Once a week, the young craftsmen of Unruh Furniture get to make a special delivery.
A pair of them brings a beautiful handmade table to a deserving single mother, one like Heather Wallace. For free.
Wallace, 34, lives in Raymore with her 12-year-old daughter. In January she received a 6-foot-long custom table from Robb Cortes, who helped start Unruh Furniture’s “Tables for Moms” program with the company’s owner and founder, Sam Unruh. Wallace was nominated for the program by her mother.
The men believe in the importance of families gathering around a table for regular meals. Unruh, who grew up in Peculiar, still remembers where he and each of his five siblings sat during meals.
Cortes, who was raised in the Bronx by a single mother, is paying it forward: A neighbor knocked on their apartment door one day and gave them a much-needed kitchen table.
Now, he says, he gets to do the same for others.
“They don’t look like the kind who would think of something like this,” Wallace says. “But they’ve got the biggest hearts of gold.”
Their personalities mesh
What they look like at Grandview’s Unruh Furniture is a bunch of 20-something guys who happen to love woodworking.
But most of them didn’t know a thing about woodworking when they were hired. Their boss knew only a little more than that.
Sam Unruh, 28, started the company five years ago. He isn’t formally trained in woodworking but has always loved working with his hands. He was working in property management when he began making wood furniture in his garage for friends and family.
“My wife convinced me to do this full time,” Unruh says. “It was a bold move, because she was pregnant for the first time.”
He began with one or two orders a week, and it quickly grew to five or six pieces.
In 2012, he moved his workshop into an abandoned house that he bought and renovated. He then hired Cortes. Within a year he’d outgrown that space and decided to move operations to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse and hired two more employees, Cody Grube and Jacob Burkhalter.
Last summer Unruh bought a 10,000-square-foot abandoned building, spent three months renovating it and moved the operation into it in October. Drew Sherwood, Josiah Thill and Ben Jones came on board at that time.
Since then he has also hired Cameron Reed and Ben Nazworthy.
When he started his company, it took awhile for Unruh to get each piece just right. But once he finished a piece, he’d draw detailed sketches of how he did it, which made building subsequent pieces a lot more efficient.
“Then I taught the other guys, and I don’t do it at all anymore,” Unruh says.
He hires guys who he jibes with personally, who have a nice, easygoing way about them and a desire to work with their hands. They also all share the same Christian values, he points out.
“What we end up with is a bunch of guys who really like each other and have fun together,” Unruh says.
Keeping it small
Unruh gave a tour of his two-story workshop one afternoon. He spends most of his time these days upstairs in a combination office/showroom running the business side of things with Jones.
Downstairs, just inside the front door of the building, is a studio for photographing furniture and another showroom with sample tables, buffets and signs. Table legs in different shapes and weathered finishes artfully hang by pieces of thick rope from a wall. The space feels like an urban loft with farmhouse flair.
We walk through a door into the finishing room of the workshop, where Pete, a young pitbull mix, enthusiastically greets us. Grube adopted Pete a few weeks ago. Pete has separation anxiety if Grube leaves him alone, so he spends his days at the workshop, where he has taken to stealing doughnuts during Monday meetings.
“It’s well-known that Cody is the best employee,” Unruh says, half jokingly. “He is easily the nicest, most friendly guy. It takes all the other guys to build the pieces, and just Cody to finish them.”
Grube smiles shyly and notes that it’s a lot easier to paint, stain and lacquer a piece of furniture than build it from scratch.
A second door, at the back of the room, leads to the woodworking room where the eight other young men are bent over noisy power tools.
Sherwood and Reed are smoothing pieces of furniture with hand-held belt sanders. Thill is rounding the edges of a tabletop with a router, while several other guys cut wood on table and straight-line rip saws.
Nazworthy, 20, of Lee’s Summit, was hired after Grube, his brother-in-law, told him about the shop. Nazworthy had been working as a lube technician at a national automotive repair shop in Raytown.
“I was tired of working for a big corporation. I like knowing who my boss is,” he said. “This is a real laid-back kind of place. You’re expected to do a good job, but you don’t have anybody standing over you watching all the time.”
Unruh now produces 15 to 20 pieces a week, mostly for local homeowners referred by word of mouth. Some people find them online, at UnruhFurniture.com.
Unruh says he has declined several offers by retailers to sell his furniture. He prefers to keep the entire operation in-house.
Each piece is unique
Tables and beds are made of Douglas fir, which Unruh thinks looks most like old barnwood. Sideboards, dressers, armoires and other box-type pieces are made of knotty pine.
Clients can choose from a wide range of natural stain finishes and weathered paints topped with water-based, eco-friendly lacquers.
The price range for a dining table is $600 to $900. A console/buffet table is about $700, and a coffee table is about $400 — or “about 80 percent the price of Pottery Barn,” Unruh says. “But we would think we have a lot better furniture.”
The company recently began shipping online orders to anywhere in the continental United States. They can also build furniture based on sketches from clients and will customize paint colors.
A woman ordered a set of pink weathered chairs. Unruh admits that he balked at the idea but thinks they turned out great.
“That’s the fun part. When people get something from us, it’s unique,” Unruh says.
Even the free tables given to mothers are customized.
“They let me pick one of three designs, and I could pick any finish I wanted,” says Wallace, whose table has an espresso-stained top and distressed cream legs.
She has seen similar ones selling for $800 on Unruh’s website. Before she got the table, she and Alesia were using a small four-seater from a garage sale.
“My daughter does homework on it every night,” she says. “I love to have people over and cook for them and host holidays, and now I can do that, because it seats eight. It’s perfect.”
“Table for Moms”
To see a video about the program or to nominate yourself or another single mother to receive a table, go to unruhfurniture.com/our-story.