Three generations work together at Oncken & Sons Cabinet Shop Inc. in San Antonio, TX. The first generation is represented by the owners, Norwin and Irene Oncken. Their two sons Al and Mike have never worked anywhere else; likewise for Al’s son, Quincey, who has worked on a full-time basis with the company for about six years.
Usually it is Irene who has first contact with customers, doing the initial design work. Al is responsible for subsequent computer work, including writing the programs for the CNC router. He also does the estimating and final designing. Mike is the foreman in the shop and the mill, and Quincey fills in wherever he is needed.
The business started 33 years ago as a sideline for Norwin, who was making plaques for a taxidermist. Al and Mike were about 10 and 11 years old, respectively. Norwin paid them and some of their neighborhood friends to sand the plaques – 10 cents for each one. Soon, the rate was raised to 25 cents a plaque.
“Back then, there were all kinds of good things that we could buy with 25 cents,” says Mike.
At the time, Norwin was working as a lineman for City Public Service. It was his brother-in-law, who was a home builder, who suggested that he start making cabinets. So Norwin took his $2,000 retirement fund and went into business.
Mike, Al and Quincey began working at the company on a formal basis when they were enrolled in a high school-sponsored work study program. All of the Onckens lament the fact that the work-study arrangement has since been discontinued by the school system, because it helped all three get a good start.
Building cabinets and lasting relationships
Oncken is noted for being a good place to work, and not just for family members. There are several people who have been with the company more than 20 years, including Bill Bronstad, who is the head cutter, Billy-Jean Bellinger, who does hand sanding, and Val Herrera, who operates the shaper-sander. The company employs 19 people.
Today, Norwin and Irene are semi-retired, working Monday through Wednesday. They say their absence during the rest of the week gives the next generation an opportunity to be in charge and, according to Irene, they also have the chance to show just how good they are on their own. She comments that one of her favorite features of the business is that it affords them the opportunity to work with their children.
The company also has built a strong working relationship with several of San Antonio’s high-end builders and interior designers, who recognize the quality of the Onckens’ custom cabinets. Ninety-nine percent of their work is destined for residential settings. Their cabinets can be found in residences starting at approximately $160,000 and going up from there.
Most customers are located in San Antonio and the surrounding area, up to about 150 miles away. The company has been in business long enough that it is now supplying cabinetry to the children and grandchildren of its original customers.
Oncken has developed a brand that goes on the inside of a drawer. It serves as a link back to the company when homes are sold to new owners, who may need repairs or want to update their cabinets. The company also supplies other shops with raised panel doors.
Controlling quality in the shop
The company makes an effort to control quality wherever it can. This includes operating its own mill, which Al says is the best way to be on top of quality control and to maximize productivity. The mill area houses a Wadkin GD220 moulder, Whirlwind chop saw and a Taylor clamp carrier.
The shop also contains a Komo VR08 CNC router. Al uses CabnetWare software to program the router, which is used to cut plywood into cabinet components and drill the necessary shelf holes. Other machines include a Timesavers widebelt sander and a Larick shaper-sander.
Oncken & Sons uses a Kreg pocket screw machine to join the face frames. Using pocket screws speeds up the process and makes a strong face frame, according to the company. Because of the way that the screws are positioned in the frame, they are out of the way when they go through the sander.
In addition, it is an Oncken signature to construct long cabinets in two pieces for structural soundness with an invisible joint, so that it looks like one continuous piece.
A history of unique jobs
Over the years, the Oncken & Sons Cabinet Co. has had the opportunity to do some unusual work. “When the bottom fell out of the construction business in the 1980s, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to retrofit a club car for the CEO of the Illinois Central Railroad,” says Irene.
Recently the company worked with a French family which had been living in the United States, but was making plans to return to France and fix up a home there. The couple purchased a commercial plane in part to transport a large purchase of custom cabinets from Oncken.
Another local customer chose Oncken to design a custom-built closet, which included storage for 600 pairs of shoes.
The next project for the company will be closer to home – to create a new design and casework for its own showroom. Irene says she always tells customers that updated cabinets in any room of the house are a good investment and maintain the total value of the house. So she now is applying this advice to the look of the family business.
“We remodeled the showroom about 12 years ago,” she says, “so it is time for a fresh, up-to-date look.”
Rogers, Ann Gurley. “Oncken & Sons Cabinet Shop Inc. – Where a Family Comes Together.” Woodworking Network. N.p., 14 Aug. 2011. Web.