An Interview by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership
November 6, 2018 by Chloe
Cromwell’s Wood Products founder Jerry Sinn gets interviewed by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. To learn more about us, read here
From retail and restaurants to tech and media, contractors to coworking spaces, large, small, and everything in between, a diverse array of businesses call Alexandria home. In our new blog series, Growing in Alexandria, we will sit down to talk with businesses around the City to learn more about who they are, what they do, and why they love it here. Have an idea for a business to talk to? Email us!
This November, we are excited to share our conversation with Jerry Sinn of Cromwell Wood Products, a new addition to King Street.
AEDP: Please tell us about your business.
Jerry: We have three main lines of business: wood floorings, hardwood feature walls, and custom furniture. We also do wood art and a little bit of carving. What has been surprising is customer interest in furniture repair and restoration.
An important thing to note is that all the wood we acquire and use must have a significant history and provenance. If it does not have these characteristics, we do not work with it or sell it to the customer. We make and install hardwood floors and do the millwork for crown molding, chair rails, wainscoting, base shoe, and baseboard.
We also do something called feature walls. We acquired this portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) which was painted in 1934 (see photo). We were originally going to put it on a sheet rock wall and then rejected that idea quite quickly for a few reasons. First, we realized that by mounting this portrait on a feature wall we could use the hardwood wall facing to make FDR’s face colors really pop. Second, the frame (1934) is the original. As you can see, the gilding is faded and the paint is somewhat washed out. The feature wall not only makes up for the deficiencies in the frame but enhances it. Then, with the geometry of the woodwork, it causes the eye to look at the portrait. So, we took an ordinary portrait and because it is on a feature wall, it is special.
We do furniture. We try not to sell too much directly from the floor, but we like to help the customer think on the floor. We like to show them different options and help them think through the ways in which they can customize their piece of furniture – like types of woods, finishes, edges, leg shapes, underpinnings. Once the customer designs their piece, we send the order to our cabinet shops and when it is done, it ships directly to the customer.
The last thing we do is something we call wood art. When we buy wood, we try to use the entire tree. We make bowls, rolling pins, cutting boards and more. These bowls can be used for serving food, but they also quickly become centerpieces. These large bowls can take two years to make, and the price reflects those labor hours.
Lastly, we do a little carving. Not many shops do wood carving anymore; the old-fashioned way with no power equipment. For example, we made this mailbox out of scrap wood. On the top, we did a low relief carving of an owl.
Another time, we got a visit from a gentleman that was coming up on his fifth wedding anniversary – the wood anniversary. He selected a small maple bowl and then asked us to carve a number into it – 2941. They were married in 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church. Our wood art products can make great gifts. We can also carve the family symbol into table tops.
AEDP: What is the most rewarding aspect of running the business?
Jerry: The people. We really enjoy getting into people’s heads and designing a custom piece of furniture. I have been in a lot of different businesses before, but never retail – it is much different. The partners in this business want to do a variety of things, but most especially we want to enhance the Old Town shopping experience. We made this space like a home – when you walk into the shop you enter the sitting area, followed by the dining room, the kitchen, the bathroom, and a multipurpose space. We paid a lot of attention to lighting. We work closely with a lights specialist and she can demonstrate how you can change the personality of a room just by changing the position and intensity of the lights. We put a lot of thought into how this store is designed in order to help our customers understand the range of possibilities in crafting a unique and aesthetically pleasing home.
AEDP: What is the next big project or goal you are working on?
Jerry: This fall/winter we will start carving in the shop. People will be able to come in and talk with the carver. People can also come in to get a chair custom designed to fit their body. People would have to come in and fit it several times; it’s like buying a dress. Lastly, we are starting to host educational events. In November 2018, we will host Insights from a Master Artisan series titled The Art of Buying Furniture.
AEDP: What is a fun fact about you? About your business?
Jerry: We buy antiques to learn from them. For example, we bought a set of Windsor chairs, probably made during the War of 1812. We were going to try to steal good ideas shamelessly. The chair had a hoop on the back made of a very thick piece of ash wood and it had to come down and bend in really tight. We tried to recreate the chair hoop using several techniques – we first tried to steam it and then bend it but it broke. Then we soaked it in warm water – it snapped again. Then we were standing around and the idea came to us – live tree! We got a branch from an ash tree, cut it, milled it, bent it, stuck it in the plank and done. It made for a good learning experience for us so that we knew what to do when we are asked to make other pieces of furniture with tight bends. The other interesting piece about this chair is the seat plank. They used to rate the seat planks of Windsor chairs in the 18th and 19th century; this information would be published in the newspapers and the like. This chair had one of the better seat planks so we looked it up in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury – which is the bible for furniture. Our intention was to copy these chairs and sell them. But before we could do that, someone walked in and said: “We’ll take them!” So we shipped them up to New Jersey. The lady that purchased them called back and said: “Thank you very much and we would like six more.” We will make the additional chairs using the same techniques from 1812.
AEDP: Why did you decide to locate in Alexandria?
Jerry: We were working in the area doing commercial work. Then we started talking to our friends – the architects, builders, and interior designers. They convinced us to open a retail store. Several other cities in the National Capital region were recommended to us but we decided on Alexandria because we enjoy spending time here and are familiar with the area. There are many unique selling points, like the fact we have the oldest and longest running farmers market in the United States. The diversity of the people is greater than most other locations.