Woodlife Custom Craft's Products are Built to Last

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, June 7, 2010

Gorky Pacha learned woodworking on Nantucket Island. He had just moved to the United States from Argentina, and after a stint in Madison, Wis., he found himself on the Eastern seaboard, learning to build a house by hand.

In Nantucket, Pacha says, all building must be approved by a town council to make sure structures maintain the character of the place. For certain things, such as moldings and artistic flourishes, that means no power tools allowed.

Pacha had never built a house. He’d never built anything with wood, nor did he have any desire to do so. In Argentina, he had studied animal husbandry, and he planned to use his knowledge to help feed the world.

But he had always longed to work with his hands, and when a friend asked him to help on the construction of a house, Pacha found his calling.

It started as a hobby. Pacha made furniture on the side for the pure joy of it. Then people started asking him to make pieces for them. Eventually, he moved to Santa Fe, and his hobby morphed into a living.

Now, Pacha’s custom woodworking business, Woodlife Custom Craft Inc., is 20 years strong.

Woodlife, now based in the far southwest reaches of Albuquerque, specializes in cabinet-making, although Pacha and his five-member crew still make furniture. All of Pacha’s employees have been with him for at least five years.

In the past few years, green materials have become one of the business’ priorities. Using conventional methods, woodworking isn’t all that environmentally friendly. Not only are slow-growth trees such as oak and maple commonly used, but the stains and finishes applied to wood are often filled with toxic, carcinogenic chemicals such as formaldehyde.

While Pacha still offers traditional woods and finishes, he’s focused on sustainable, chemical-free materials. He prefers wood with the Forest Stewardship Council stamp of approval, and he loves working with bamboo, which is quick to grow and easy to harvest. He also offers soy-based glues, and finishes and stains that are free of formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds.

Pacha is conscious of the environmental impact of other aspects of his business as well. For the past three years, he’s given all salvageable materials left over from home renovations he’s worked on to Habitat for Humanity. And he keeps waste in his shop to a minimum, recycling plastic, paper and cardboard and donating wood scraps.

He says green materials are selling well, but slowly. Using green materials in a project costs about 15 percent more than using conventional materials, so many people are going with the less expensive option. To offset the cost, Pacha buys sustainable wood in bulk and passes the savings on to his customers. Once green materials become more common, they won’t cost as much, he says.

Woodlife has sizable competition in big-box stores that sell relatively inexpensive, pre-fab cabinetry. And in this economy, Pacha says more people are choosing that route.

Still, he thinks his prices are a bargain for the level of quality he offers. He didn’t want to cite specific prices, because every project is custom-designed and costs vary.

But he argues that paying a little more initially brings rewards in the long term.

“What you pay is what you get for,” he says. “I’m always proud to say my product is going to withstand anything. The thing is, the quality of a cabinet is how many times are you going to open the door and close it and it’s going to be still square, still in place? How many times are you going to open the same drawer and it’s not going to swell and it’s not going to come off the glide? And that’s what we sell. We sell a product that’s going to withstand generations.”

Dru Rhoads likes that philosophy. She contracted Pacha to do all the woodwork in a 4,500-square-foot house she was building in 2007, including the kitchen, bathrooms, laundry room and a television cabinet. The final cost was $45,000, and she says it was well worth it. Her house won “best kitchen” in the Parade of Homes in 2007.

“He just has this vision with his wood,” she says. “He can see all this stuff in his wood. It’s phenomenal.”

That kind of vision is important to Rhoads.

“I don’t want the same cabinets that everybody else has,” she says. “I want something that’s mine. So Gorky made my cabinets be us, made the cabinets fit what we needed. He’s just magic.”

Woodlife has done well financially, growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year over the past 10 years. But this year is different. Pacha is starting to feel the effects of the recession, and he’s looking for ways to redirect business.

That’s where the green materials come in. While Pacha has always used some sustainable materials in his business, he’s only begun marketing that fact in the past couple of years, in the hope of appealing to a specific customer base. But it’s too soon to tell how well it’s working.

Still, Pacha is confident in his business’ staying power, and hopes people will continue to see the value in buying locally.

“We’re just small artisans,” he says, “who do beautiful things at a reasonable price.”