Welcome to a new series called ‘Shop Talk’, where Dan Slaski interviews people in the thick of product development business, who make the magic happen and turn their ideas into reality. Have an interview suggestion? Send it in.
Cory Sokolowski is the owner and operator of Crossline Creations, a 7,000 square foot northern Virginia based wood and metal shop specializing in fine woodworking, electro-mechanical interactive fabrication, laminated furniture, and quality carpentry. Cory is a master craftsman, workhorse, and general badass. Cory doesn’t sleep, he waits. Crossline epitomizes the ideal vendor. The kind that makes your life easier. The kind of vendor you trust because they consistently deliver and take quality to the next level. Cory is the kind of person you want to have a burger with and just listen to because he is such a wealth of knowledge and stories. The only problem is that when you hear him talk about his work ethic you will feel like a total slacker. I sat down and picked his brain for you. You’re welcome.
Shop Talk: Crossline Creations
An interview with Cory Sokolowski
Read Part 1 here.
Dan: What do you think of the current state of American craftsmanship and where do you think it’s heading?
Cory: I consider myself part of the last group that really wants to embrace a traditional way of doing things. A way that’s based on a person’s skill and not reliant on automation. The people I trained with are all retiring, moving on in life, or passing away. The next generations of Americans frankly don’t seem interested. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they’ve taken wood shops and vocational classes out of schools, at least in our area. Younger people are being directed to computer labs and don’t get a taste for working with their hands. Everyone’s forced into the high technology world here. Another ramification is the loss of the ability to do simple things around the house like put on a doorknob or fix a cabinet door that just needs a few screws. There are some people trying to learn, and resources like YouTube are helping. But the hands-on experience is still missing; the life experience that only comes from the time in a workshop. Places like TechShop have risen up because they’re realizing people want to play but they don’t know how or what to do. So, places arise to try and teach people and allow them to use their hands and build things. As young people come into the job market, they are choosing things that look fun superficially, or want to have fun toys in the office instead of following a real passion. As a whole, the skill level is going down because the traditional processes are being lost as the people that have been doing it the longest are leaving the system.
Dan: I read this book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft” and it talks about how societally we don’t appreciate how great of a job hands-on vocational work can be. That it’s challenging and requires resourcefulness, creativity, problem-solving. It can feel rewarding and like you are contributing much more than certain kinds of jobs desk jobs where the direct contributions made may be a lot less clear. Consequently, certain people are really missing out on a great opportunity, which I agree with. So, as craftsmanship is lost what do you think that means? What else will be lost with it?
Cory: I think it’s going to open new doors. I’m not saying it’s better. But I think it’s going to change things. America’s youth will figure out new solutions. Take the way I would make things by hand on the mill and the metal lathe. The new school will solve the same problem by 3D printing the part. That person is using their modern tools, talents, and processes to provide a solution. They will 3D print the piece out of plastic where we would machine it from scratch. People will change the way they do things. Do people go out and by solid wood furniture anymore? No. They go to Ikea and get something that’s got a wood veneer on it with particle board inside. And a lot of people are happy with that because the price point is so low.
Dan: Yes, I definitely agree that there will be a change. With change, some of it’s good and some of it’s bad and something certainly will be lost.
Cory: Yes, and maybe the loss is just equivalent to “no need for it”. The world’s getting into a five-year plan for things where they get thrown out after five years and replaced by something new. Gone are the days of investing in an heirloom piece of furniture for ten times the cost.
Dan: Yeah, and consequently people will lose connection with those materials and processes. There is so much history, tradition, and information inherited in those pieces.
Cory: Correct. And understand the craftsmanship that went into a fine piece of furniture and why the price tag on that fine piece of furniture is X when they can get something that will work the same for Y over at a big-box store.
Dan: The same, in that it functions as a table.
Cory: A lot of people don’t care or understand about the process behind things and neither do their circles, so they don’t see a need. If you don’t care and neither do the people you are entertaining, then why try to impress them with something that they don’t understand. So, you go to Grandma’s house and she’s got the dining room table that’s all wood. And all the wood chairs and everything to go with it, but then you go over to the college student’s house and they’ve got a fold up table and some plastic chairs and they’re good to go. They put the tablecloth on it and it serves the same food.
Dan: Probably pizza instead of homemade. But yeah.
Cory: Right exactly. Yeah. Pizza. Domino’s. Burritos. Ramen noodles. So, the traditional way that was the way of our grandparents and parents is being changed as technology comes in. Reading is being replaced by a Google search. The computer seeks out the information instead of you having to do it. Youtubers provide the tricks and techniques needed to finish a project. They have cut out all the other information except the one step on how to do it, but maybe all that other information is how we get better.
Dan: If there was a high school senior in a shop class discovering fabricating and really enjoying it, who thought they might want to make that a career path, what would you recommend to them? What are the steps towards finding an apprenticeship?
Cory: Yes, I would start with an apprenticeship. There are two ways to do this. One is to find a small shop like ours where you can get more oversight. If you’re in a classroom of 30 kids versus five kids, you’re going to get more attention in the smaller class. The teacher has more time to help you. If you’re in a huge shop you’re going to get pigeonholed into doing one menial task. But in a smaller shop, if you are interested, eager, and want to put forth the effort, everything is there for you. You’ve got to put your time and effort in. You just can’t be an “eight and skate person”. Meaning, just go in to do your eight hours and go home. You’re never going to get ahead that way. Just like any champion. They practice around the clock both mentally and physically. You need to train your mindset, just as you do with your triathlons. You can’t be a couch potato and think you can go out tomorrow morning, crush a triathlon, and get first place. Some people have more natural talent and they just need to foster that talent. I think people that come from a family of fabricators have it in their system. It’s something that’s in your blood and you just have to start applying it and honing yourself into that craftsman that’s inside. You have got to grow into it. You can get a job in a bigger factory where you’re exposed to many different elements and train that way. Ultimately, after your eight hours are up, in order to be a skilled person, you have got to keep training. This could mean having your own home shop or even doing home repair projects. Maybe visit a TechShop. Go somewhere where you can keep playing. Consume YouTube videos, books, and any information that you can get your hands on, or any circles of people where you can soak up information. You can go to Woodcraft. Go to the woodworking stores and watch the free demos. But you definitely have to put your time in. It doesn’t just come, you just can’t sit at home and come in the next day and get an A on the test in this field. It’s very difficult.
Dan: In triathlons, they say the race is just execution. Everything else, all the mental and physical preparation, is what determines who wins or loses on race day. Race day is following through on the preparation.
Cory: That’s right. You’re training for months. Conditioning, preparing, mentally getting your body ready for it. Doing the work of eating properly. That’s the same principle of preparation that goes into what we do here. We’re planning, we’re thinking about how to approach a challenge. The right tools. The right tooling. The right saw blade. The right router bit. Do I have all my clamps? Do I have this or that? In general, do I have all the right materials? Then it’s go time. It’s time to produce. It takes years to learn, and the school of hard knocks is a tough teacher. And we all stumble and fall and make our own mistakes along the way. But we learn from them. If you don’t, you’re just repeating your mistakes, which results in failure, failure, and more failure. What matters is you’re making progress; even if you’re progressing slowly you’re still making forward progress.
Dan: Let’s say someone didn’t have much or any experience but wanted to start. If they knocked on your shop door, and said, I’m willing to do whatever it takes, sweep, whatever. I’ll make mistakes, but I’ll make them right. Do you think that’s the way to do it? Get a foot in the door and start putting the time in?
Cory: Yes. Someone’s got to show the right attitude and dedication. It’s a bad sign when I hear someone constantly making excuses about leaving and getting out of work. That kind of person isn’t dedicated. Our shop is small, and we need to run at a high capacity. When you’re training somebody, as the teacher, you want the time you put in to be worthwhile. What you don’t want is to sit there one-on-one training somebody and putting in all these extra hours to not feel some repaid effort and like your time was wasted. It’s an investment in time, just like other relationships. You are working together, hoping to be something bigger. When things don’t work out, you want to believe you’re better off and that they weren’t really dedicated. What’s really heartbreaking is when you find out that they went to your competitor, and have taken with them everything that you just taught them, which your competitor didn’t have, and they’re using it over there now. So, that’s their new competitive advantage. And they normally do that by being bought. Often, it just comes down to a few dollars an hour. That’s where you have to realize that if a few more dollars are more important to them than loyalty and growth, then they probably aren’t a good fit. I stayed at my last shop for 18 years and that’s fairly unheard of. People just don’t stay at their jobs for that long, but my interest level is so high, and I enjoyed it. It’s true that if you enjoy what you do, you never work a day in your life. I wasn’t looking to go home every day. I enjoy more work and I want to soak up as much as I can learn like a sponge. Showing the right attitude says a lot. You want to see someone with the enthusiasm and dedication to learning, and training, and willingness to do what is required. Training is very expensive. Someone’s going to be tying up time, messing up materials, and causing problems. All of that interferes with the flow of work. So, if you’ve estimated an eight-hour day for somebody to produce a task or a project and now it takes 12 that’s four more extra hours. That costs a lot of money in the long run.
Dan: I imagine how frustrating it must be when someone leaves unexpectedly. What are the circumstances where someone could leave to pursue an opportunity and you might feel a certain sense of pride?
Cory: That’s the situation I found myself in with my old boss. I sat him down after 18 years together and explained the future path I wanted to pursue. I sensed that he was hurt somewhat, but because of my years of dedication, he could see my vision and understood my desire to try to make my own path. I started there when I was 18 and worked there for 18 years. He taught me a lot and I don’t think there is a feeling of regret, wasted time, or betrayal. It takes many years to begin to understand the full process, like customer service, pricing, project management, fabricating and installing. If you have only trained for a few years or only have experience in a few of those buckets, most people would view starting your own thing as arrogant. So, how somebody feels about it depends a lot on the situation. My experience with my boss, the gentleman that trained me, we left on good terms. He comes by and visits me. He wants to see how we’re doing. He’s closer to retirement. I think you hit a point where your perspective shifts from your own success to the success of the next wave. You see yourself in them and the drive they have.
Dan: Yeah, you hope when you have found a high level of success, they would see there is enough success to go around and want others to succeed.
Cory: Right. I was important to the company but when I left the company it certainly didn’t close. They were successful, and they remain successful, so there isn’t a bitter taste in anyone’s mouth. But finding a replacement for a person that’s worked there for 18 years with the right skills and attitude is very difficult. You are a part of a team where everyone knows everyone else’s skills and how to trust and rely on each other to get the job done. It takes a long time to get that dialed in.
Dan: What is your view on shop size and layout?
Cory: I trained in a big shop and understand the key things needed to produce what I want to provide as a business owner. You start with the key pieces of equipment. We made a scale floor plan with scaled equipment cut out of paper to prototype different layouts. There are a lot of things that go into production; the flow of materials, flow of product, storage of finished products, and storage of surplus materials. Large materials are always coming in and you need space. Logistically it takes forever. Time in our world, it is money. So, if we bid a job for eight hours and we got it done in seven, we did well. If we bid it for eight and it took twelve, we lost a lot of money. Like I said, if you’re going to make a guitar you could do that out of a home shop, you don’t need a gigantic facility. If you’re going to produce things that have 14-foot diameters and they need to go up twelve feet in the air, you’re going to need space to work. Clutter and other interferences just slow people down. The number of employees; that’s based on the amount of work that you can bring in as a salesperson. You can oversell, and you need more employees to get the work done, but you also need places for those people to work. If you oversell something and you only have five employees, you have to find a way to work with them and their lives and their schedules. This is my business, and I am willing to put in the effort it takes to succeed, but not everybody is going to work as hard as you do when it’s your own business. They just don’t have the same incentive. Balancing workload and resources is a key talent of this business because workload ebbs and flows. When it comes to shop design, everybody has their own theory on how they want to lay it out; it’s all about the process. The material has to come in, it has to get fabricated, it has to get finished, and it has to go back out the door as a finished product to a client. So, there’s a flow that you try to establish without having to run all the way from one end to the other end to make something happen. Fewer steps is less wasted energy so you don’t wear yourself out. When people work in small shops, they’re cluttered and they work on smaller projects. When you get into having to work with wood, metal, machining, and welding you need specific workstations to minimize setup. You want to be able to walk over there and within a few minutes be able to start working on your task. Constantly dealing with nuisances and inefficiencies is draining and causes frustration. It will wear some people down emotionally and hurt productivity.
Dan: Do you try to actively motivate employees or just try to hire people that are self-motivated?
Cory: I try to hire people that have a good work ethic and take pride in their work. They want to do well and keep up. Then the best thing I can do to keep them happy is preventing unnecessary struggle. That means things like keeping the equipment up and all the tools easily accessible.
That means being able to afford the tools people need to do their work. People know what a fly-by-night type place looks like and avoid them.
Dan: Yeah, I’ve heard stories about how they hired farmers to work in the steel mills. Basically, the philosophy was you can teach the farmers to make steel, but you couldn’t teach the steelworkers to have the farmer’s work ethic.
Cory: Yes. They wake up early in the morning and go to bed late at night, that’s just their routine. They know that they always have a full day of tasks ahead of them and they get it done. That’s in the blood and that’s the mentality I was given. Younger people may have more energy but less skill, so they work harder to keep up. That energy pushes everybody to want to do better or keep up with the pack so you’re not left behind.
Dan: Yeah, I think it’s sort of a tribal mentality, or pack mentality; no one wants to be the weak link. Do you have aspirations to grow, and how do you balance that with standards?
Cory: I’d like to grow it to ten people and have more space. Like I said, you need room to work. With a ten-person team, there are probably four projects going on at a time in the shop. So, you need space for everybody to have room to produce and not be tripping over each other and damaging product. Maintaining standards comes from staying involved in the whole process.
You can’t just drop off the drawings and come back at the end of the week to pick stuff up. I work with the clients and communicate with them to understand their needs, and I have to then filter that information and communicate with the fabricators. You have to be part of the system in order to ensure the clients get what they really want.
Dan: How do you deal with different personalities?
Cory: I focus on setting up cohesive teams. Some people work together better than others and there is no sense in causing friction if two people can’t work together. You move people around if you need to. I provide lunch sometimes for everybody. Something simple like pizza can go a long way. It’s just a way of showing thank you and acknowledging that the hard work is not going unnoticed.
Dan: I think that’s a respect thing. Some companies just do it and it just feels like it’s inauthentic.
Cory: They feel that they have to. There is a difference when it’s coming from the heart versus what they heard they are supposed to do.
Dan: What’s is your favorite part of the job and what’s the hardest part?
Cory: My favorite part is actually fabricating. I still like to build, but don’t get to as much. The billing and accounting are my least favorite tasks. There are two sides to the business, the front end is the billing and paperwork and the back end is the shop. When I transitioned from a fabricator to a business owner, all these new front-end responsibilities came up. I don’t enjoy it as much because I’m not as good at it as I am in the shop. That’s where the frustration happens. It’s sort of like in your triathlon. Maybe you are an excellent biker and swimmer but running, you just get through it. I get through it and that’s where that lands.
Dan: In triathlon, I am a better biker, so I do that more and the reality is I should be doing the disciplines I’m worse at to get better at them. You naturally want to do that thing that you’re best at because it’s easier and more rewarding in the short run.
Cory: It’s easy. I’ve been focusing on trying to get the paperwork streamlined to where it makes it easier for me, and that’s just like the process that I’ve developed in the shop. I can streamline something so that I can move quickly through it because I’ve got what I want to do all in my head. I’m trying to use those techniques that I’ve learned from the shop and apply them to the front-end business side of the company. You do your best and you pay for the rest. You have your expertise, in my case, it’s working with employees and the materials, but I end up paying other businesses to help with the rest. It’s just part of what goes on.
Dan: What advice would the present day you give yourself ten years ago?
Cory: I would have put more on my plate in order to learn more. You look back and think if I would have started yesterday I’d be one day ahead. For example, I would like to learn AutoCAD, and ten years of occasional use might not make me a professional but that’s still a lot of experience. There is just so much different knowledge I could use instead of having to rely on somebody else.
Dan: You have already put in so many extra hours over the years. Are you concerned about burning out or are you still that hungry and passionate?
Cory: I asked a good friend of mine that is talented across the board, how can you learn everything? We decided you can’t learn everything at a master level. You have to focus on something you really enjoy and master that, and everything else you’re going to have to dabble in and be okay with being good enough to get by. Because there aren’t enough hours in the day to master all the possible skills in this business, and then have a personal life and unwind and have friendships, relationships, and life outside of work. It’s also individual on how much you can absorb, retain, and understand.
Dan: Sometimes skills can be ‘use it’ or ‘lose it’. Do you feel that way about fabrication skills?
Cory: Correct, and a lot of it is the little things. The little mistakes that you made last time and forgot, and so, you’re continually making the same little mistake. Maybe there’s a saw you are using that can lose calibration, so you should always check it but don’t. Those things fall through the cracks.
Dan: How do you feel about measure twice cut once?
Cory: I used to think that I didn’t need to do it, and now I practice it religiously. For new hires, I hammer into them to always double-check. You will hear me around the shop all the time asking, “where’s your tape measure?” Measuring a distance from one side of a board, doing some math, and then measuring from the other side is how to check. I used to think that I didn’t need to do that, and I made enough mistakes that I eventually decided that I was going to check it every single time.
Dan: How do you define quality?
Cory: I define it in comparison to something else. So, for example, if you are building the same thing as someone else, and, all things being equal theirs looks nicer than yours, then the quality is better. The sharpness, the cleanness of a project. As you gain your skills, you’ll notice that they left a bunch of glue in there and can see that they skipped a step and did not know to clean the glue out while it was wet. Those kinds of small demerits. How things go together like the gaps in doors that are small an even nice and even imperfect. A lot of the work we do involves symmetry. So, one side should look identical to the other side. Are the edges razor sharp or finished off? Is the stain even? The paint uniform? All the details add up to the quality.
Dan: When I see your stuff, without being an expert, I sense the quality. Do you think you need to have the expertise to gauge quality or do you think you can just tell?
Cory: Sometimes you can glance at something and make a good judgment. I try to look at the parts application level, and that takes background and experience. I may machine something that looks beautiful, but the quality depends on how accurate it is. If the part is off by three thousandths, the naked eye can’t see that. The part looks great but it’s of no use. So, quality depends on the application. I make sure my parts look great but also that they aren’t paperweights.
Read Part 1 here.