After a long, successful run in the corporate world, 45-year-old Bill Kraus has caught the sideline business bug.
Kraus has a rewarding career with one of Mobile’s more venerable companies — he’s vice president of imports at Page & Jones, a provider of global logistics services founded in 1892. But for the past year or so, he has jumped feet first into building home furniture, using recycled wood to make tables, beds, shelving and framing.
It started pretty much through coincidence. “Somebody sent me some pictures of some shelves and coat racks that were built with pallet wood, ” Kraus recalls, “and about the same time, I had joined a newly formed hunting club that was still lacking furniture. I had access to some pallets, and from that initial idea we built an assortment of furniture — coffee table, end table, console table, etc. They were cheap to build but turned out to be durable and solid pieces, and they have a rustic look that belongs in a camp house.”
Furniture making feeds Kraus’ creative side, and using reclaimed wood provides an eco-friendly sense of satisfaction. “I use mostly pine and cypress, but I also like oak, ash, cedar and mahogany, ” he says. “I’m looking for old wood with a lot of growth rings and character. Most of the pieces I’ve built have been one-of-a-kind, built to someone’s specs.
“They’re made from reclaimed material, so the aging and blemishes are accentuated rather than hidden. Turning something that might be considered old or beyond use into something that is appealing and unique is very satisfying to me.”
Kraus recalls, for example, the time he inadvertently came across a hundred-year-old, heart-pine bead board in a construction dumpster. He scraped and sanded it to get past a layer of lead paint, sealed it with some varnish and turned it into an assortment of coffee and console tables. “I loved the way they turned out, but it’s just as satisfying to know that the material was reclaimed before it was destroyed, ” he says. “That was a great find.”
Most of the furniture he has built up to this point is now in his home or the homes of relatives and friends, and he has built pieces for fundraising events and charities. But he was recently commissioned to build pieces for sale. “A typical coffee or console table will be priced between $400 and $600, ” he says. “By the time I add up the additional tools and materials I have invested, there isn’t much net revenue. ”
Kraus is at the juncture where his furniture-making hobby is morphing into a viable side business. He has leased commercial space with plans to house his sideline there by springtime. He also is taking the necessary steps of ensuring his business meets government requirements. “I’ve made all the free furniture I want to make, and the carport/shed at my home can go back to being used for parking cars and storing bikes, ” he says.
He has done no advertising or online marketing but has been allowed to show some of his furniture at Amber Ivey Fine Art, the studio of Mobile artist Amber Ivey Bostwick. “Amber was very gracious in helping to promote my furniture through her network, and a few pieces of mine have gotten very good exposure, ” he says.
“I established the name that I want for this business — WK Southern Wood. I’ve only been posting pictures to my Facebook page up to this point and I have an Instagram page under WillyKraus. Setting up a company website and (developing) my Facebook page will be the next steps for getting the word out to a broader audience. ”
Kraus thinks about where his interest in woodworking came from
and where it might lead. “Carpentry is something that goes back a few generations on my dad’s side of the family, ” he says. “Even though my dad pursued a career in civil engineering, he always had a work space, a shop, around our house and was willing to show me and my brothers how to properly use tools to build or repair things.
“Now, as I reminisce about the good times I spent with my dad in his shop, I’m reminded of how important it is for me to expose my own three boys to woodworking. Maybe this could be the start of a family furniture-making business.”
So, which does Kraus like better — his day job at Page & Jones or his side work in furniture making?
“Page & Jones is a great place to work, and I am very fortunate to be a part of a company with such a long and successful history, ” he says. “The furniture making is a good way to clear my mind and focus on being creative. They are two very different jobs, but both of them are enjoyable. Did I dodge the question too much?”
Charlie Ingram and Chad Riley are freelancers for Business Alabama. Ingram is based in Birmingham and Riley in Mobile.
text by charlie ingram • photos by chad riley