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Into the Woods

Artisan George Lizarraga hand-carves a chandelier made from walnut. The fixture is a special project for the mansion foyer of a longtime Quail Hill Interiors client. It took Lizarraga about three weeks to complete the carvings on the chandelier, which will weigh around 75 pounds once finished and fitted with hardware.

Master Made in Arizona opens the door on custom kitchen cabinetry with Quail Hill Interiors.

By Niki D’Andrea | Photography by Carl Schultz

On a weekday morning in early spring, the warm, woody smell of freshly cut cedarwood mingles with a slight chemical whiff of varnishes inside the Quail Hill Interiors workshop in North Phoenix. Proprietor Paul Reaser walks around the shop, speaking in between the whirring sounds of circular saws and the rapid-fire rat-a-tat of drills.

He gestures toward a row of kitchen cabinets that are under construction. “This is a plastic laminate,” Reaser explains, running his hand along the side of a frame. “It’s pretty durable.”

Advancing technology and sophisticated machines allow Reaser to create products in a way he couldn’t when he started the business in the late 1980s, but the heart and soul of Quail Hill, a small company known for its high-caliber cabinetry and furniture fabrication, are custom projects—particularly for kitchens—and artisanal wood elements handcarved by wonder whittler George Lizarraga.

Quail Hill Interiors has a robust portfolio of contemporary kitchens with composite-material cabinets, but Reaser says woods such as walnut are also in demand. The natural material lends itself to a more traditional aesthetic—and allows for more artistry. “Paul can design beautiful veneer work with some of the exotic woods,” says Phoenix Home & Garden award-winning interior designer Susan Hersker, who’s worked with Reaser on numerous projects for more than 27 years. “I’ve had him create pieces out of koa, mahogany and other high-end timber. He’s just done some beautiful things.”

Growing up in Montana, Reaser helped at his father’s construction sites from a young age. Woodworking and cabinetry were always passions for him. “We built log homes, and I always liked to do the finish work, the little details such as the toilet paper holders,” he says. “I enjoy the whole process from concept to finished product. I just like to build.”

He veered away from the family business for about eight years, attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and then working as a chef for a short period of time. “The restaurant world wasn’t for me,” he says, “so I gravitated back to this; it kind of happened organically.”

Around 1988, Hersker contacted him about making some furniture for the model homes at The Boulders Resort in Scottsdale. More projects swiftly followed. “I wasn’t planning on going into the cabinet-making industry; it just snowballed,” Reaser recalls with a laugh.

Over the years, his business expanded from a garage workroom, to a standalone workshop at his home in New River, to its current location near the Deer Valley Airport. Complete with the company’s first full showroom, which spotlights a selection of standard designs and intricate bespoke examples, the open, airy and welcoming space allows Reaser and his staff of nine to produce everything from cabinets and doors to furnishings and one-of-a-kind creations from start to finish. “We’re very versatile. We’re not a shop that just does one thing,” he says. “I like to have variety.”

1. This ornate cabinet door, featuring an intricate design by Lizarraga, is crafted of mesquite, one of the company’s most popular wood offerings; walnut is also in high demand right now. 2. Samples of wood types in a variety of earthen shades line the walls of  the showroom. The space opened last year and is connected to a large workshop where owner Paul Reaser and a staff of nine produce custom cabinetry and woodwork.

Reaser sits down at the desk in his showroom office and pulls up a diagram of a cabinet on his computer. He demonstrates how, with the click of a mouse, he can totally customize every detail of the project—from its overall dimensions to how many drawers or shelves it will contain—and get a blueprint. The wood pieces are measured and cut, sanded, varnished and assembled. In some cases, the cabinets are hand-carved by Lizarraga; they often display intricate depictions of birds and botanicals as well as patterns of geometric shapes and stars.

Lizarraga is integral in bringing clients’ visions to life. He began learning woodcarving from his brothers as a teenager in his native Mexico, and he refined his skills at companies in California and New Mexico before moving to Arizona and meeting Reaser in 1995. The 2008 recession pushed him to pick up general outside work, but he’s recently returned to working with his hands full-time as requests for carved wood products rebound.

“We still do a lot of custom elements,” Lizarraga says. “I can create something that you won’t see anywhere else. Everything here is original to what the customer wants.”

Lizarraga’s work station is surrounded by tools—more than 300 of them, mostly chisels of various sizes. He uses kerosene to help move the implements into and through the wood. Small piles of wood shavings lie scattered in tiny curls around the chisels.

“A lot of carvers, they have the mind to make beautiful drawings, but if you don’t have the hands, you have to stop there,” Lizarraga says. “You need the complement between the mind and hands to see the perspective and dimensions of the project.”

“I enjoy the whole process from concept to finished product.”

—Paul Reaser, owner

1. In Quail Hill’s new Deer Valley workshop, cabinetmaker Scott Pebler assembles parts for a custom project. 2. Light-colored cabinetry and a contrasting island made of walnut with a walnut veneer lend a farmhouse feel to a client’s kitchen. The pieces are finished with a thermofoil panel polish. 3. To create his intricate carved designs, Lizarraga uses an assembly of more than 300 wood-carving tools, mostly chisels of various sizes. 4. Lizarrraga deftly moves a chisel through wood, sculpting an elegant rosette.

In the finishing/varnishing area of the workshop, Reaser pauses by a work in progress—a massive handcarved wood chandelier—to point out its details. Flourishes include elegant birds in flight and intricately detailed flowers undulating in unseen breezes. The piece took Lizarraga about three weeks to fashion. Once it is fitted with lights and custom iron hardware, Reaser estimates it will weigh about 75 pounds.

Illuminated from within and finished with a glaze that highlights the elaborate handiwork, it will not only spotlight the entry’s coved ceiling but also introduce a mood for the home’s aesthetic.

Perhaps Mark Laidlaw, project manager for a custom home builder, says it best: “Paul can do almost everything in-house, which is the type of shop he has. The quality of the product is outstanding. He’s always had an eye for detail.”

For more information, see Sources.

1. Reaser (left) goes over the details of a job with employee Derek Johnson. 2. Sawdust flies as Tim Braun assembles the framework for a cabinet. 3-4. From traditional to contemporary, Quail Hill creates cabinetry to match the style of any interior. This modern two-tone kitchen features natural alder wood and high-gloss painted cabinets and doors. The wood range hood, built-in shelves for accessories, and island topped with stone and butcher-block counters add to the custom feel.

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