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.