The Erichsen Cabinet Shop survived the Great Depression, World War II, the Great Recession and all the other ups and downs that have marked America since 1928.
It has likewise survived cheap imports and the advent of mass production.
A fourth-generation, family-owned business, the shop has operated on the same six-acre plot of land in west-central Tacoma since Ted Erichsen arrived from Germany by way of the lime kilns of the San Juans and the boatyards of Grays Harbor.
The Erichsens design and construct cabinets, countertops, bookcases and fireplace mantels. It’s likely that Ted still would recognize the shop, the scent of sawdust heavy in the air alongside the music of machines he used during his own career.
Today, brothers Butch and Booner Erichsen, 56 and 54 respectively, run the operation. A third brother, Perry, passed last year at 51.
“Back in 1925, this was the woods,” said Butch on Monday morning.
He recalls, at age 18, visiting Ted and offering to help in the shop.
“I’ve been here for 37 years,” he said. “I saw Grandpa with his love for the work. Once I started doing it, it was like it was in my blood. It was a natural thing.”
“It is a natural thing to us,” said Booner. “I can build just about anything in my head and transfer it to my hands.”
Suzy, the shop cat, wanders across the rough-hewn wooden floor. It is a floor upon which Ted and his wife, Tudi, would host roller-skating parties and potluck dances back in the ’30s.
But the problem with the potlucks, Ted would complain, was that everybody brought potatoes. It was the Depression, after all.
Up above, on the walls and within the rafters, are furniture patterns dating back a century. A solid slab of mahogany rests with the dust of decades.
There is no clutter. Every item seems to have a place, and that place may not have changed in 80 years.
“We don’t make boxes,” said Butch. “We make cabinets. We do all our own doors and door fronts. Everything is made to fit. There is no ‘close enough.’”
“He’s Grandpa reincarnated,” said Booner. “He’s always putting in the extra effort.”
The shop operates with the two brothers plus two employees. Typically, the staff would total seven, but some workers have left for other professions. This is winter, a slow season, and the economy remains slow.
“It’s just starting to ramp up,” said Booner.
“We have a huge sales network,” said Butch, a bit puckishly. “Our customers.”
When the economy is steady, he said, “we have plenty of work. We couldn’t handle much more work.”
“If we hired more people,” said Booner, “there’s the risk of quality going down.”
The brothers divide responsibilities by skills. Booner does the drawings – by hand, of course, not with some newfangled Computer Assisted Drawing program.
“People think it’s weird how well we get along,” Butch said. “If there’s an issue, we air it out and move along. When we work, we work. We don’t need to talk to each other. The job is more important than talking.”
“We seem to agree on everything,” he said. “You have to be professional. Booner does the bidding, billing and banking.”
Both brothers live in Tacoma, Butch on the property and Booner in the North End. They have been married for 30 years and 28 years, respectively, and Butch counts four children while Booner names two. One of Butch’s sons has spent a year working at the shop, and another will start this summer.
The ’60s and ’70s, Butch said, saw cabinets being made of cheap plywood and the only colors available were “clear, dark or darker.”
Now, as the cabinet business has evolved, the Erichsens have remained both ahead of and behind the trends. They will carve the wood of a breakfront by hand. They will design and cut a solid piece of wood for a door instead of nailing or gluing pieces together.
“There’s nothing like working for yourself,” said Butch. “I’m not a money-focused person.”
“The responsibility drives me,” said Booner. We’ve had some customers cry, in a good way.”
Fires burn in a pair of wood stoves that heat the shop. A fine layer of that sawdust covers nearly every surface.
A belt driven contraption that powers a stroke sander (from about 1913), a planer (from 1880) and band saw (from 1905), was once driven by the energy provided by a Model T Ford. But it could be operated only early in the day. The problem was, Grandpa Ted needed that same Model T to make deliveries in the afternoon.
Since the ’30s, the machine is powered electrically.
Ted passed at 93, and worked full time until he turned 90.
“Sometimes you get the feeling he’s still here,” said Booner.
Back when Ted’s own son died, the old man had to make a decision.
Butch recalls, “When my dad died, Grandpa asked what we were going to do. I said, ‘Let’s keep working.’
“And we did.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535