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A Vancouver craftsman builds bigger - and builds a brand

Kitchen design by Christian Woo. Mr. Woo has moved from furniture design to doing whole rooms. The projects lately have included interior work for two newly built west side Vancouver homes, one of which went for a record-setting price. The average Christian Woo kitchen costs in the neighbourhood of $50,000. For a condo kitchen, he estimates it to be around $35,000. And he’s busier than he’s ever been, fully booked to the end of the year.


Christian Woo is more than a furniture designer with a cool name that's become a brand.

While he's a recognized name among high-end furniture design, the woodworker has recently taken his career to the next level, designing and building entire kitchens, built-ins, and millwork for homes, top to bottom. Behind the brand is a lean 39-year-old who spends his days in the vast multi-workshop building of 1000 Parker, on the east side, with his mixed-breed dog, and stacks of raw, quarter-sawn walnut imported from Pennsylvania.

Mr. Woo discovered that to get the best cuts of wood, he'd have to import directly from the eastern United States. He also discovered that cutting boards are an efficient way to utilize off-cuts, and they make a nice gift for clients who've commissioned big projects. And as he enters the home building and renovation industry, the projects are getting bigger.

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"Recently, the scale of projects I've been working on has grown considerably," says Mr. Woo, standing inside his workshop. "Generally, now what seems to be happening is the clients contact me prior to embarking on a renovation or a new build. And they are basically asking me to come up with a design to build into their project. Often, it's a kitchen and specific woodwork pieces throughout, and often the furniture, too.

"The kitchens I build do resemble the furniture I build. They are built to the same sort of specifics – they are not just production melamine boxes, but actually handcrafted kitchens meant to be used and meant to last."

The projects lately have included interior work for two newly built west side Vancouver homes, one of which went for a record-setting price. The average Christian Woo kitchen costs in the neighbourhood of $50,000. For a condo kitchen, he estimates it to be around $35,000. And he's busier than he's ever been, fully booked to the end of the year.

In the competitive world of woodworking, he has found his niche. Not bad for a craftsman who, by his own admission, is notorious for losing money on almost every project because of his attention to detail and lack of business acumen. But he is learning.

Mr. Woo, who was born in Spain and raised in North Vancouver, spent his 20s working in the film industry as a set carpenter. After building furniture in a co-op workshop for a few years, he rented his own large workshop in the same building and eventually hired a couple of assistants. However, he is still involved in every aspect of the process, from the time-consuming processing of the raw wood, selecting all the pieces, building, assembly, oiling the piece by hand, and installation.

He is inspired by the other success stories in his building, including furniture maker Judson Beaumont. Mr. Woo points to a window across the away, where Mr. Beaumont's shop is located. Upstairs, he says, is sculptor David Robinson.

"It's nice to be around people succeeding at their craft. The common theme with those people is they are so dedicated. There are no half measures. They can't just put in seven or eight hours a day and call it a day," says Mr. Woo, who will come into his shop at 3 a.m. if he has a new idea.

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He has made his mark for the details, which means he isn't building your average kitchen cabinet.

"He looks at each piece and says this lumber is going to go with this piece," says Robert Quinnell, co-owner of Provide, the Beatty Street store where Mr. Woo launched his new furniture series in late April. "He really considers the wood. The difference between Christian and other builders is, he's an artist."

In his workshop, Mr. Woo points to a tiny knot that runs along the frame of a lower cabinet, which is under assembly. Once the door is installed, it will barely be visible. But he is delighted it is there.

"I've made it difficult for myself and it costs me time, but I think I produce a better end product," he says.

Last year, he got his first job working with a developer. Tristan Rockel builds small, custom-built homes. Mr. Rockel brought Mr. Woo in at the planning stage and made him a vital part of the overall design, right down to the routered cutlery drawer.

"I was given quite a lot of space to design and develop these spaces for them," says Mr. Woo.

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The result is two side-by-side three-storey homes, 2,400 square feet each, filled with Christian Woo millwork and furniture. Mr. Rockel lives in one house; the other house was sold for $2.240 million, to a buyer familiar with Mr. Woo's work.

"I believe in terms of price per square footage, it is a record for the Cambie area," says Mr. Rockel. "We used his name in our marketing. His work is an important part of the project."

Mr. Rockel and Mr. Woo are planning to team up again for a 3,400-square-foot house.

His work, says friend and Governor-General Award-winning woodworker/artist Brent Comber, is a throwback to the old days of woodcraft.

"It's kind of like when craftsmen used to do the flooring and wainscoting and a lot of the mill work, and if asked to do the furniture, they would," he says, on the phone from a trade show in New York. "Like they used to do at the turn of the century, before people got into specializing.

"Also, he's the only guy I know that would take a whole kitchen and bring it to a trade show to show what he does. He's crazy. He is perfectly willing to sleep overnight inside the trade show."

Client Anne Watt lives in a part of West Vancouver that once reflected the boom of mid-century architecture, but is now instead starting to reflect the boom of high real estate prices. Her 2,800- sq. ft rancher type house is being dwarfed on all sides by monster homes, but instead of re-building, she and her husband wanted to maintain the house's integrity and incorporate Mr. Woo's creativity into their renovation.

"People in our neighbourhood are knocking down all these mid-century houses and putting up monster homes. There is the coke palace down the road and the penitentiary across the street," she says, laughing.

"We have a small house on a big lot. We wanted to keep that, and we didn't want to take truckloads of containers to the dump. We wanted to do something really special.

"Christian's stuff is very organic looking. I was speaking with an architect, and he said he's never seen someone who does veneer that way. It's not the same thing you see and over and over again."

As for expanding his condo and house project business, Mr. Woo says he would like to take on projects as big as eight condo units at a time.

"I can't see going much bigger than that at this point, because it's still a small operation with a real focus on quality," he says. "I want to keep it small and relatively boutique."

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