A renovation tale: The finish line (Part 3)

As promised, Dark Horse is happy to (at last) bring you the final installment of our “Professional cabinetmaker wrestles his own kitchen reno to the ground” story, complete with photos.

As mentioned in earlier posts, there are distinct pros and cons to doing your own kitchen overhaul. 

The good news is that you’re likely to end up with exactly what you wanted, down to the smallest details. 

The bad news? That might take a lot longer than you’d imagine.

When you’re spending most of your time working on projects for paying clients, it can really slow your progress to the finish line of your own kitchen. Just to be clear – for me, the finish line doesn’t mean you can put things in your cabinets or cook a meal in the kitchen. For me, it means every last detail is complete, and every aspect of the kitchen reno is so pristine that you’d feel at ease about bringing in a professional photographer to photograph the “After.” 

After the bulk of the work was complete on my project, a handful of items lingered on the check list for months and kept me from declaring it finished. 

Getting by with a little help from your friends

A major woodworking trade show was held in Atlanta last August, and my friends and fellow board members from the Cabinet Makers Association came to town.

I had the CMA crew over for dinner one night before the show got under way. Given that everyone knew about my reno, it was a great opportunity for them to see the mostly finished version. I planned to tell them about one of the lingering issues on my to-do list and get their advice: The wine fridge door wouldn’t open correctly. 

It was hitting the divider to the right of it, and I hadn’t been able to figure out how to fix it. 

Former CMA president Matt Krig came over first, and we looked at the problem door and talked through it; then board member James Fox arrived and joined the conversation. Eventually, Monika Soos and her husband Radu arrived, and I pointed out the problem to them. 

“Why don’t you just reverse the door?” Radu asked.

Of course.

The very simplest and most obvious solution had never even crossed my mind – or occurred to the others as we stood around staring at the problem. 

Sometimes you can’t get out of your own way.

(Thank God they came over.)

The details

Aside from those final tasks dragging on for longer than I’d have liked, I couldn’t be happier with the way the kitchen turned out. 

It has the look and feel we were going for – a mix of modern and retro elements (you can read more about the thinking behind the design in this earlier installment). 

The color scheme was an off-white that had a green tint with red and gray accents. Designers Christy Dillard and Heidi Pearce helped with the overall color schemes (including working around the red oven).

Here’s a rundown of the main features and details in the new kitchen: 

  • The cabinets are transitional, somewhere between modern and Art Deco style, painted with a color called Tapestry Beige. The material is routed MDF.
  • The countertops are quartz.
  • The idea of having some glass-front cabinet doors was appealing, but that limits what you can store in those cabinets if you want to keep the overall look of your kitchen aesthetically pleasing. To steer clear of that limitation, we went with ribbed glass and put a panel painted the same color as the cabinets behind the glass on the upper cabinets. 
  • The decision to use unusual/retro-style appliances was an important part of the design scheme. Viking offered a double oven in factory red  – one of the two ovens has a traditional pull-down door and the other is a French-door style. The placement of the ovens in the corner of the kitchen is a bit unusual, but it’s very effective.

  • Unfortunately, we could not find a red retro refrigerator to match. Thanks to a brilliant suggestion from the staff at appliance dealer Howard Payne and Co., we found a stainless steel model and took it to an auto body shop where it was painted to match the ovens.
  • All appliances were made by Viking, with the exception of the wine fridge, which was made by Jenn-Air.
  • The Blum Servo Drive touch-to-open system (a last-minute addition to the budget that was well worth it) is a favorite feature. Only two things in the kitchen require opening: the dishwasher and the wine fridge. In addition to the convenience of the touch-to-open system, the lack of hardware also makes for clean lines.
  • The backsplash was created from made-to-order tiles in shades of brown, cream and pale green. 
  • The pendant lights came from Etsy. 
  • The flooring is porcelain tile.
  • There are some other cool features scattered through the kitchen, including a roll-out pantry and a deep drawer with inserts to corral long-handled kitchen utensils.
  • Where a desk used to sit in the old kitchen, you’ll now find the wine fridge (the one with the “problem” door), a cabinet to hide the microwave, toaster and coffee maker, and big, deep drawers (liquor bottles are tall, after all).
  • A 27-inch iMac is mounted in the corner cabinet, which makes it easy to look up/display recipes or stream movies/TV while cooking.

The reno didn’t increase the square footage of the kitchen, but taking the cabinets all the way up to the ceiling added a lot more storage. The adjacent laundry room also got an update with a new stacking washer-dryer set and new flooring to match the kitchen. 

I also added a small, matching cabinet in the adjacent sitting room (which was converted from a sleeping porch during an earlier reno). This cabinet serves as a bar area and has extra storage. 

The bottom line

So was it worth it to bring my work home, so to speak, and slog through all of the disruptions and delays? 


I spend my days giving my clients their dream kitchens, and it’s really satisfying to finally have a dream kitchen waiting at home.

~ Chris Dehmer

Postscript: Here’s a photo of the previous kitchen as a reminder of where we started. To see more “before” photos, read the first post in the series. 

A year of milestones and opportunities

Before the first month of 2019 is gone, I wanted to post a quick thank-you to everyone who helped make 2018 a great year for Dark Horse and for me. 


We continued to stay busy creating a variety of cabinetry for modern renovations and new builds. We’re fortunate to have so many talented builders and design firms in the Atlanta area, and I’m grateful that we get to collaborate on so many innovative projects.

At home, the full kitchen reno my wife and I launched in 2017 was finally wrapped up (we just had a few minor things to check off the list). We love the new kitchen, but it was not a walk in the park to get there. I shared a couple of blog posts about what it’s like to renovate your own kitchen when you do this kind of work for a living, and I’ll be sharing the final installment and full “reveal” (to use some TV renovation show lingo) soon. Meanwhile, here’s Part 1 and Part 2 of the story.


In the throes of our kitchen reno

Continuing a great relationship

My involvement with the Cabinet Makers Association continued in 2018 and brought more great opportunities:

  • I had several opportunities to share my experience and work on my public speaking skills, thanks to being invited to participate in panel discussions and presentations at the CMA’s 20th Anniversary conference in Denver in March and at the International Woodworkers Fair (IWF) in Atlanta last summer.
  • Dark Horse was one of three stops on CMA’s Atlanta shop tours ahead of IWF. After being on the visitor side of some great CMA shop tours, it was an honor to welcome 50 fellow members from all over the country to our place and get their feedback. Hopefully, some of our visitors took away some ideas that might be helpful in their shops, too. We also threw a surprise barbecue at the end of the day that was a lot of fun.


    CMA Shop Tour Day at Dark Horse

  • I enjoyed being on the judging end of the CMA Wood Diamond Awards for the first time; it’s always inspiring to see the quality craftsmanship and beauty of the work produced by CMA member shops in the United States and Canada. (You can take a look at the winners on the CMA Wood Diamond Awards page.)

    Screen Shot 2019-01-30 at 4.11.20 PM.png

    A screenshot showing some of the 2018 Wood Diamond Award winners on the CMA site

  • I was elected vice president after serving as a board member for several years, and I’m looking forward to collaborating more with my friends and fellow CMA leaders this year.

Wrapping up and looking ahead

As I closed out the year, I checked a really unpleasant item off of my big-picture “to do” list: having much-needed knee-replacement surgery in early December.

Recovery hasn’t been fast and seamless, but the business has been able to continue chugging along. I’m grateful to my team, and as I wrote about on the blog earlier, I was also grateful when a CMA friend offered to get on a plane, fly across the country and come run things at the shop for a few days, post-surgery. That’s friendship! (I didn’t end up taking him up on the offer, but it meant a lot to know I have that kind of back-up through my CMA friendships.) 

On a more festive note, my wife and I hosted the annual Dark Horse holiday party at our house, a tradition that was even more fun with our kitchen complete at last. For years, we had used the holiday party as both a scheduling nudge and an excuse when we talked about scheduling our reno project, and it was nice to have the few lingering to-do items in the new kitchen checked off before the party. (I’m including a few pre-party photos below; I’ll save the new kitchen photos for our final reno post.)

Finally, Dark Horse marked our 11th year in business on December 28: Here’s hoping 2019 continues to bring us many great opportunities, both in our work for clients and in our connections to others in the cabinetry/woodworking community.

Thanks for your ongoing support!

Chris Dehmer

Giving thanks

Orange Leaves Illustration Thanksgiving CardIn December, I’m going forward with long overdue knee replacement surgery.

No one looks forward to surgery, recovery and physical therapy, but when you run a small business like Dark Horse, it’s especially challenging to figure out how to keep things on track when you’re out of commission, even for a short time.

It’s not like owning a store, where you already have people in place who are trained as managers and well-versed in running things –– not to mention the fact that you’re selling things that have already been made. 

When the stress is worse than the surgery … 

I have great people on the Dark Horse team, but unless you’ve run a manufacturing business and shop, it’s hard to step in and take charge of everything. In baseball, if your manager had to leave the game, you wouldn’t plug in the pitcher, shortstop, etc. to take over; they know their expertise, but without a manager’s big-picture view and experience, it would be pretty hard for them to run the game.

We have projects to keep on track, and on top of that, I found out that the installation date for one project had to be delayed, a pretty big deal when you’ve been trying to plan your absence right down to the last detail.   

All that is to say: I’ve been stressed about this surgery.

… until a guardian angel shows up.

A couple of weeks ago, I confided in a friend I’ve gotten to know through my involvement with the Cabinet Makers Association, aka the CMA, over the past few years. He has many more years of experience in the industry, and I often call on him for advice or ideas on challenges I might have on a project. 

I told him I was really concerned about how things were going to hang together while I was out, especially the first few weeks – and especially with the installation schedule change. 

After offering up other suggestions to help ease my mind, he said, “If it comes down to it, Atlanta is a short flight, and I’ll come down and oversee things while you’re out.”

I was stunned – and sure I must have misunderstood.

But when I said as much, he said he meant it.

You know, I don’t often admit to it when something strikes an emotional nerve, but my friend’s offer bowled me over. I’m sure there was a long silence on my end of the line before I could get my wits about me and thank him.

Gifts of all kinds

There are many different kinds of gifts and there are many kinds of gifted people, and my friend has the quality of both generosity and a sincerity that makes it crystal clear that when he offers you a gift, he means it.

I believe most of us find it hard to admit that we sometimes need help, and it’s even harder to actually follow through and accept that help. I’m pretty sure this kind of stoic attitude is something we all need to try to let go of, because it’s a rare human being who never needs help. 

I’m going to implement his other suggestions and see how that goes before asking him to be away from his business. No matter what happens, this Thanksgiving, I’d like to share my deep gratitude for my friend who is not only willing to take time away from his work, but also go through the hassle of getting on a plane to give me peace of mind. 

I’m thankful for his time and talents, but also for the gift of being made to feel as though his offer was one I should feel just fine about accepting.

He would never want to be named, but I decided I had to share this story even without his name attached to it. 

The Dark Horse team and I wish you a great Thanksgiving and hope that you, too, have a community like the one I’ve become part of with my CMA friends.

CMA’s Atlanta shop tour wraps up at Dark Horse

Dark Horse Woodworks shop sets up for tour stop.

We had a great time hosting a Cabinet Makers Association shop tour at Dark Horse just ahead of  the International Woodworkers Fair in Atlanta in August.

Dark Horse was the final stop on a three-shop tour – the August 21 tour also included two other Atlanta-area shops, Atlanta Cabinet Shop and Custom Creative Furniture.

Give and take

We were able to show our 50 guests – fellow CMA members from all over the country – our set-up and the technology we use, and answer questions about how we operate.

And as I’d hoped, we also got some feedback and ideas about how we could improve our way of doing things. The ideas ranged from workflow suggestions to little tweaks we could make to save steps (and therefore time) – for instance, shifting the location of an assembly table.

We knew our lighting wasn’t great, but we didn’t realize how bad it was until getting several questions and comments about it; we’ve already added some additional lighting and plan to add more.

The most surprising question during the tour? “Hey, since you don’t use that [fill in the blank] much, can I buy it from you?” It’s pretty obvious what equipment we don’t use because it’s all shoved into one area that’s completely inaccessible unless you move other things around. (The answer was always, “Sorry, no.”)


Image of Blum sponsorship area.

Our tour stop was sponsored by Rugby Architectural Building Products (which distributes plywood, specialty panels, and hardware); Blum (hardware manufacturer); Jones Metal Molding (local company that is a distributor for Blum and other cabinet hardware); and CAMaster, the maker of Dark Horse’s CNC machine.

Signs thanking sponsors.

Thanks to Hitachi Koki USA, there was a drawing for a Hitachi power tool, and Hitachi and Blum offered demos.

And to cap off the day, we had some surprise Southern hospitality planned for our guests. Around 4:15, a truck arrived, pulling an already-smoking smoker loaded with food for a post-tour barbecue.

It was truly a feast, and I don’t think it would be bragging (or an exaggeration) to say that a good time was had by all.

Thanks to the CMA for including Dark Horse in such a great event.

~ Chris Dehmer

CMA member and past president Matt Krig of Northland Woodworks in Minnesota enjoys a little (?) Southern cooking at the end of a great shop tour day.

Chris Dehmer to be featured presenter at International Woodworkers Fair


The International Woodworkers Fair (IWF) is being held in our back yard (well, in our city), and Chris Dehmer is putting all the travel time he’s saving into sharing his experience with fellow cabinet makers and woodworkers who are in Atlanta for the show.

In addition to Dark Horse being one of the featured stops on a pre-IWF shop tour organized by the Cabinet Makers Association (CMA), Chris is participating in four CMA panel presentations at IWF. 

“I’ve always learned a lot from my fellow cabinet makers at IWF and other shows, and it’s great to be able to return the favor and share some of the lessons I’ve learned since starting Dark Horse 10 years ago,” Chris says.

If you’re going to the show, check out these descriptions of the presentations he’s participating in and stop by to hear what Chris and his fellow CMA members have to say:

  • Wednesday, August 22, 9:00 -11:00 am 

“Working with Architects & Designers” – Chris Dehmer (Dark Horse Woodworks), James Fox (Fox Woodworking) and Joe Knobbe (Exclusive Woodworking)

  • Wednesday, August 22, 1:00 -3:00 pm

“Buying that Big Machine” – Leland Thomasset (Taghkanic Woodworking), Matt Krig (Northland Woodworks), Chris Dehmer (Dark Horse Woodworks) and Matt Wehner (Cabinet Concepts by Design)

  • Thursday, August 23, 10:30 am -12:30 pm

“Boundary-Pushing with your Nested-Based Router” – Leland Thomasset (Taghkanic Woodworking), Matt Krig (Northland Woodworks) and Chris Dehmer (Dark Horse Woodworks).

  • Friday, August 24, 1:00 -3:00 pm

“Acing that Modern Job” – by Chris Dehmer (Dark Horse Woodworks), Shelley Wehner (Cabinet Concepts by Design) and Joe Knobbe (Exclusive Woodworking)

For details on other CMA presentations and events during IWF, please visit www.cabinetmakers.org/IWF18.

Dark Horse to be featured on CMA shop tour during IWF 2018

routerphotonewThe International Woodworkers Fair (IWF) is coming to Atlanta in August, and Dark Horse is pleased to be a featured stop on a pre-IWF shop tour organized by the Cabinet Makers Association (CMA). 

The all-day tour on Tuesday, August 21, will include stops at several Atlanta-area shops – Atlanta Cabinet Shop and Custom Creative Furniture are participating along with Dark Horse. (CNC Factory is sponsoring the event.)

“My experience being on the CMA board inspired me to participate,” says Dark Horse owner Chris Dehmer. “It’s great to be part of a group that is so generous with its time and so willing to share its experience. I’m inviting people to come on the CMA tour and tell me what we’re doing wrong!”

Dark Horse has invested in technology to optimize its capabilities and work flow as well as the quality of its products. Tour participants will get a chance to see how a small shop makes use of innovations such as Zero Edge technology and a CNC router.

The shop tour event gets rolling early with a 7:30 am breakfast at the Embassy Suites (Centennial Olympic Park) and continues throughout the day.

Registration includes group transportation as well breakfast, lunch and an evening reception.

The shop tour cost is $55 for current CMA members and $75 for non-members. Student/Instructor members can participate at no charge, while non-member students/instructors will pay a discounted rate of $25. 

You can register via the CMA website.

A renovation tale, Part 2: Demo Day(s)

In Part 1 of this story, you heard about the lead-up to the kitchen reno I’ve been working on at home, and the ups and downs that come with being a professional cabinetmaker overhauling my own kitchen. 

After working on so many awesome kitchens for clients, I wanted to have an amazing kitchen at home, too. So my wife and I had to put ourselves in the shoes of clients and find our way to a design we could agree on. Once we got all of our ducks in a row, it was time for that made-oh-so-famous-by-HGTV step in the reno: Demo Day. 

Or, in my case, Demo Days. 

Because one of our dogs can’t stand loud noises, we had decided that I’d skip a vacation with extended family over Labor Day weekend last fall and take care of the demo while my wife and the dogs were away. 

I’d finished the new cabinets in August, and I was ready to get rolling. 

My own worst enemy  

The kitchen we’re replacing was a DIY project that I tackled before starting Dark Horse (you can find more details about that in Part 1). For an amateur job, it was fine and served us well for 15 years. All in all, I couldn’t complain about my first big kitchen project. 

But when I started in on the demo, I began to feel differently. 

I’m glad there were no TV crews on hand for the Dehmer Demo because it turned out to be a lot more complicated and frustrating than swinging a sledgehammer. I had some unprintable thoughts about the job that Amateur-DIY Chris did on installing that kitchen. 

It sucked. In a word, it was overbuilt. The fact that I built it in place meant that the entire kitchen was basically one big cabinet (the cabinet makers who are reading this will instantly understand the problem this creates for dismantling a kitchen). 

As I wrestled with those cabinets, I thought about how we do things at Dark Horse now and cursed my overzealous ways. In spots where one screw would have been fine, I had used five. It was mind-boggling. 


In this photo (taken as installation of the new cabinets got under way), you can see a piece of an original wall cabinet that was particularly stubborn.

In the end, I had to cut the cabinets off the wall, and demo took every bit of the two and a half days I had. In addition to the hard physical labor it required to get the cabinets out, demo-ing the floors turned out to be labor-intensive, too – pulling up each board and getting the nails out was no fun. 

All that is to say: While I understand that smashing up a house pre-reno makes for great TV, it’s really not much fun, especially when you find yourself doing battle with the younger, less savvy, more meticulous version of yourself. 

And then there was none

Anyone who’s gone through a kitchen reno is familiar with the work-arounds you have to resort to in the post-demo phase, and we used them all – eating out, ordering take-out, making good use of our grill and (of course) washing dishes in the bathroom sink.

when the dog gets into take out trash

When your renovation work-around strategy consists of eating a lot of take-out meals, we recommend dog-proofing your trash can … just saying.

Meanwhile, we were dealing with all of the bumps in the road that come with actually installing the new kitchen … delays, last-minute changes, trying to get on the same page about all of the big and little decisions you’re faced with in real time. (Didn’t we make all these decisions during the design and planning phase?? you both think every single day.)

Even someone who does this for a living can’t sidestep issues cropping up unexpectedly, not to mention those moments of decision paralysis (for us, it was the paint color for the walls) or last-minute inspiration. 

My 11th-hour decision to use Blum Servo Drive to open all the drawers required a fair amount of work that would have been much easier if planned for up front. (Servo Drive is an “electric motion support system” that allows you to open and close drawers just by tapping them.)  

Once the floors were finally finished, it was a bit of a free-for-all for awhile, and then we got back to following the usual rules of a kitchen installation. 

Cabinets went in, followed by counter tops. Once the counters were in, appliances were installed, plumbing was hooked up and the final electrical work was done. All of that happened in about three days once the tops were in. 

Then it became a matter of tying up loose ends: Moving some lighting, building and installing one last cabinet once the rest were installed and a little trim work. (Some of these loose ends are still loose!) We also had to complete some other reno tasks in the laundry room and sunroom – these spaces became part of the kitchen reno only because the flooring needed to be extended into those rooms so it would all match.

Light at the end of the tunnel

In the final post, I’ll show you the finished kitchen and tell you more about what went into it (literally) – cabinets, appliances, floors, backsplash, hardware, etc.


Early days of installing the new cabinets

To close out this post about the messiest part of the project, I’ll leave you with this bit of perspective/advice about creating or renovating a kitchen: Just go for it. Get what you want. 


For our reno story, the Blum Servo Drive system was the major “go for it” feature. We had talked over and over again about how much we’d love to have it in our kitchen, but we always ruled it out because of cost (about $2,600). At some point during our reno, I was talking to a client and making my usual soapbox speech about all the reasons not to skimp, and I realized I was ignoring my own advice.

While I understand that budgets matter, I recommend that you think about the big picture. The kitchen is the most-used room in your house: Don’t compromise.

Postscript: We love our touch-to-open drawers and doors, and we have no regrets about adding them to our budget.

~ Chris Dehmer

Chris Dehmer elected VP of Cabinet Makers Association Board


New CMA VP Chris Dehmer with Matt Krig, former CMA president and fellow CMA board member, at last summer’s AWFS (Association of Woodworking and Furnishing Suppliers) Fair in Las Vegas. 

After serving two years as an at-large member on the Board of Directors of the Cabinet Makers Association (CMA), Dark Horse Woodworks’ Chris Dehmer has been elected vice president of the industry group for professional cabinet makers and woodworkers in the United States and Canada.

The CMA describes itself as a professional organization “where cabinetmakers and woodworkers from both the residential and commercial markets get together and share their hard earned knowledge and experience to help one another.” 

Chris joins new president Leland Thomasset, treasurer James Fox and secretary Monika Soos.

“Being a board member has opened up new communication lines with other board members,” Chris says. “It really has taken my involvement to a whole new level.” He points to a visit that he and former CMA president Matt Krig made to Thomasset’s workshop in Maine when they were in the area for a regional event. Their idea was to take advantage of being nearby to have a hands-on working visit with Thomasset.

 “We showed up in work clothes and were able to work on a project and see how Leland’s shop works, get ideas from him and offer ideas from our own shops,” he says.

FDMC magazine even ran a feature about the collaboration. 

“Being on this board has changed me and my business forever,” Chris adds. “Being a member of the CMA was great, but being a board member forces you to be involved – and being involved is the only way to get maximum return on membership. 

“Without my board experience, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to be a part of the CMA shop tours this coming August when the International Woodworking Fair comes to Atlanta,” he says. “Before, pride and ego would have gotten in the way. Now I’m inviting people to come on the CMA tour and tell me what we’re doing wrong. It’s great to be part of a group that allows me to get to know people who are so generous with their time, experience and expertise.

“My involvement with the CMA is the single best professional development opportunity I’ve ever encountered, and I’m happy to take on a new role this year.”

You really do get what you pay for

I recently had the eye-opening experience of seeing some high-end homes that had surprisingly low-end cabinetry. While many of the cabinets looked nice when you glanced at them with the doors shut, you only had to inspect them a bit more closely to figure out that the materials and construction were not exactly top-of-the-line.

Frankly, it was a shocker.

How did such shoddy work end up in such exclusive, expensive projects?

When you’re in a craft profession, this kind of thing can be frustrating.

Walnut house kitchen for quality blog

We’re grateful to have gained the trust of clients who have hired us to create their dream kitchens and other projects; this is the project we call “The Walnut House.”

Knowledge matters

Coming across this less-than-impressive work in otherwise well-crafted, big-budget homes made me stop and think about how these decisions are made.

Do the homeowners just not worry about the details that make the difference between a high-quality project and a shoddy one? Or do they not know? 

For those who are considering a remodel or new construction, I thought I’d pass along some insider perspective based on the Dark Horse approach to custom cabinetry.

First, it’s my experience that while clients know the big picture of what they want (style, color, etc.), they almost never tell you what they want when it comes to materials and construction.

For that reason (and many more), we have a spec sheet that we share with potential clients that outlines the type of materials we use. We’re careful to say, “This is what you’re getting.”

Our specs are identical 99 percent of the time; we never approach a potential job with the idea that we’ll customize our specs and use lower-quality, cheaper materials in order to give Dark Horse a better chance of winning a bid.

We’ve built our reputation on executing client projects the best way we know how, and in addition to the level of craftsmanship we offer, we make a point of seeking out the best products and materials available.

Here are a few examples:

  • Every cabinet box we build is two-sided, pre-finished and US-sourced.Why US-sourced? Once, we tried cheaper Chinese import plywood for some shop projects; when we cut the material, it smelled funny, and the sawdust from the cut was blue. Consistency in thickness is more critical than ever since we incorporated a CNC into our production – we have to tell the machine how thick the material is so that the joints come out tight. Domestic plywood tends to be much flatter – I’m not sure why this is but my guess is that it has something to do with the imported plywood sitting on a ship during transport.

    To give you an idea of the difference in materials, the domestic plywood we use costs $65-70 a sheet; some companies use particleboard that costs $18 per sheet (similar to what you see in IKEA furniture).

  • We don’t use prefab drawers, and that makes a huge difference in both looks and function.
  • We also use Zero Edge banding on our cabinetry, which is more heat- and moisture-resistant than typical edge treatments. But that advantage comes at a price – 80 cents per foot instead of 2 cents per foot for traditional hot glue edge-banding.
  • We use soft-close doors, slides, etc. – in short, the best hardware we can buy. It costs a little more, but it’s worth it. (There’s a lot of cheap, shoddy hardware out there.)



Here’s an in-process photo showing the kind of 3/4-inch prefinished plywood cabinet box construction that goes into all of our projects; this happens to be my own kitchen, which my wife and I decided to renovate last year. (There’s no top because this is a sink cabinet.)


What’s the lesson you can take away from this insider view?

You get what you pay for.

A company with a solid reputation and happy customers obviously excels at the craft of cabinet-making, but that company also begins with high-quality materials, and those materials cost more. (I have yet to find a magical source of stellar materials at bargain basement prices, but if you have any leads, I’d love to hear about them.)

Our Golden Rule

Some companies have the advantage of a showroom where clients can see examples of their work; that would be a great way to show our clients what quality materials and craftsmanship look like, but a showroom is not an option for Dark Horse.

So instead, we just try to emphasize to clients what we choose to use in our work and why we choose it.

And the “why” is simple – it’s the way I would want it done in my house. If I wouldn’t put it in mine, I won’t put it in yours.

~ Chris Dehmer

A renovation tale: Shoes for the cobbler’s children (Part 1)

In this modern version, I’m the cobbler, and it’s way past time for me to build a new kitchen at my house.


Our first kitchen reno – pre-Dark Horse

I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to build dream kitchens for clients year after year and not want to create your version of the ideal kitchen.

Long ago, about six years before chucking my day job and starting Dark Horse, I renovated our kitchen on my own. When we’d moved into our Craftsman-style house, the kitchen was tiny, maybe 10×10. It had a sink and a refrigerator, and that was it. The original giant cast iron sink was rusted and not very practical. The metal cabinets were not deep enough to hold modern dinner plates, and there was no stove or oven.

Kitchen Before

When we first bought our house, this was the state of affairs in the kitchen.

Kitchen Before2

And another view; this kitchen is a cabinetmaker’s nightmare.

The renovation I did as an amateur with some solid skills was fine – and it was certainly a huge step up from what we started with. The style we went with then was traditional, and the kitchen has served us well.


But about three years ago, I reached the point where I had to do something with all of that inspiration I’d been getting from my Dark Horse work. While there was nothing wrong with our kitchen, it was not what I’d call “awesome” – and I wanted to come home to a truly awesome kitchen.

My wife and I were on the same page, and the decision was made.

Getting started

There’s no doubt that there are advantages to being a professional when you’re doing a personal kitchen reno project. But I’ve learned firsthand that there are some hurdles you can’t escape whether you’re an amateur or a pro, and other things that become more complex because you do this stuff for a living.

For instance, I quickly figured out that when the goal is agreeing on a design and making all the other decisions that have to be made, having professional expertise in the mix can complicate matters instead of speeding them along.

Most couples setting out on a renovation are starting from the same place, after all, learning as they go.

The unique challenge for my wife and me was the fact that we brought two very different perspectives and sets of experience to the table. Because I do this for a living, I have what is probably an excruciating amount of knowledge about everything that’s involved. On top of that, building kitchens for a living also means that I have strong preferences.

To sum up what I mean, picture this not-so-imaginary scene: My wife rolls her eyes as I explain why we must have XYZ feature/material/hardware in the new kitchen. Minutes later, I throw my hands up because she just doesn’t appreciate the great wisdom I’m bringing to the process. Repeat scene – many times.

Beyond the difference in perspectives, doing your own renovation also makes you appreciate the ease of working with clients on a kitchen that isn’t yours.

I have many conversations with clients about what their dream kitchens will look like, and I now recognize what a breeze this part of the process is for me. During the planning and design step, I get to lay out the options, explain the basics and then exit the process. The clients go away and hash things out, and we meet again to finalize everything.

When it’s your kitchen, you can’t step away from the process and let other people make the decisions. You have the same challenge as all of your clients who are doing a renovation with a partner: You have to work through it all with the other person, make a case for your (strong) preferences and end up as close to mutual satisfaction and civility as possible.


Another shot of the first kitchen I installed; it’s all gone now.


Desk area included in our original reno kitchen

Finding common ground

So how did we get through the decision-making phase?

My wife had been looking at a website called Houzz since we first started talking about the project three years ago.

In case you’re not familiar with Houzz, the short version is that it’s a website filled with home design ideas, photos of real-world, finished projects, vendor pages and a lot more. Dark Horse and pretty much any other company involved in building or renovating homes have a presence on Houzz because so many homeowners go there to search for ideas. Houzz turned out to be the main driver for my wife to figure out what she liked.

My past projects were a big source of inspiration for me, of course, and I knew from the start that I wanted to move away from the traditional look of our current kitchen. I liked some aspects of the modern kitchens that have become our specialty at Dark Horse.

At some point along the way, I spotted a kitchen I really liked in my wife’s saved projects on Houzz. I had never seen a style quite like it, and I’m sure that’s what caught my attention. By the time this kitchen entered the picture, we were on about version 6 of our project design attempts; the fact that we both liked this one was big, and we knew we needed to run with it.

There were still compromises to be made along the way, of course – for instance, my wife wanted painted cabinets, and I preferred wood grain. In this case, I decided not to push my preference since the overall design was something I liked.

Chance encounters

On top of the challenge of getting on the same design page, we also experienced another common renovation struggle: Getting to the starting line.

Building other people’s cabinetry for many hours a day can certainly take a toll on your personal renovation plans, and even the goal we’d picked as an incentive ended up being a convenient excuse to delay the project. When we’d decided to go forward with the reno three years ago, our goal was to have it completed before the Dark Horse holiday party that we host in early December every year.

But for the next couple of years, when work projects and personal obligations began to stack up in the months ahead of December, we’d throw in the towel. “Well,” one of us would say, “there’s no way we can get it done before the party now, so we might as well wait.”

In the end, it was a chance encounter that threw the switch on the project at last.

In January 2016, with the latest holiday party behind us and the renovation still not scheduled, I headed to a big industry show in Orlando. While I was checking out new hardware and other products for Dark Horse, I stumbled across some cool retro appliances, and they gave me a new shot of inspiration.

I came home and sent an email to a design team I know and asked them if what I had in mind was up their alley. They sent back an enthusiastic “yes,” and by the end of January, I had sent them a list of the appliances and other things we liked.

Full-steam ahead

By the end of February, the designers had sent us options for finishes, floor tiles, walls, backsplashes, etc.

The style we landed on doesn’t fit neatly into any of the usual categories, so maybe “eclectic” is the best way to describe it. There are modern elements, such as clean lines and minimal door hardware. The raised panels on the doors (kind of a reverse Shaker) give a nod to the Craftsman style of the house, and we added some retro touches via the appliances, tile floor, backsplash and reeded glass doors.

Once we hashed out the design particulars, the project fell into a good rhythm.

In March, we made final decisions on appliances, and by Memorial Day, I had begun building out the cabinetry. Around the first of August, the cabinets were done, and I decided to start demo the week of Labor Day. One of our dogs is petrified by loud noises, and we decided it would be better to have him out of the house; my wife and the dogs headed out of town to join family for a long-planned vacation, and I got ready to dismantle that kitchen I had labored over all those years before.

On HGTV shows, everything I’ve just described takes place in a span of days, not years, and “Demo Day” is a pretty exciting highlight for everyone, with homeowners and TV hosts alike bashing walls and ripping cabinets apart.

In order to keep some suspense and excitement going in my reno story, I’ll wrap up Chapter 1 (“before”) here and begin Chapter 2 (“during”) with the thrills of Demo Day; be sure to tune back in to find out what a Demo Day is like in the real world!