Killer Cabinets

For local cabinetmakers, creating custom cabinetry is more than just building storage.

Article by Tony Moon

Issue Date:  July 2006

Thomas Chippendale was a celebrated English cabinetmaker in the 18th century. In 1754, he published a book, Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director, an illustrated catalog of his works. It quickly became an inspirational reference for cabinetmakers throughout Europe and America, where his designs were much copied.

The world has changed considerably since Chippendale first carved his wonderful works in wood. One thing, however, hasn’t changed: the passion and dedication today’s cabinetmakers bring to the modern art of fine cabinetry‘as we discovered right here on Oahu, with three of Hawaii’s leading cabinetmakers.

Kitchen cabinetry in African mahogany, by Layout Etc. Inc. Photo by Tomas Del Amo.


Tom Zelko, of King & Zelko Hawaiian Woodworks, has been in the business almost his entire life. He learned his trade by doing, studying at the feet of his father and older brother in Southern California.

“I moved to Hawaii in 1979, to get out of the business and into the surf. Then, I realized how much I missed it. So, I started my own shop in Hawaii in 1983, making furniture,” Zelko says. In 2000, he went into partnership with furniture maker John King. Although furniture was their shared passion, they realized people needed fine cabinetry as much as fine furniture.

Living room cabinetry in koa, by King & Zelko Hawaiian Woodworks, architecture by James McPeak, AIA.

Hanan Katz, of Layout Etc. Inc., is a self-taught cabinetmaker. He moved from Israel to New York in the early ’80s to start a construction company. Because there was so much cabinetwork involved, he took in a partner.

“We did our own cabinetry, so we had much better control over the quality, finishes and scheduling of jobs,” says Katz. He eventually left New York to move to Hawaii‘for the windsurfing.

“I knew I couldn’t live on the beach for the rest of my life,” Katz says. He began his cabinetry business on Oahu in 1993. “I figured that, as a manufacturer, I would be able to pursue my love of cabinetry,” he says.

Kevin McClure, project manager for Bruce Olson Hawaii Inc., agrees that on-the-job training is key. “Beyond mere precision, it creates a measurable level of accountability for the finished product,” he says. Custom builders for the past 30 years in Lake Tahoe and Pebble Beach, Bruce Olson Hawaii Inc. began operations on the Big Island in 2000 and opened Na Kalai Laau, a cabinet and door shop, in 2005.

“It was natural to want to have our own shop to support our high-quality standards for cabinets, doors, windows and millwork,” says Rich Wagner, director of operations. McClure adds, “We are able to achieve a quality finished product locally in the same timely manner we have always strived for as a building contractor.”


In discussing comparisons between custom and prefabricated cabinetry with local cabinetmakers, it quickly becomes apparent that it is a crusade of the perfectionist against the run of the mill. The custom-cabinet buyer gets higher quality and exactly what he or she wants. Seven drawers instead of three? No problem.

King & Zelko Hawaiian Woodworks specializes in fine cabinetry with local woods. The company uses plywood as the substrate for durability, never particle board. And, it is one of the few shops in Hawaii that does all of its own dovetailing, which is the fastening of joints at right angles, for very strong drawers.

For Katz, the two major differences between custom and mass-produced cabinetry are customization‘total design control and flexibility to fit exactly what is needed‘and quality of workmanship. Another benefit is longevity. “I tell my customers that, 25 years from now, the cabinets might need some refinishing as a consequence of daily use, but they will look like new.”

Na Kalai Laau Shop delivers its quality through attention to detail. “Not just in design, but also the type of construction used,” says Wagner. “We prefer half-blind/dado joints for greater stability and strength, and quality base materials, such as high-grade, J-core plywood instead of particle board.” The company also prefers to grain match the wood and book match the face materials on doors and drawers for symmetry and color, he says.


Closet cabinetry in Honduran mahogany, by Na Kalai Laau Shop. Photo courtesy of Na Kalai Laau Shop.

A year after prefabricated cabinetry arrives from the Mainland, seams may open up and joints could crack as a result of the change in climate. Local cabinetmakers use woods that are already acclimated to the local environment.

“We use wood that has been on the island, on our shelves, for a very long time. If you run your hand over a door I made three or four years ago, you won’t even feel the seam,” says Katz.

This is not just the result of acclimation. It’s also an outcome of the construction method. Wood always expands in the direction of the grain. When cabinet sections are joined, the wood grains run in different directions. In order for a glued joint to work, it needs to be tightly clamped for a long time, until the glue is completely dried. Otherwise, the joints and seams will eventually open up.

“With imported doors, the parts are clamped for no longer than it takes to fire in four holding nails‘about four seconds per door. They may look nice for a while, but time will always tell,” says Katz.

Another major difference is the quality of the finish. “We don’t use melamine, only maple veneer,” says Zelko. Melamine is impregnated paper that is applied to particle board as a decorative finish. “Once that paper gets a hole in it, it literally rots away,” he says. Zelko uses plywood covered with a maple veneer that has a UV-cured polyurethane finish. If it ever becomes damaged, it can be easily repaired. With melamine-covered particle board, the entire cabinet would have to be replaced.

Instead of edge tape, Zelko prefers edge banding‘1/8-inch of solid wood around the perimeters of his cabinets. Banded edges withstand far more abuse, dings and dents and can be easily repaired. “Edge tape is, well o/oo just tape‘just aesthetics,” he says.


Koa, Hawaii’s “royalty wood,” is one of the most famous, most expensive and most admired by woodworkers throughout the world. But, koa is a limited resource.

“We’re planting for the future. There are moratoriums on koa‘there’s simply not enough to go around. All the koa wood we use comes from a dead or a diseased tree that has been removed,” says Zelko, who is a member of the Hawaii Forest Industry Association.

Katz has a deep respect for the source of his material, too. “Occasionally, I will work with exotic and local woods. Mango and milo have nice character, but I try to stay away from rare, indigenous species, such as koa. I personally like cherry, maple and mahogany. They are very warm looking, with appealing grains and a wonderful feel. Right now, I’m doing a whole kitchen in zebra wood,” he says.

Other woods favored by local cabinetmakers are maple, mango, mahogany and sapele. Usually, the choice is left to the homeowner. “Unless it’s wholly unstable, we will use any wood a client requests,” says Wagner. “Largely due to customer demand here, we typically use koa, monkey pod, African mahogany and American maple.”


Woodworking tools have come a long way since Chippendale hand-chiseled his chairs in the 18th century. Today, computers and robotics have found their way from the car factory to the woodshop.

Zelko recently installed a CNC router‘a computerized machine and system whereby he enters all the dimensions and measurements to draw an accurate 3D rendering of the cabinetry. Then, he can virtually walk his customers through their new kitchens. Returning to his workshop and downloading the information to the CNC router, the machine will perfectly measure, cut and number all the parts for assembly.

“It’s a big investment, but it’s remarkable how much faster, easier and more accurately you can build cabinetry, without compromising quality,” says Zelko.

Wagner also utilizes the latest technology. “By embracing the world of computer technology, we can complement our old-school priority of solid, long-lasting quality without compromising it,” he says.

Katz agrees. “Everything is heading toward robotics and automation. This is how a craft evolves. The quality of the wood, the construction, the finish‘all that remains the same. But it simply takes less time and fewer people to make it and is therefore less expensive.”

King & Zelko Hawaiian Woodworks
201 Kapaa Quarry Road

Layout Etc. Inc.
905 Kalanianaole Hwy., #8

Na Kalai Laau Shop
Bruce Olson Hawaii Inc.
74-567 Honokohau St., Suite 5
Kailua - Kona


American Cabinetry
619 Mapunapuna St.

City Mill
8 Locations on Oahu
Honolulu, Nimitz Store

Details International
560 N. Nimitz Hwy., Suite 104

Hawaii Cabinets & Countertops Plus
214 Sand Island Access Road

Highline Kitchen Systems
1276 Young St.

HPM Building Supply
3 Locations on the Big Island
Hilo, 808-935-0875
Kona, 808-334-4200
Waimea, 808-885-6036

Homeowners Design Center
1030 Kohou St., Suite 201

Inouye Designs

Inside Addition
560 N. Nimitz Hwy., Suite 123

560 N. Nimitz Hwy., Suite 215B

Kitchen Concepts Plus
560 N. Nimitz Hwy., Suite 202

Servco Home and Appliance Showroom
2841 Pukoloa St.

Ridgeview Design

560 N. Nimitz Hwy., Suite 120

Studio Becker
560 N. Nimitz Hwy., Suite 121A

Susan Palmer Designs
650 Iwilei Road, Suite 195

The Kitchen Cabinet
560 N. Nimitz Hwy., Suite 216


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