Maker Profile: PJ Hire of KC Wood Co.
A self-proclaimed born-again Kansas Citian, I have been nothing short of blown away by my hometown since returning to it after breathing Rocky Mountain air in Denver the past few years. The opportunity to contribute to MIKC Explore was a no-brainer; it’s the perfect excuse to re-discover the city through a new lens and share my experiences with those eager to do the same. Most days, I feel like a transplant—simultaneously lost and in awe, just as I was when I first became a Colorado resident. I couldn’t tell you if it’s a lack of exploration during my previous 20-something years here, or if KC is simply on the come-up, but I can tell you that the makers and shakers in the metropolitan are curating the coolest Kansas City to date.
First up on local companies to highlight: KC Wood Co. This brand has a special place in my heart because its owner, PJ Hire, is a Kansas City-bred dude turned Denverite who made his way back to the Midwest not long before myself.
How did KC Wood Co come to exist?
I’ve always been a maker. Since high school, I’ve been building furniture for myself, friends, and family. Fast forward to five years after graduating college, and I’m in the technology rat race out in Denver selling software products. I was totally unfulfilled, and luck had it that a guy I’d struck up conversation with at a cigar bar turned out to be a professional business consultant. He posed this question to me: “If you quit your job tomorrow, would you have a roof over your head? Food to eat? Support from family and friends to go after this furniture business?” The answers were “Yes, yes, and yes.” It was an a-ha! moment, and I quit the next day—without any clear plan for the future. All I knew was that my current job was not where my passion was, and I knew if I put as much time into designing, building, and selling furniture as I had into Corporate America, I could make ends meet (maybe).
What brought you back to Kansas City?
I was born and raised here, and after living in other places for ten years, I grew to realize how special my hometown is. I was eager to immerse myself in its large and extremely talented creative scene. In addition to my family and close friends living back home, I missed the sense of community that Kansas City harbors. Everyone always wants to help everyone; it’s really unique and special.
How has the company grown since its beginning, and what has been the most rewarding aspect of its development?
When I started KC Wood Co, then Denver Wood Co, I didn’t have any shop space at all. A business cut all the pieces for me, then I’d assemble and finish the furniture in my apartment. Now, I have the space, tools, capabilities, and knowledge to do everything in-house. So much growth has been a result of continuous research and learning about woodworking, design, and business.
I recognize “making it” as a furniture craftsman is a long road, but I like to think I’m on the right track. All of this started with an idea, and now I have my own business. While I obviously enjoy building furniture, building a business has also been a pretty cool thing. The relationships formed from starting KC Wood Co are ones I’m incredibly grateful for; there has been an overwhelming amount of love and support.
Why do you use the materials you do?
So, the “thing” that differentiates KC Wood Co’s products from a lot of what’s out there is the Baltic Birch wood everything is made out of. I first learned about it when I visited a computer numerical control (CNC) shop, which is where I was having wood cut when I needed to outsource it. In talks with the guy there who I was working closely with, I learned Baltic Birch is a high-end plywood with double—sometimes triple—the layers traditional plies have. Moral of the story is that this equates to a very straight, structurally stable, and durable wood. Equally appealing is the fact it has beautiful grain patterns, so no two pieces look the same.
The naming convention of your current line is representative of all sorts of Kansas City-isms. Could you share a few reasons behind ones that are particularly sentimental?
With the debut of this complete collection, it only felt right to highlight some special spots throughout town.
The Rockhill Console is named after the Rockhill Gardens, which is a nostalgic nod at the Waldo neighborhood I grew up in.
The Arbor Villa End Table is named for Arbor Villa Park. Known to my childhood friends and me as Edgevale Park, this was the place to be after dismissal in grade school.
The Westside Credenza pays tribute to my favorite neighborhood in the city: the Westside, where I went to Kindergarten and First Grade at Primitivo Garcia.
Where do you draw inspiration in creating each piece?
Everywhere. It’s an obsession that never leaves my mind. It might start with inspiration from a classic designer like Paul McCobb and Milo Baughman, or maybe I see something on Instagram that sparks an idea. Sometimes, I get on my computer, start design modeling, and just see where it takes me. Other times, designs come from a need for something that isn’t out there. I had a friend that couldn’t find a vinyl console that she was in love with, so that’s where the Parker Vinyl Console developed from. The vision for my current line is pieces that are functional and simple with clean lines, yet have a feel that’s both sophisticated and unique.
What does KC Wood Co look like five years from now?
The dream is to have a brick-and-mortar space with a gallery and showroom in the front and a shop in the back. If in five years from now, I could be financially stable designing, building, and selling furniture in Kansas City, I’d call it a win and the launching pad toward achieving my ultimate goal.
Give me a brief rundown of the design process—from initial consultation to a finished product.
It all starts on my computer in a 3D modeling program. I design based on the buyer’s exact request, or I fly by the seat of my pants if it’s not for a particular client. In either case, once I am happy with the design, I make a cut list. I try to get the absolute most out of each piece of wood, so the cut list ensures I’m able to do just that; minimizing waste is very important to me. From there, I hand pick wood from a local lumber yard, cut, sand, stain, assemble, and so on. The only screws used are to attach the metal legs; otherwise, each joint attaches using joinery techniques, particularly rabbets and dados, as well as a healthy serving of wood glue. Lastly, everything gets sprayed with a clear coat for protection, is buffed, and ready to go to its new home!
If you could only make one piece, which would it be?
The Parker Vinyl Console finished in Ebony paired with black legs. The way the Ebony reacts to the wood grain creates this super cool contrast of colors. It’s such a unique design and my favorite in this first collection; I absolutely love it.
What advice do you have for others who are looking to turn their side hustle into a money-making business?
Network and ask for help! No matter your industry, people with small businesses experience many of the same problems. Take advantage of learning from others, and don’t try to figure everything out on your own.
There is so much information out there: read books, listen to podcasts, and try to see things from others’ perspectives. You can gain a lot from discovering what did and didn’t work for people, how they bounced back from failures, and which processes they’ve used for this, that, or the other.
I’d also suggest going into a business venture knowing that mistakes are going to happen. You have to accept that and remain resilient. Keep your mind on the big picture!
What do you listen to when you're in your woodworking shop?
A mixture of podcasts, music, and audiobooks. Podcasts are my favorite, though. I listen to anything NPR, The Tim Ferriss Show, The Joe Rogan Experience, Design Matter with Debbie Millman, The Modern Maker Podcast, Ted Talks Daily, Making Sense with Sam Harris, The Tony Robbins Podcast, and Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard.
Who would you most like to collaborate with or make a piece for?
Patrick Mahomes. I’ve sent him a couple messages on Instagram. There’s been no response yet, but I’ll keep trying...
Rumor has it you are working with Made in Kansas City these days. What’s your role, and how has your experience been as a member of the team?
I am! My official title is Fabrication Specialist. The job entails lots of different responsibilities, but at its core, I'm in charge of building anything and everything for our stores. This includes more conventional items like tables, shelving units, fixtures, displays, and signs, but I also get to have some fun with it and build unconventional things like zabebos and infinity rooms. I’m even building a greenhouse this summer. I love that I get to do something new every day and am constantly putting my creativity to work.
My experience working among the MIKC family has been amazing. Everyone is brilliant in his or her own way, as well as fun-loving and easy to get along with. I'm very fortunate to work with this crew and I’m excited for the continued growth of the company.