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Family Turns Out Music in a Box : Craft: The Kohauts engage in a venture that they share with only a few companies in the world.

July 21, 1990|KEITH TUBER | Keith Tuber is a regular contributor to Home Design

TUSTIN — The word wood is music to the ears of the Kohaut family, especially for Costa Mesa resident Harry F. Kohaut III, a 33-year-old entrepreneur whose roots in woodworking go back more than a century. Indeed, splinters are as much a part of him as blood and sinew.

It took more than his share of gumption to start Kohaut & Co. Although the firm's name dates back to Kohaut's great-grandfather, who first opened a wood-turning business on the East Coast in 1887, the current enterprise is only two years old.

Now located in Tustin, Kohaut & Co. produces a line of 11 different, handcrafted wooden music boxes.

"My expertise is in production," says Kohaut's 60-year-old father and partner in the family-run business, who is also named Harry F. Kohaut. "What we constantly press is quality. We're making the kind of music boxes that can be passed down to your grandchildren. Everything is top quality. We use solid woods instead of veneers, and all the hardware is brass. We could reduce the cost if we used steel screws, but we're not about to do that."

The senior Kohaut's production experience complements his son's marketing skills. Together, along with Chris, the younger Kohaut's wife, they turn out music boxes made of such exotic woods as cocobolo, goncalo alves, bubinga, padouk, bloodwood and zebra wood, as well as the more common maple, walnut or Honduras mahogany.

Music boxes are normally made to order, often in quantities of five to 10. When orders come in, the first step is to pull wood from inventory. Maple and zebra woods are scrutinized to ensure that the best possible colors are used. Then the dimensions are cut--the sides, top and bottom--with a band saw. The moldings are added and the pieces assembled. Following assembly, the boxes are sanded and finished, with six coats of lacquer each. The musical movements are tested and installed, and glass panels are added to some models.

It can take the better part of a day to make one box. The process is speeded up by delegating certain saws to specific functions.

"The angles are often difficult, especially those with glass," the younger Kohaut explains. "One small mistake and the box is ruined. The angles are critical because some of them are unusual--37 degrees, for instance, rather than 45 degrees. We've dealt with this by assigning certain saws to specific functions. We learned this from a coffin maker, and the result is greater efficiency."

The Kohauts also use a planer, molder and several shapers to produce their products.

The intricate musical movements are all made by Reuge in Switzerland, a company with an international reputation for quality. The glass panels--a feature of more than half the models--are beveled.

"We're trying to fill a small niche," the senior Kohaut says. "European music boxes are more baroque, while ours are designed for the American market and feature cleaner lines."

"In the entire world," his son adds, "there may be between five and 10 companies competing with us."

The elder Kohaut envisions a time when production may have to be limited. Right now, he either makes or oversees the manufacture of every one of the 50 or so music boxes per week that leave his Tustin home, which doubles as his wood workshop. And that's the way he wants to keep it.

His partner agrees.

"We don't necessarily want to be the biggest, we want to be the best," the younger Kohaut says. "Our goal is between 50 and 75 music boxes a week--that's about as much as we can handle and still maintain our integrity. We'd be very content with that. We want to have fun with this."

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