Kennebec Company’s custom cabinetry is designed and built to last a lifetime
When it comes to inspiration, I could easily exchange my kitchens Pinterest board for Kennebec Company’s website. The stunning King House kitchen in Camden features hand-painted Shaker-style white cabinets in quarter-sawn maple, soapstone countertops, a two-tier open plate rack, and a paneled wood range hood over a gleaming Aga stove. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a sleek kitchen in an oceanfront home on Georgetown Island takes its design cues from midcentury modern furniture, with flat-panel cabinetry in stained white oak.
Founded in 1974 and sold four years ago to longtime employee James Stewart, Kennebec Company has a reputation that extends far beyond its Bath headquarters for custom, primarily period, kitchens. “The company was born from the foundation of restoring older New England homes, and that’s still our bread and butter,” says Stewart. “We have cabinet lines that represent the various historic home styles that you find in New England, but we’ve worked on many contemporary projects around the country, too—the most important thing is that we’re custom.”
Stewart and four designers work in the company’s showroom, located in the Old Custom House just off Route 1, overlooking the Kennebec River. Across town in a 15,000-square-foot shop, 14 highly skilled craftspeople employ traditional woodworking principles such as hand planing and mortise-and-tenon joinery to build cabinets intended to last a lifetime. “Our cabinetmakers come from the fields of furniture making and boatbuilding,” says Stewart. “Our lead cabinetmaker was formerly a wood-worker for the White House.” Now Kennebec Company’s president and sole owner, Stewart was once one of them. He joined the company in 1999 as an entry-level cabinet-maker and later managed the shop, before taking over in a succession plan from cofounder Dave Leonard. “My mother’s family had woodworking mills and lumberyards in western Massachusetts, and I always had an interest in this craft,” Stewart says.
While the craftsmanship in Kennebec Company’s cabinetry is clear in photographs, seeing it in person at the showroom is even more impressive. “It’s the little things that separate us,” says Stewart, indicating a gracefully curved bracket connecting the end of a run of cabinets to a countertop, and the deep-teal painted beadboard on the back inside wall of a dark-stained glass-front cabinet. In a couple of the showroom’s kitchen displays, a small cabinet with a door is built in below where the upper cabinets meet in the corner. “I call that a tea cabinet,” says Stewart. “We like to use up all the space in a kitchen.” Other displays have similarly thoughtful design details: a row of tiny drawers underneath a pair of upper cabinets; a lowered section of countertop for baking, with storage drawers below for bowls and tools; and one of my favorites: a built-in piece at the end of an island that lifts up to reveal containers for trash and recycling.
As important as their design are the materials used in building Kennebec Company’s cabinets. This begins with careful wood selection; only the highest quality hard-woods—including white oak, maple, cherry, and pine—are chosen. Every board is run through a process that takes the tension out of the wood fibers, significantly reducing the chance that it will move over time, Stewart explains. This means the company’s cabinet doors and drawer fronts will remain flat. Hand-planed pine is a popular choice for either painted or stained cabinets. “It’s literally worked by hand; you can feel the texture,” Stewart says, running his hand over the door of a cabinet painted Benjamin Moore’s Boothbay Gray. The hand planing isn’t obvious when looking at the cabinet, but I feel the grain of the wood as I follow his lead. “We take a lot of pride in our finishes. This is our hand-brushed paint, but we’ll also do a spray-painted finish for clients who prefer that,” he says. For hardware, the company contracts primarily with Connecticut-based Horton Brasses. “They make really solid, traditional hardware that always looks good, and the natural brass finish will age beautifully.”
Stewart and his team most often work directly with homeowners, although they also have relationships with architects and builders. And, while renovation remains the core of the business, the mix is shifting toward some more new construction, he says. The company installs its own cabinetry about half the time; location doesn’t matter as much as the scope of the project. “We have two projects in Florida right now, and we’re installing one of them,” says Stewart. “Sometimes the contractor on the project will handle the installation, but often, the homeowner insists on having us install our own product, which is great,” he says. “We are able to ensure the project comes out exactly as the homeowner envisioned and we designed.” In 2016 Kennebec Company had the opportunity to appear on the TV show This Old House, designing and building a kitchen for a home outside Boston. “It was an English Arts and Crafts house, and really finding the right details and finishes was demanding, on top of the pressures of a TV show schedule,” Stewart recalls. I tracked down the reveal episode to see the homeowners admiring their gorgeous kitchen, which features white-painted cabinets—some uppers with leaded glass doors—and a large island with a farmhouse sink and marble countertop above contrasting cerused (or pickled) oak. The cameras may have been rolling, but otherwise the end result was the same as any other Kennebec Company project. “It’s all about the relationships we build with our clients,” says Stewart. “We love getting to know them, getting to know their homes, and designing something that they’re going to have for the rest of their lives.”
This spring, Kennebec Company rolled out four new cabinet lines as an alternative to a fully custom kitchen. “We are and will always be a truly custom design firm and cabinet production shop,” says president James Stewart. “However, these first four inspired lines of our cabinetry make it easy for homeowners to select a particular collection that embodies the look and feel that is right for them at a budget-friendly price.”
New England Kitchen
The New England Kitchen line captures the look of early New England architecture, including colonial and Georgian period homes. It is defined by warm stained finishes on cherry and hand-planed pine, and the timeless feel of hand-brushed painted finishes.
Capital Hill Kitchen
The high-style Capital Hill Kitchen offers a refined look featuring painted finishes and stained quartersawn white oak. This line is inspired by the stately architecture of Federal and Victorian homes.
Maine Farmhouse Kitchen
Understated and elegant, the Maine Farmhouse line draws on the architecture of several different architectural periods. It is a time-honored kitchen that can fit any home for generations to come and is available in painted and stained finishes.
American Craftsman Kitchen
This line of Arts and Crafts–inspired cabinetry is defined by cherry and quartersawn white oak cabinetry. Crafted with pride and an eye for detail, this line captures the organic integrity of the American Arts and Crafts movement.