best of new york 2021

The Best Custom Woodworkers in New York

Photo-Illustration: by Curbed; Photos Getty Images

Since 1985, our annual “Best of New York” issue has named standout services, unique shops, and special spots in dozens of categories. Now that Curbed is part of New York’s family, we have reimagined “Best of New York” as an ever-expanding resource that could rival Yelp in usefulness but feels more like a secret Google doc that gets passed among friends. To find the places recommended on these lists, we polled hundreds of stylish and savvy New Yorkers and begged them to tell us their go-tos. The result: our own Yellow Pages, containing only excellent places.

For a 72-Hour Turnaround

Justin Auguste Guereux, Studio Guereux; studioguereux.com

When Abby Bangser needed someone to build spare raw-birch display tables for her design fair, Object & Thing, she and her collaborator, interior designer Rafael de Cardenas, turned to Justin Guereux, who has a background in art direction in addition to fabrication. Guereux was remarkably fast and can turn some projects around in just 72 hours. (“I’ve worked with other woodworkers who have taken more than a year for bookshelves,” Bangser says.) While Guereux’s clients skew high-end and commercial (he’s created a pop-up room for the Brooklyn Museum’s store and wall paneling for Mansur Gavriel’s Soho store), his studio also does custom private commissions. Pro clients, like de Cardenas and Bangser, will come with specs fully mapped out, but for a client who doesn’t know exactly what style of material they’re going for, Guereux will make house calls to see their apartment and talk through the process. A stand-alone chair starts at about $1,000.

For Plywood Benches

Kili Martinez, Lil Barnabis; lilbarnabis.com

Kili Martinez’s tables and chairs tend to mix Judd-like plywood with surprising accents, like light-pink ’80s-style seat cushions, and play with proportion by featuring oversize seat backs, but he doesn’t push any particular style on his clients. For a recent commission, hairstylist Masami Hosono turned to Martinez’s studio, Lil Barnabis, to make a place to sit in the waiting area of their East Village salon, Vacancy Project. “He asked me: ‘What kind of wood? What texture? What kind of vibe?’ [The process] was very carefree.” The angular bench he ended up building them, made with his signature plywood, fits seamlessly into their wonky old building. “I couldn’t afford a really nice single piece of wood,” Hosono says, “so he made the bench with thin pieces of birch wood in so many layers that it looks like one piece.” Benches start at $350 and dining tables at $600, and Martinez has a speedy two-to-three-week turnaround.

For a High-Design Ironing Board

Max Wang Studio, maxwangstudio.com

Illustration: Jorge Colombo

Max Wang Studio, which is run by Max, a woodworker who trained as an architect, and his spouse, Kaori, is the go-to shop for much of GRT Architects’ high-end millwork and custom furniture jobs. They’ve tackled everything from a mahogany lobby reception desk wrapped in CNC-cut scalloped wood to a bright, warm kitchen with all the appliances hidden behind white-oak cabinets. GRT trusts Wang to do it all because “he’s as committed to every nuanced detail as we are,” says Tal Schori, GRT’s co-founder. For a dining table with exposed edges, they exchanged a dozen emails about the right kind of plywood to use. For commissions, Wang likes to start with a home visit and take measurements of the space where a finished piece will live (chairs start at $1,000, coffee tables at $3,000, and a wall of bookshelves at $20,000). “Our projects are always for a specific space, not meant to be mass-produced,” Wang says. He once did a plywood ironing board for a fashion designer that was mounted on a complex counterweight system that allowed it to be raised and lowered to ideal steam-ironing height. Another time, he designed a modernist Torah ark for a client with doors made from rift-cut oak and Charlotte Perriand–inspired handles.

For a Coffee Table Made From a Parking Barrier

Andy Tyson, Skilset, Brooklyn Navy Yard, skilset.net, instagram.com/skilset

Skilset operates more like a collective than a traditional top-down shop: There are usually between five and seven woodworkers sharing the space, which is directed by founder Andy Tyson, but members work autonomously on their own projects. The shop’s Friday studio sales (3 to 6 p.m.; currently by appointment only) are a good introduction to the varied work produced by the group, such as chairs made from wood found on New York City streets (like parking barriers and painted lengths of recycled plywood) and milking stools with nubby hand-carved legs. When it comes to custom projects, clients are asked to submit a description and drawing of what they’d like to have made, but the final design and timeline can be dependent on what found wood and other nontraditional lumber is in the shop at a given time (pieces made of plywood, concrete, and Skilset’s own plaster composite are more streamlined). Tyson says he might prefer to work with someone who, say, “wants a coffee table for $100 and is cool with something made from an old street sign.” Like Bijan Shahvali, who commissioned Skilset to make some custom shelves out of repurposed plywood for his new store, Leisure Centre. “Their style of using recycled and found materials is such a perfect combination of high-low, which is what we’re trying to capture at the store,” he says.

For a Lumber-Forward Approach

Jerry Nance, jerrynance.com; instagram.com/jerry.nance

When architect Brent Buck, who’s known for his modern-Americana-esque brownstone renovations, needs custom furniture for his clients, he calls up Jerry Nance, a woodworker and metalworker who splits his time between the city and the Hudson Valley. “Nance has only one way of doing things: the long, slow, hard way,” says Buck, whether he’s building a table, a mirror frame, or a ladder based on one that a client’s father crafted years ago. Nance has furniture designs of his own that he can fabricate for private clients, or he can come up with custom pieces based on conversations or source images and other materials — like that ladder — in a process that involves both an initial rough sketch and a final rendering (prices start at $2,000 for a side table and range from $15,000 to $25,000 for a custom dining table). But nothing can be cut and joined until Nance goes though his exacting process of selecting lumber. “Jerry would sift through stacks of boards to find the three perfect ones that make an interesting family”—like the deep, expressive grain of the ash used for a recent table, which was even more pronounced with the black-stained finish.

For a Cherrywood Kitchen

Shuya Iida, Hachi Collections; hachicollections.com; 646-907-8880

David Bench, principal of It’s Not Corporate Architecture, uses custom woodwork all the time in the projects he designs. His own Lower East Side apartment has shelving, closets, and cabinets from a number of different craftspeople, but the person he recommends most to friends is Shuya Iida of Hachi Collections, who did his lush cherrywood kitchen. Iida’s custom cabinetry and furniture are relatively affordable (dining-room tables start at $3,000 and custom cabinets at $5,000), and his projects tend toward the simple; he recently crafted a graceful set of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for a West Village apartment and a kitchen, bathroom, and wardrobe all paneled in spare white oak. Hachi Collections also has its own line of Iida’s furniture, light fixtures, and small home goods, including a tall pill-shaped walnut cabinet with domed brass handles ($13,000) and wooden aroma diffusers ($140).

For Unusually Inexpensive Cabinets

Elephants Custom Furniture, elephantscustomfurniture.com; 646-812-5313

Juliana Codas and Gokhan Doguer charge about $2,000 for an unadorned bathroom vanity made of Baltic birch, which, in the world of built-ins, is on the inexpensive side of things. Though the firm is equally comfortable using more luxurious woods and finishes, “you don’t get a lot of shops who can do a range of work and have it be consistent at all price points,” says Tania Chau, the interior-design director of Alda Ly Architecture. Chau has worked with Elephants on tasks as big as creating open shelving, toy storage, and closets for a kids’ playroom and as small as repainting the doors on kitchen cabinets. And Elephants is fast, too: A typical kitchen takes most contractors 12 to 14 weeks, but Elephants averages just six (its cabinets cost about $1,600 apiece). While it’s used to designers and architects coming in with a full set of specifications for a project, Elephants is happy to work with clients who show up with, say, just a magazine tear-out of a table.

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