Carving out a career in custom furniture
Nick Howard majored in mechanical engineering in college and has now found his life’s calling – only it’s not in engineering.
Instead, Howard, 28, is a partner in a burgeoning furniture-design business based in Sonoma, known as Lely Howard.
While Howard was attending Sonoma Valley High, he was never sure what he wanted his career to be, though he liked working with his hands.
“I loved my three years of metal shop with Mr. [Mark] Lea,” he said. “I’ve also always been into science, working with things, wrenching with stuff.”
After graduating in 2007, he worked in construction but found that it wasn’t quite to his liking. “After swinging a hammer for a couple years, I thought, ‘I don’t think this is quite what I want to do.’” So he went to college, and got his mechanical engineering degree from San Francisco State University in 2014.
A family friend, Chris Lely, SVHS ’69, had retired from construction and was crafting furniture, as he and his wife had an interest in antiques. Howard soon caught on to the hobby.
“If Chris had a table or something he was working on or if he needed a hand lifting something, I would come over and help,” said Howard. Soon, their shared interest in crafting furniture seemed less like a hobby and more like an opportunity.
“I think, especially when the economy started tanking, it was a way for him, building furniture and selling it, to make a little extra money on the side. He and I partnered, figured we’d build a bunch of tables, sell them, and that would be the end of this.”
However, Howard and Lely saw interest in their work and continued to create and design furniture.
“In 2012, while I was still in college, an opportunity arose for us to purchase a large amount of reclaimed wood from an old grainary in Petaluma, that was when I really got more involved,” said Howard. “Our work was becoming more and more popular, and we started doing more custom projects.”
After Howard got his degree, he found himself at a crossroads, deciding between joining Lely full time and pursuing an engineering career.
“Do I walk away from this?” he wondered. “Just when it was becoming more and more successful?”
Howard ultimately figured that the risk was worth it. “I knew I would always regret it if I didn’t try it. I knew it was something I had to do whether it succeeded or not. I chose to stick with this, and I’ve been happy ever since.”
Howard believes working with wood suits him well.
“What I like about building tables is that everything’s different, everything from the design process to the building, the ordering,” said Howard. “So it’s a little more unique. It’s a little nicer working in a shop as opposed to on a roof.”
Howard says that starting his and Lely’s company, now operating out of a barn in Schellville, has not been completely smooth sailing.
“Getting a reputation for yourself is the hardest part,” said Howard. “Especially with Yelp and all that. One bad review can be crippling for a company.”
Dining tables at Lely Howard range from $1,500 to $3,000, and coffee tables for less, but the partners have built some very unique pieces that are much more.
Howard attributes much of the business’s success to a surge in popularity of the reclaimed style in which Lely Howard has found its niche.
“The whole reclaimed market right now has really taken off,” he said. “Everyone wants reclaimed furniture, reclaimed wood, reclaimed steel — that industrial look. Those are really our most popular styles. The wood we use has got a history to it. It’s got a lot of character to it.”
He says that his favorite pieces to build are when he is working with a client to create something they have never built before.
“I think our customer service gives us a certain edge against our competitors,” Howard said. “We want our work to be exactly what customers want. We don’t want them to have to settle in any way. Sometimes they have been looking for a year or more to find that perfect table with no success until they meet us.”