Little Wolf Cabinet Shop
This shop grabbed my attention the second I stepped inside the door and smelled the scent of fresh sawdust. As he guided me through the expansive workshop, John Wolf stated, “We’re the secret that’s not a secret,” adding, “Everything is custom: I never make the same piece twice.”
John is a seventh generation woodworker. The family business began in the 1800s near Munich, Germany and remained in Europe until John’s father came to the United States in 1956 with a set of carpentry knives. John vividly remembers coming into work with his father as a child and being delegated the glamorous jobs of sweeping and cleaning the toilet. He knew from a young age that he would be the one to take over the family business. As he told me, “I am the hands of the family and my brother is the brains.” His first proper job at his father’s company was as a truck driver, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He soon worked his way up to installer and foreman. He did not want to go to college, preferring to work, but in hindsight, he is glad that his father insisted that he go to Parsons School of Design. John eventually took over from his father in the late 1970s.
With such a substantial amount of history in the neighborhood, it is no surprise that Little Wolf has become a household name. “We’re already doing kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ rooms,” he said, counting out the four generations that have passed through his doors. He mentioned that he loves working on children’s rooms, because they always know exactly what they want and have big dreams about how things should look. He often has customers who come by and tell him “I still have my room that your father made for me in 1973.” The family business’s longevity is partly thanks to good policies: John does not use any formaldehyde or MDF and gets most of his wood from Canada. All of the painting is done on site, once a piece has been custom fitted.
Guiding me through the first of four main spaces, John showed me a painting on the wall done by the artist Peter Max. It depicted John’s father in the workshop, surrounded by swaths of color. Between John and his father, the Wolfs have done a wide variety of jobs throughout the city. “I haven’t seen everything, but I’ve seen a lot.” When he was first starting out in the business, John would make “show-off” pieces when he did not have too many orders. He called these experimental sessions “play time.” Though he wishes he had more “play time,” he is happy to be so busy and enjoys the projects that come his way. Quoting the Navy slogan, John said, “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.”
I asked John why the business was called “Little” Wolf. He smiled and answered, “It’s basically named after me.” He went on to explain that when his mother was pregnant with him, friends of his father said, “Here comes another Little Wolf.” Even after having been part of the business since (literally) birth, it was clear to me that John still loves what he does. I was curious to know if the family business would continue into the next generation. John has two young daughters, but says that he will not push them. “They have to want it.” He feels very strongly about family-owned businesses, however, saying, “You can’t buy anything with real value if it doesn’t come from a family. A family really cares.”