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CAREERS / The Way Work Ought to Be

Hands-On

A self-taught furniture maker finds there's a demand for someone who does things the old-fashioned way.

September 15, 1997|BARBARA MARSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

'I can't even turn our computer on, and I don't want to know how," says Ken Cowell, a furniture and cabinet maker from Yorba Linda who likes doing business the old-fashioned way.

Like other traditionalists, Cowell isn't trading in his drawing board for computer-aided design software. At the top of his tools list is an item whose history goes back more than 1,000 years--the carpenter's hand plane.

"It's kind of fun to look at all the curls it makes and stretch them out and look at them," Cowell says. "You feel the wood. It's elemental."

Cowell says his business, Dovetail Cabinets, grosses $220,000 to $250,000 a year. He makes items ranging from a simple $200 vanity to a set of kitchen cabinets for $10,000 to $20,000.

The self-taught Cowell, 51, found his calling in woodworking after casting about in another career. His finer work--his family's entertainment center, for instance, crafted from American black walnut, with curved glass doors and a finish as smooth as satin--can take the breath away.

He believes a skilled artisan will always find work, and prognosticators agree.

"There will always be things for people to do with their hands. In the early 1990s, there was a lot of restructuring, but, by and large, people with [manual] skills were better able to adapt them than, say, auto workers or steelworkers," says Bill Gayk, director of the Center for Demographic Research at Cal State Fullerton.

State researchers forecast that the number of jobs for cabinet and furniture makers--estimated at 9,400 in 1993--will increase to 14,160 by 2005. That's a healthy average increase of 4.6% a year.

Top-drawer housing and home remodelings should help sustain the work, builders say.

"Coming out of this particular recession, there's a great deal more demand in the high end," says David M. Cunningham, president of Hearthstone Development Corp. in Orange.

The pattern is long-standing, Cowell says. "All through the centuries, the wealthy have hired artisans to do something for them."

Independence is part of the draw for him--Cowell hates having a boss.

He worked for a custom contractor once, but walked off the job after three days. "I don't take instructions well from idiots," he says.

He hates unions too, considering them another boss.

An evangelical Christian, Cowell speaks of his craft as if it were a religious calling. Sitting on the couch in his home, admiring the entertainment center he completed last year, he recalled the hundreds of hours of his spare time it took to make it.

"As I was creating the curves and carving on it, it was almost as if I was a tool in the hand of the master creator," he says.

*

Ask Cowell how his craft is changing or what skills will be demanded of others who follow him, and he'll say that all that's required are the basics: the ability to communicate with the customer and visualize what he or she wants.

"I can walk into a customer's room and in two to three minutes have several plans," he says. "Then it takes about an hour to explain them to the customer."

Cowell is a native Californian who grew up in Tulare. As a child, he was shy but displayed a talent for working with his hands. He would take an alarm clock apart and put it back together, or fix the toaster. In high school, he excelled at mechanical drawing.

At home, he got little encouragement, he says. His father, a postman, used to lock up the toolbox so Cowell and his brother couldn't play with the contents.

"If that happens when you're a kid, you're lost," says Cowell, who years later made sure his three sons got all the hammers, screwdrivers and pliers they could use or lose.

Cowell first pursued a career as a religious administrator. He earned a master's degree from Talbot Theological Seminary in La Mirada, then worked two years in the education program of the evangelical Yorba Linda Friends.

Dissatisfied, especially with the low pay, he quit, became a handyman and found he could make more money--$5 an hour in the 1970s.

Learning as he went along, he says, he replaced broken doors and moldings, made a fence and a patio cover, did drywall, plumbing, roofing, finishing, tiling.

But being efficient at rote, repetitive tasks--a hallmark of Southern California construction trades schooled on tract housing--weren't for him. He found his way into the finer end of carpentry and woodworking.

"In my 30s," he says, "I began to realize that what was coming out of my hands was really very unusual."

*

He could take satisfaction in turning his customers' dreams, even the offbeat ones, into reality.

One couple in Ontario saved for three years, then hired him to make the dresser they envisioned--eight feet long, 33 inches high, with three drawers for her on one side, three for him on the other, and a remote-controlled television that popped up in the middle.

Then there was the desk he made for a man in Laguna Niguel. It was multicolored, covered with Spackle, cost thousands of dollars and resembled a console from "Star Trek."

"It was the ugliest thing I've ever seen--really bad--but he loved it," Cowell says.

Cowell seems most proud of the pieces he has made for his family.

There's the wooden briefcase for a son, the carved sleigh bed--his daughter's wedding present--and the two bowls turned from a piece of Osage orange he received before the wedding from his daughter's soon-to-be in-laws.

The day of her wedding, Cowell said, he and his wife kept one of the bowls and presented the new in-laws with the other, saying: "You gave me the wood and a son. I give you the bowl and a daughter."

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