Eight years ago John McDonald had never picked up a woodworking tool in his life. An aspiring screenwriter in Los Angeles with a day job waiting tables, the frustrated 34 year old decided to try something new: making furniture.
He started by refinishing antiques and moved on to making 2x4 inspired furniture and selling it at flea markets. From there he decided to get serious. "I set up shop in my friend's guest house, bought a ton of tools and how-to books. I was a week away from my first class at Cerritos College which was 'Shop Safety' when I cut off my pinky and severed the nerve and tendon in my ring finger on a band saw. I got right back at it immediately, kept taking classes, tied a bag over my bad hand and kept waiting tables at the sushi bar (only one customer complained). I kept going because I got good pretty fast and, really, there was nothing else at that point I could do as well."
John formed his company Handmade, a nod to the craft and to his missing digits and started working full time making custom furniture, kitchens, and baths. He was a regular at all the West Coast design shows like CABoom and Dwell on Design and he got a lot of attention for his craft, attention to detail and his down to earth demeanor. His style was contemporary with mid-century and some arts-and-crafts influences "I don't have much formal training, and definitely no design background, so I just make pieces that appeal to me. Magazines, TV, whatever. From the beginning, I was lucky to find clients who pretty much gave me free rein."
Now John is expanding Handmade with a new service that makes remodelling or building out your kitchen or bathroom a lot more affordable: SEMIHandmade offers custom cabinet and drawer fronts for store bought cabinet boxes (think Ikea). And with pricing that averages about 30 percent higher than Ikea’s cabinet fronts, SEMIHandmade offers a significant upgrade. "SemiHandmade is in no way affiliated with Ikea, but we're huge fans of their multi-purpose, modular, reasonably priced products. Our goal is to simply enhance a quality product. Personalize it. And the fact is, people have been customizing Ikea kitchens for years, we're just the first company to offer it on a wide scale, and in contemporary styles." says John. Not only is the craftsmanship hard to beat, but the quality of the hardwood they offer is worlds above the MDF that’s standard at Ikea. Half the woods available are reclaimed: Douglas Fir, basketball flooring, redwood wine casks plus specialty colored laminate, sequence-matched veneers (where the doors, panels, and drawer faces all come from the same batch of veneers and lay out in a continuous, sequential pattern) and hard woods like Walnut, Teak, Bamboo, Mahogany, and White Oak. And if you're reusing your existing cabinets it means less material going into a landfill."
"Offering IKEA as a base makes us competitive with most big-box cabinet companies, but for a lot of projects we do, clients want everything custom". The Soriano House in Silver Lake (above) inspired a totally custom Mid Century style kitchen with views onto the Silver Lake Reservoir. "This the Handmade side of our company," says John,. "For everybody else, we developed SEMIHandmade. We go in, find out how flexible a potential client is—figure out the difference between what they want and really need, what the space can accomodate, the budget—and then work from there."
This small cabinet (left) is an Ikea frame with SEMI Handmade Custom doors made out of reclaimed basketball court flooring. "We’re saving lumber that is not only perfectly reusable, it’s got a beauty you just can’t fake. It’s there, right in front of you—nail holes, iron stains, paint flecks. There’s a story to it. We have a few types on-hand permanently—Doug fir framing lumber, for example—and then rotate limited-run stuff like redwood from wine staves and old basketball court flooring depending on their availability," says John. "Probably half of what we are offering at SEMIhandmade is old lumber—we source it from a few places here in Los Angeles, the main one being E and K Wood in Culver City. They're constantly bringing in new, interesting stuff from all over California as well as other parts of the country. Best of all, they're open to anybody. People can just walk in. They'll talk to you. They like what they do."
Handmade and SEMIHandmade work with designers and architects to help create what the client is looking for, or very often, directly with the client. In this case (above) they worked with Sarah Farris-Gilbert from Grace Hilton to create completely custom cabinets and a built in desk for a classic Eichler House in Los Angeles. The white lacquer desktop and sliding bookcase function as a room divider "which came out beautifully but was definitely a challenge on a heavily-sloped floor" John admits.
Quality materials make a difference and using sequenced teak (right) to create custom storage and a face for a built-in Murphy Bed upgraded a small space in Venice. SEMIHandmade offers a huge selection of materials from reclaimed wood and hard woods to urea-free Bamboo and three different colors of laminate-on-exposed-edge-multiply. "In addition to having really strong architectural qualities, these offer a nice contrast to the more "dramatic" wood. There's a soothing neutrality that stabilizes things", John adds.
This custom looking kitchen (above) in Silverlake, CA is actually Ikea in disguise and an example of how SEMIHandmade works. The clients saved big on their budget when they used premade cabinet boxes and hired SEMIHandmade to create custom sequenced teak cabinet and drawer fronts. "In some cases, a client's cabinets are in good shape and the lay-out works, so we just replace the doors. There's something really satisfying about keeping cabinet boxes out of landfills. For other clients, they want all Ikea. Still others want a mix of Ikea and custom cabinets for a fully built-in look. In the end, it's the doors, panels and drawer faces that define the room." And with SEMIHandmade kitchens taking about four weeks from start to finish, the install time is half that of a fully custom kitchen.
John leans to the mid century in aesthetic, which is a perfect match for many of the designers and architects that he works with. In this Los Feliz House (above) Handmade created this completely custom built-in using white laminate and walnut veneer.
"Frameless boxes offer more storage than face-frame cabinets, their modular style makes installation (and taking them with you) a breeze, and melamine boxes are the standard in the kitchen and bath industry. Even Ikea's high-end Blum hinges, drawer slides and flip-up arms are the same hardware we use at Handmade". Ikea is the only major cabinet manufacturer that lets you buy just their boxes." In this case (right), John's client purchased premade cabinets boxes and SEMIHandmade created the drawer and cabinet fronts out of sequence matched Teak veneer. To finish it out, John made custom cabinet boxes for the ends since a premade size wasn't available.
"SEMIHandmade is geared mainly towards kitchens, but we've found some of the Ikea cabinets—depending on how they are configured—function just as well in other rooms. We've made credenzas (like the one pictured above) and floating bookcases. At the moment, we're in the process of developing custom legs that, once attached, easily transform a kitchen pantry into media cabinet "