Paul Downs Cabinetmakers: Beyond the Workbench
By Matt Schumake | Posted: 02/14/2014 12:12PM
In 1992, after six years of running Paul Downs Cabinetmakers from the workbench, owner Paul Downs realized he needed to change his strategy. He decided the best use of his time would be to stop building woodworking projects himself - relying instead on his shop craftsmen. He shifted his own focus to designing, selling, marketing, and advertising his custom furniture-building company.
While his team kept the woodworking machines running, Downs put his attention on working from his office. The strategy has paid off. Since that time Paul Downs Cabinetmakers has outgrown four different woodshops. Currently, he and his 18 craftsmen operate out of a 33,000 square-foot wood production plant in Bridgeport, PA.
When Downs describes project workflow through his shop, he begins with the office. Everything starts there. It’s where he and his engineers meet with clients and develop designs that meet specific needs.
From that point, the engineering team creates a digital model using SketchUp and CAD. They create programs to cut individual components on their CNC router, and then they send the project to the floor.
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When the craftsmen begin a project, they work in teams. Each member takes on a specific role. While they contribute their own expertise to the construction of a project, the overall design is sacrosanct: it doesn’t change.
“The methods we have developed are very collaborative," Downs says. He also places a great value on keeping his employees motivated.
For many years in Downs' shop, an individual craftsman would see a single project through from start to finish. Although it brought the cost of labor up, it kept his employees motivated and fulfilled with their own work.
Now, however, as more of his customers shop online, Downs says the shop has had to strike a balance between maintaining craftsmanship, and increasing productivity. Most customers care only about what his custom woodshop makes. They don’t care about the woodworking craft that his team uses to make it, he says.
Downs, who is also the author of a regular blog series at The New York Times, “You’re the Boss," summarized some of his apporach in an entry, “Remembering Why I Got Into Business.” Returning to the bench after sitting at his computer for two decades, he recalled what initially drew him to woodworking back in 1986:
The nature of woodworking is pleasurable. It’s a nice mix of challenging thought and physical labor. The results of each minute of work are clearly visible as you transform raw materials into finished product, step by step. I think this explains why many of my workers have stayed with me for so long. Considering the alternatives, making furniture is a great way to spend your day. If a reasonable wage accompanies the job, there is little incentive to jump ship.
About the Author
Matt SchumakeAs a writer for Woodworking Network, Matt reports on tools, trends, innovations and business methods in the woodworking industry. His experience spans e-commerce and marketing, and he specializes in developing web and media presence for businesses small and large. In addition to writing, Matt builds custom wood furniture pieces at his home in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org