Business

Monday, Sep 02 2013 08:00 PM

Carpenter finds new life making caskets

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Douglas and Andrea Rea are the owners of 18th Street Carpentry where they specialize in locally handcrafted wooden caskets.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Douglas Rea handcrafts caskets in his 18th Street Carpentry shop.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Douglas Rea, owner of 18th Street Carpentry, specializes in locally handcrafted wooden caskets. He shows one of the more popular caskets that he sells.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

As a custom casket-maker, Douglas Rea has no time to waste once an order comes in.

Often he'll work 48 hours, napping only during a few two-hour breaks required to let a coating of wood finish dry.

The result is a classic, knotty pine coffin, produced entirely by hand in a modest workshop he and his wife own on 18th Street.

Impressive though the caskets are, they are not the most remarkable aspect of the business the couple launched in April.

For one thing, Rea had to teach himself how to make caskets -- including the muslin upholstery.

He first struck upon the idea of making a casket when his dog died. On the Internet he saw dog coffins going for $300 and up.

"I thought, 'I can do that,'" he said.

Although he ran out of time for the design and instead had to scatter his dog's ashes, it got him to thinking.

His prototypes started small, with Popsicle sticks. Eventually he worked up to full-scale human caskets, burning through a lot of perfectly good wood along the way.

The upholstery was another matter. A carpenter since the age of 16, Rea knew almost nothing about sewing. He ended up taking classes before coming up with his own system for lining the interiors of his caskets.

"He did struggle a little bit with that at first," said Douglas's wife, Andrea, an experienced manager who runs the front office at their business, 18th Street Carpentry.

Now the business offers caskets in four styles, from the traditional, six-sided "toe pinch" with rope handles to the modern "round top" with swing handles. Prices range from $650 to more than $2,000, which compares to retail prices elsewhere. The Reas also sell different types of keepsake wooden urns.

Some customers have requested offbeat coffins, and the Reas are happy to oblige. Douglas has made black toe-pinch coffins lined with red velvet and, for hunters, raw pine caskets with camouflage interiors.

Andrea encourages clients to get adventurous. She envisions her husband turning out coffin-shaped coffee tables and guitar case-shaped caskets. There's even a standing offer for customers to come in and help do the final sanding for their grandfather's coffin.

"We're at a point, we're open to anything," Andrea said.

For all their enthusiasm, the couple's business hasn't boomed. Andrea said sales fluctuate between 10 or more caskets a month to, sometimes, just one.

Their marketing consists almost exclusively of social media. Not that they haven't tried working out supply deals with local mortuaries.

Douglas said he met with every funeral director in town, but that none agreed to offer his caskets for sale. As a startup business owner, he doesn't exactly blame them.

"It's just kind of new waters for them," he said.

The irony is, the Reas are actually taking the traditional approach to casket-making.

Josh Slocum, executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance, said many of the nation's funeral homes grew out of furniture stores where coffins were a side business.

"What (Douglas Rea) is doing is a return to what was commonplace before the industrialization of funerals," Slocum said.

These days it's more common for the bereaved to purchase a casket through a funeral home as part of a package. That, or have one made-to-order at a national discount retailer such as Costco.

But the Reas are not alone. Craftsman-made coffins are common in Europe and have gained in popularity in parts of the United States.

The consumer alliance's website lists seven locally focused, custom casket-makers in California (including the Reas' business), as compared with its tally of 28 discount casket-makers in the state.

Douglas said one of his inspirations is ABC Caskets Factory in Los Angeles. There, President Joey Conzevoy said, the focus is on quality. That distinguishes his products from the cheaper caskets some funeral homes sell that may leave room for substantial mark-ups.

"Good for them, not so good for the consumer," Conzevoy said.

That's probably not the reason why 18th Street Carpentry is having trouble making arrangements with local mortuaries, said Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association.

Specialty manufacturers in most fields always have a hard time getting shelf space in a retail business, he said. What's more, it's a lot easier for a funeral director to work with a single supplier offering a variety of models than to stock caskets by different makers, Achermann added.

"I don't think it's anything intentional to stop people from entering the marketplace," he said. "It's just the way business is done."

Douglas, 29, and Andrea 32, are undeterred. Both grew up in Bakersfield and said they enjoy having their own business.

For his part, Douglas said he likes the medium, the smell of pine in his workshop and buying his own materials.

Andrea said she gets a kick out of the whole creative aspect of their venture.

"We're kind of stepping in and creating a whole new experience," she said.

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