn’t if the customer didn’t want to pay, I think.

NS: Are there any skills or techniques that you are hoping to explore or develop further?

KPL: I’ve done some hand-carving but I would like to carve more.  Its interesting to try and replicate older pieces.  But it’s funny--CNC machines now have 4th and 5th axii.  They can cut anything out, so there’s not much of a point.  

NS: On that note, what does it mean to you to be an artisan, to make one-off things by hand in a time when that is increasingly rare?

KPL: It means the world to me.  The trades are being lost, and i feel good about doing a really good product.  Quality matters.  I get to do what I love to do, and what makes me feel good.  Both my sons work for me now.  One is in school full time and works for me, and the younger one works during the summers.  I don’t care if it’s what they end up doing, but it’s good for them to learn.  I get to work with my boys, with my good friends.

An old man once said to me, “if you stop, you die.”  I think it’s true.  Everyone I know that’s old still works really hard.  I used to work about 90 hours a week.  Then I had open heart surgery two years ago.  I almost died.  Now I work more like 40-60.  I love it. Most people can’t say their job is fun.

NS: Tell me about the current project at Coventry Lake--what was your role in developing a technique for achieving the desired results?  

KPL: Terry did most of the diligence on that project.  It’s a work in progress.  Lots of choices are being made on the fly because it’s a process that is not being done much.  We gave suggestions and took the drawings, modified them a bit, and cut them out on the CNC.  Now we are working on getting the underlying structure perfect before we go and and wrap it in mahogany.  It’s been a challenge, but it’s going to look really beautiful.