By Carla Christiano
Lance Frye never expected to make a career in manufacturing furniture. The former U.S. Marine navigator and Woodbridge native had other plans for his life. Then his first wife wanted a table and chairs, and his search for them kicked off his more than 20 years in the furniture business.
“It wasn’t like I set out one day and said, ‘I’m going to start a wood furniture store, and that’s what I’m going to do the rest of my life,’” said Frye. “I started it as a side business, and it grew into a full-time operation, which was the single source of income for me, my wife and four kids.”
Frye, along with his second wife, Kimberley, now own Woodcrafters Furniture & Cabinetry, an 18,000-square-foot retail/manufacturing business near Potomac Mills and Ikea in Woodbridge. Started in 2014, Woodcrafters looks like a lot of furniture stores. The front half contains row after row of furniture—tables, cabinets, dressers, nightstands, bookcases and headboards of all kinds of woods and finishes. The back half, however, contains the manufacturing and finishing operation. “It’s so unique that we are manufacturing furniture on the same premises where we sell it,” said Frye.
“One characteristic that makes us different is that Woodcrafters truly is three stores in one,” said Kimberley. “You can come in and buy finished furniture, and we can deliver it to you tomorrow. There’s unfinished where you can select the color of paint or stain of your choice. If that’s not what you want, we can make that furniture for you in any size you want…You can’t really find that anywhere else.”
Although he has always been handy, Frye had never tried furniture construction before 1993 when he found an unfinished wood furniture kit for his first wife Laura at a PX in North Carolina. Most of the finished furniture he saw was particle board. “On the limited pay that I had, I didn’t want to buy something that wouldn’t last,” he said.
Then he learned that he would be part of a workforce reduction. “I found out I was getting out of the Marine Corps, and I had to tell the missus we’re going to have to sell the table and chairs and the house and move back home,” Frye said. He decided to assemble and sell some unfinished furniture kits to make some extra money to tide them over. “As I look back, it’s kind of funny how your life can turn rather suddenly in a different direction…I liked the idea of wood furniture. I decided to see if I could make it stick,” he said.
Despite having no business experience, Frye and his wife Laura maxed out their credit card with a $1,000 loan. They displayed the furniture he built in a 10-by-20-foot space within an artisan market in Havelock, N.C. “Every aspect of the business had to be learned from the ground up…It was an incredible uphill climb…I went one day from flying airplanes in the Marine Corps to trying to sell wood furniture and then trying to finish wood furniture, which is a whole art in itself,” Frye said. By 1995, they were leasing a 10,000-square foot building in New Bern and a satellite store at the local mall as well as the 3,000-square foot space in Havelock. He even hired his old Marine Corps bosses. Still Frye said they were “struggling tremendously to keep it all together financially.”
Despite their expanding retail business, the couple decided to move back to Woodbridge after the birth of their third child to be closer to family. “I told Laura, my first wife, all we are doing is chasing a dollar bill. We can do that in Woodbridge as easily as we can here,” he said.
They found an old bowling alley on Route 1 and opened Knock on Wood, a 22,000-square foot unfinished furniture store. Laura worked tirelessly handling the books as well as caring for their four children. His mother, brother and nephew worked for him for a time. “We ran Knock on Wood from the beginning of 2000 until 2011,” he said. In 2001, they added a table manufacturing operation in North Carolina that had customers up and down the east coast. A series of personal and professional setbacks, including his wife’s illness and death in 2010 and his father’s death in 2011, forced Frye to close both the retail and manufacturing businesses. Despite this, Frye decided to open another furniture business. He expected to open Woodcrafters in six months, but several delays prevented him from opening until 2014.
Building a Future
Although the new building has less retail space than Knock on Wood, its location near Ikea and Costco draws curious furniture shopping customers. It also allowed Frye to combine manufacturing and retail operations under one roof. He credits their current success at Woodcrafters to the foundation that Laura helped build, along with his and Kimberley’s business experience and all those hard-won lessons: “We have a lot of experience, and we are putting that experience to work now. It’s paying off.”
Their hard work has paid off in other ways as well. “For the first time in many years, we’re going to be showing furniture at the High Point [N.C.] Market Trade Show that will hopefully be sold at wood furniture stores all around the United States,” said Frye. “Those [pieces] will be manufactured here in Woodbridge with high-tech machinery and wonderful employees.”
Woodcrafters Furniture & Cabinetry 14498 Telegraph Road, Woodbridge woodcraftersfurniturestore.com 571-572-3150
Carla Christiano ([email protected]) is a native of Prince William County, admitted history geek and a technical writer for Unisys.