Woodworking Is the Easy Part

Adding high-tech equipment and software takes some effort, but it’s well worth it, says a New York custom woodworker.

By Bennett Voyles

     
Artisan Custom Interiors

West Hempstead, NY

Year Founded: 1980

Employees: 7

Shop Size: 7,500 square feet

FYI: The shop’s main focus is residential work for upper-end homes on Long Island, NY

 
   
     

 Long Island cabinetmaker Michael Aiello might seem like an unlikely apprentice. After all, he is a 30-year veteran of the custom furniture business and owns a shop that serves some of the wealthiest communities in the country. But the West Hempstead, NY, craftsman says that learning to run his new CNC equipment and software is now almost like a second full-time job.

“The woodworking part is the easy part,” Aiello says. “The computer is a challenge.”

Aiello, owner of Artisan Custom Interiors, says that learning how to operate the new software and machinery has turned out to be a big project. And a consuming one: “When he goes home at night, he’s working still,” says Aiello’s wife and long-time business partner, Janet Aiello. “He’s always on the computer, trying to ‘get it.’”

Aiello says that the new technology demands a lot of precision. “You really need to spend time with the software before you hit that last button and say, ‘Process everything,’” he says. “But if you do that, then it’s great.” He says that his CNC equipment allows him to undercut the bids of non-automated shops by about 20 percent, since it shaves about 40 percent off his labor. At the same time, he believes that the new equipment makes him competitive with larger shops, since it enables him to bid on 20- to 30-unit projects.

     
 
These bedroom pieces were done in Vitricor, in a combination of off-white and turquoise. The reveals and accents are copper. Even though the look is Southwestern, the bedroom was done for a residence in Nassau County, NY.  
     

 All those savings haven’t translated into any layoffs in his shop, he says, but he speculates that it may have helped him avoid adding to his head count. The new technology is also changing the amount of skilled work he needs to ask of his staff, as “it takes some of their thinking away,” he adds.

One area where the CNC equipment does not save time, however, is in measurements. “There is a lot to check,” he says. “You cannot rely 100 percent on everything, unless you get it right and then you do the same thing over and over and over again. But when you are custom, everything is different [every time]. Even the way you assemble it is different sometimes.”

Childhood ‘Tinkering’ Leads to Lifetime Career

Learning to use the newest software is just the latest project in a lifetime of tinkering. The son of a tool and die maker who “loved to work with his hands and create things with them,” Aiello spent his boyhood in nearby Franklin Square, NY, working in his father’s basement shop and helping him out on various carpentry jobs.

“My father, like myself, was never one to just sit around,” Aiello recalls. “He was more comfortable keeping busy. On the weekends and in the evenings after his real job, he would have all sorts of carpentry jobs lined up for friends and family. I would go along and be his helper. I enjoyed learning about using tools, being able to think projects out, and making a couple of bucks was a bonus.”

Despite that tag-along experience, Aiello dates his first real work in custom furniture to high school. “My parents were doing a kitchen with a kitchen dealer. And [the shop] kept making mistakes. I was just starting to drive, so I kept driving back and forth to say, ‘This is wrong.’ Finally the owner said, ‘You’re here so much, do you want a job?’ And I said, ‘Okay.’”

The next year, 1975, Aiello set up a little shop in his parents’ basement and started to reface cabinets for neighbors in Franklin Square, his home town in central Long Island. “It was something to do, and I enjoyed doing it. And I was able to make some decent money as a young kid,” he says.

     
 
This maple kitchen, with a light stain and glaze, features mitered, raised panel doors and dentil crown moulding. The buffet is ash with a green wiped-on stain and features a beadboard backsplash. Both the buffet top and the kitchen countertops are granite.  
     

 Aiello’s high school pastime gradually grew into a business, first in his parents’ basement (“I don’t know how my parents put up with the noise or the smell,” he says), and later, in a space he shared with another young friend who had an auto repair shop. Then after subsequent stints as a partner in a dental cabinetry shop and as a department store carpenter, plus a year or two moonlighting as the assistant for an an older Italian cabinetmaker who gave him what he calls his “introduction to real cabinetry,” he decided to open his own shop in nearby West Hempstead.

Since then, Aiello’s shop has grown. He has six employees now, plus Janet, who handles the bookkeeping and many of the sales calls. The business that once occupied half a basement is now stretched out over 7,500 square feet, which the Aiellos own. “For Nassau County, where space is very limited, this is a decent-sized shop,” Janet says.

Janet, who handles much of the sales work, also says that most of Artisan Custom Interiors’ business is residential, concentrated in Long Island’s affluent North Shore and another wealthy area on the South Shore known as the Five Towns. Most of the houses the firm works in are probably worth $500,000 to $2 million, she says. Projects come through several contractors and decorators, as well as word-of-mouth from past clients, she adds. Projects range from kitchens and bathrooms to wall units.

Artisan works mostly in cherry, mahogany and maple. Recently, the company has begun using more poplar, as many clients now ask for painted and glazed furniture, Janet says. Most work is in solid woods, but some is veneers. The company also offers melamine interiors for cabinets for cost-conscious customers. Construction is 90 percent dowel, and the remainder of the work uses dado and rabbet joinery. Hardware includes Accuride full-extension drawer slides and Blum hinges.

Adjusting to High-Tech

Michael Aiello says he has never shied away from investing in equipment. In the early years of his business, he says that he realized, “If I’m going to be anyone in the cabinet business of today, good employees are important, but more so are the machines you have.”

Today, Artisan’s equipment includes a Brandt KD68 edgebander, a Gannomat Combi machine used to make drawers, a Mini Max 20-inch bandsaw and a Ritter R80 dowel machine. The shop does its own finishing, and its spray room includes a Kremlin pump sprayer and Accuspray HVLP equipment.

Although Aiello has used computers in his production since 1985, first running Cabnetware and then Cabnetworks, the later addition of a Panhans Euro five-panel saw added a lot of complexity to the operation. Aiello says he decided to use CabinetVision with the new saw, because of its flexibility.

     
 
Artisan Custom Interiors built this bathroom casework in solid mahogany, which was specified by the architect, who was concerned about moisture. The room includes raised-panel tub surround, a vanity, dressing table and built-in mirrored medicine cabinet.  
     

 In 2002, he decided to lease a machining center, after much deliberation. He says that with so many choices available, deciding which equipment to get was tough. “Let me tell you,” he says, “trying to decide between point-to-point, machining centers, routers, flat tables, pod tables – big or small? How many heads? – you can really go crazy trying to make...the right decision.” But he finally did, he says, putting a deposit on a Biesse Rover 22 point-to-point machine, to which he added a grid table because the pod’s arm wouldn’t let him get very close.

So far, he says, he has no complaints with the point-to-point. “It’s great for drilling holes and doing edged details. I’ve used it somewhat to make raised panel doors, especially full-curve raised panel doors,” he says.

At about the same time he bought the point-to-point, he also bought a new set of software to run it, CADCode, “which became a necessity, since my saw and CabinetVision were not on speaking terms.” He then set up the program so it could send instructions to both his panel saw and the point-to-point. This was not easy, according to Aiello. “It’s a bit of a task for your average cabinetmaker,” he says.

“Now with all the electronic equipment speaking together, I can sit in my office (or basically anywhere, if I use my laptop) and build cabinets, make necessary adjustments, save them and have CADCode create code for both sawing and machining,” he says.

Aiello says he figures that his investment in CNC equipment should pay off in about three years, mostly in years two and three.

For a small shop owner interested in adding CNC equipment, Aiello advises, find a vendor who will devote some time to a small account. He also says that getting the tooling right is very important, since the tooling can cost almost as much as the machine itself. For his point-to-point, Aiello worked with Anthony DeHart of Dehart Tooling Components of Hickory, NC, and says DeHart was very helpful in getting his point-to-point set up properly.

“Machinery is nothing without good quality tooling,” Aiello says.

Perseverance is a second key ingredient to success with CNC, he adds. Aiello says he sees advertisements for a lot of slightly used CNC equipment, an indication to him that many people don’t stick out the period it takes to learn to run the machines.

“It takes a lot of time and you’ve got to devote yourself 110 percent to it,” he says. “You cannot let it get you.”

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