Breathing new life into a business… with coffins
FROM kitchens to coffins – diversifying has seen a south Wexford carpenter take a somewhat unusual turn in his efforts to sustain his business.
Kevin Sheil, proprietor of 3D Kitchens in Kilmore, was sitting in his showroom last summer and things were quiet, very quiet.
He had reached a crucial crossroads as it was clear that, with the property bubble long-since burst and the country spiralling deeper into a recession, there wasn’t going to be enough business to keep 3D Kitchens going into the future.
Kevin said he’s not quite sure where the idea of making coffins came from. ‘It happened kind of by mistake, we were just sitting here saying “what’s gone wrong?” or “am I doing something wrong?” and there was nothing going and when that happens the price plummets and people were getting quoted prices I couldn’t even get my materials for,’ said Kevin.
He had also always thought about making something out of the ‘character oaks’ used in some of his kitchens, like a snooker table. But he realised there was no market for that, so the idea came to him to try making a coffin from pippy oak. In fact, he made two.
‘I always maintain you’re better doing something than doing nothing. Even if you’re not making money at it, at least you’re not spending money doing nothing,’ said Kevin.
He dropped his first coffin down to Ryan’s Undertakers in Wellington Bridge. James Ryan was impressed by what he saw. He took it and suggested he drop the second into Cooney’s Undertakers in New Ross.
‘Joanne (Cooney) took that one off me and by before I got back home she called me and ordered another two. She said “Kevin you’re not going to believe this, but that one’s gone. The people who came in after you picked it straight away. Can we have another two?”’
From that initial positive reaction, Kevin started his new venture in earnest, working six or seven days a week and all the while wondering was he ‘mad’. And so a new business, Kilmore Coffins and Caskets, was born.
Unlike almost all coffins and caskets available in Ireland these days, Kevin’s are handmade. ‘Everything seems to be massed produced these days, it’s the same with kitchens,’ he said.
He said the timber they use, the fact that they are all made by hand and all the material comes from Ireland means they can offer ‘something different’.
‘We started doing pippy oak, then we started doing pippy elm as well and that took off. Then we started doing a walnut and that took off,’ said Kevin.
‘Everything that I’m getting is Irish made too,’ he pointed out. For example, the veneers are from Ballingly Joinery, the mouldings from Co Kildare, the handles come from Co Meath and the linings come from Tullow, where they are handmade by Henry Paton.
He acknowledges that undertakers can buy in – and sell – mass produced coffins for less, but Kevin is focusing on producing quality coffins and caskets for the top-end of the market. He said the cost is ‘not outlandish’, but admits they do cost more.
He confesses that he’s not a salesman and has no intention of becoming one, preferring to let the products speak for themselves. And so far people have been prepared to pay that bit extra for the greater quality of the handmade coffins.
After starting with Ryan’s and Cooney’s, Kevin is now supplying coffins to a number of other local undertakers, including Kearney’s (Wexford), Macken’s (Wexford), Browne’s (Enniscorthy), Hennessy’s (Waterford) and O’Reilly’s (Kilkenny).
He said that support of local undertakers for his new enterprise has been crucial in these early stages and he is also In the process of getting a small grant from Wexford Local Development to help with production.
Though Kevin is looking to expand the business, for the moment he will continue to run Kilmore Coffins and Caskets and 3D Kitchens together.
‘It’s slowly expanding and if I hadn’t gone into this, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the kitchen business going. The kitchens and the coffins together are keeping us going full-time,’ said Kevin, who employs two others in the businesses.
‘When we got going first we were producing four or five (coffins) a week between two of us, but you’d be under pressure at that. So now I try to keep the kitchens for two weeks of the month and then go onto the coffins for the other two,’ he said.
He confesses that he really enjoys making coffins, not for any morbid reasons, but because it’s a return to his first professional love, carpentry.
‘I enjoy it because I’m back doing carpentry again. Here, with the kitchens, I’m mainly a salesman or a middle man and there are so many things outside your control that can go wrong. I’d love to have enough work to be doing it full-time,’ said Kevin, a self-confessed perfectionist.
He said that, given the nature of his new venture, it has caused plenty of good-natured banter among his friends and there have been a few of them seemingly worried that’s he might be sizing them up!
However, it was when Kevin told his mother, Rita, what he was now doing that he received the most interesting response and perhaps an insight into where his coffin-making idea came from.
Kevin said he had no idea what his mother would make of it. ‘When I told my mother she just smiled. I said we made a coffin and brought it down to James Ryan. She asked what he said and I told her he was impressed enough with it,’ recalled Kevin.
‘She then said “your grandfather used to make coffins”. My mother (originally a Griffin) is from West Cork and she told me that my grandfather used to make coffins in the village of Goleen, close to Mizen Head,’ said Kevin.
‘He was the local carpenter there and she used to put the linings in the coffins for him when she was a schoolgirl. They converted the garage, which was his workshop, into a small little summerhouse and that’s where we stay down there. She never said anything to me about it until I started making them,’ he said. It seems the craft was in the family all along.