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Josef Otmar Handcrafted Furniture


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The Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo at home
Heartfelt and handcrafted
By Mike Pulfer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fifth-generation furniture-maker and crew customize contemporary designs

Way out on the upper edge of hundreds of acres of woods above the Little Miami River Valley near Oregonia, Josef "Joe" Otmar makes furniture not nearly as rustic as his Warren County surroundings. Josef Otmar
The Cincinnati Enquirer/Dick Swain

Josef Otmar tightens a clamp on a
cabinet he's making in his Oregonia
(Warren County) workshop.

Turn a key on the side of a nearly completed burled executive desk, and a humming motor lifts a computer tray to perfect position for linking with the Net.

Fiddle with Mr. Otmar's new photo-imaging equipment long enough, and you can see what a particular cabinet might look like in that bare corner of your dining room.

In his 1500-square-foot workshop, Mr. Otmar and his crew of five specialize in custom-designed furniture, made for customers who know what they want and how they want to use it. Prices range from $200 for simple accessories to $20,000 for elaborate entertainment centers. The computer desk, depending on finish, sells for $6,000-$8,000. Larger furniture pieces average $1,200 to $2,400.

"When my great-grandfather was making furniture in Czechoslovakia, everything was custom made," Mr. Otmar says. "No matter what a customer needed, he could make it, and make it work."

As the years passed, the Otmar family business evolved into selling mass-produced furniture. However, Mr. Otmar no longer is affiliated with Furniture by Otmar Inc. in Montgomery and Centerville, Ohio.

Seven years ago, when he was 34, Mr. Otmar decided to "return to our roots" by opening Handcrafted from the Heart and focusing on custom furniture, mostly tables, desks, and cabinets.

"I get a lot more satisfaction out of it this way," he says.

Eight for one family
Dione Burkhardt and her husband, Donald, recently commissioned Mr. Otmar to create a credenza to match the burled walnut desk he built for Mr. Burkhardt's home office. It will be the couple's eighth Otmar piece, and they consider each an heirloom.

The first project was an oversized teak kitchen table with inlaid ceramic tiles to accommodate the Burkhardts and their seven children in Anderson Township. That was followed by a cherry coffee table, carved in the shape of a whale, its tail protruding through a glass surface.

Then there was a desk, hope chest, sofa table with rocks and dinosaur bones, bench built from an antique bed, and a hand-carved heart-shaped family tree for Mr. Burkhardt's parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

Mr. Otmar, who was born in Australia and trained in Denmark, pays special attention to joints and gluing techniques, as well as overall finishing.

"In Denmark, they have no natural resources," he says. "There's nothing to sell but your wit and your hands."

The Otmars, through five generations, have developed fine skills with their hands.

"The eldest son has always been a cabinetmaker," says Mr. Otmar, himself a first-born son. And his son, Josef VI, 8, shows exceptional interest in his own jigsaw.

One-of-a-kind pieces
Mr. Otmar, willing to talk about wood and woodworking techniques non-stop, is "a stickler for details and how things work together," says Dennis Suttmiller, Handcrafted's production manager.

About 90 percent of the shop's production represents first time, one-of-a-kind pieces, including curios and china cabinets, entertainment centers, desks, beds and kitchen cabinets.

Mr. Otmar and his crew like working with fine cabinet woods such as walnut, cherry and exotic imports, Mr. Suttmiller says. Their speciality: "high-quality, high-end custom contemporary furniture."

The keys to competing successfully with high-volume manufactures, Mr. Otmar says are flexibility and attention to detail.

"Most big companies develop so much infrastructure - layer upon layer of management," he says. "And their efficiency drops."

Tooling advances and computer programs have helped his production capabilities and quality control.

Although his shop is equipped with advanced tools, some worth as much as $10,000, "We can move everything around easily, so we can switch from one job to another like that," he says.

- Excerpted from The Cincinnati Enquirer

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