A new finishing line, modeled after one used by Mercedes Benz, offers this high-end architectural woodworking company flexibility, quality and environmental compliance.

Pius “Pete” Bernhard, founder of Bernhard Woodwork Ltd., had a favorite comeback for anyone who expressed sticker shock with one of his firm’s bid quotations. “You can call me expensive, but you’ll never be able to call me cheap,” he would say.

Bernhard Woodwork’s uncompromising commitment to quality remains the Northbrook, IL, company’s guiding principle 18 months after its patriarch’s death. This commitment is not only evident in the excellence of the stunning woodwork Bernhard renders for its corporate and retail clients but in the company’s unfailing drive to stay on the leading edge of architectural woodworking through capital investment.


Bernhard places a premium on plant cleanliness and organization as seen in this overview of its assembly area.

Examples include a Komo CNC router with complementing CIM-Tech nesting software; a Schelling panel saw; a complete veneer layup department anchored by a 5-foot by 12-foot Ott press; and a five head Weinig moulder for which the company maintains an archive of more than 500 profiles, in addition to having the wherewithal to grind its own profile patterns.

As important as these investments have been in contributing to the company’s success, they pale in comparison to the 36-year-old architectural woodwork firm’s newest and biggest technology gambit to date, that being an automated finishing system one might more likely expect to see in a high-volume furniture factory than in a high-end custom woodworking environment.

Mark Bernhard, the second generation president, says what may look at first blush like automation overkill for a company Bernhard Woodwork’s size, is in fact helping produce a more consistently high-quality finish, while dramatically reducing drying times. Plus, he says, the water-wash filtered system is in step with current and foreseeable environmental regulations.

“Our new finishing system is a smaller scale version of what Mercedes Benz uses to paint cars,” Bernhard says. “It’s a very flexible, computerized system that is well suited to handle our wide range of parts and small batch requirements.

“Turnaround times for architectural woodwork and store fixture projects are shorter and more critical to meet than ever,” Bernhard says. “We used to have work backlogs of up to a year; now it’s three months. Everybody wants things immediately. Technology is important because it enables us to meet delivery dates.”

Bernhard says the need for a fresh approach to finishing was documented in time studies the company did a couple of years ago. “We found that only 20 percent of our finishing personnels’ time was spent spraying; the other 80 percent of their time was spent moving parts. We knew we had to be more efficient.”

A New Room for a New System

The finishing system occupies most of a 54,000-square-foot addition that more than doubled Bernhard Woodwork’s facility when it was completed in 1999.

The fully computer-controlled system, custom designed and manufactured by Eisenmann Corp., includes 30 tow carts. Bernhard Woodwork has 20 6-foot carts and 10 12-foot carts. Each can be outfitted with various jigs to accommodate a wide range of part sizes and shapes.

The part carts travel along a track in the floor, usually at the rate of 14 meters per minute. Sensors built into the floor grid relay each cart’s whereabouts to the computer, which can stop at prescribed work stations throughout the finishing process.

The finishing room is incredibly clean because the two operations that create the biggest source of airborne contaminants — sanding and spraying — are separately housed in environmentally-controlled booths; each features its own air make-up system.

A Diversified Portfolio

Bernhard Woodwork Ltd. was founded by Pius “Pete” Bernhard in 1965. His son, Mark, company president, says he learned a lot from his father before he passed away in 1999.

“One of many things my father taught me was that the greatest satisfaction I will ever get from this job is the pride that comes from helping our clients look good,” Bernhard says.

Bernhard Woodwork has been making its diverse clientele look good for 36 years. Its high-quality craftsmanship graces many high-end retail stores, including Marshall Fields and Macy’s, plus dozens of corporate offices including the likes of Dean Witter, BP Amoco and McDonald’s. Bernhard’s handiwork can also be found in Chicago’s Field Museum, high-rise condominiums overlooking Chicago’s lakefront and opulent yacht interiors.

A common denominator of most of these projects is Bernhard Woodwork’s attention to detail, which is particularly apparent in the beauty of its veneer artistry.

“We do a lot of detailed inlay panels that can combine two or three different veneers and a solid wood frame. We take great pains every step along the way, from choosing a veneer flitch for a client’s approval through grain and color matching and from layup and assembly to finishing and installation.”

To maintain as much control over the final quality of its products, Bernhard Woodwork maintains its own veneering department. Key equipment includes a Josting guillotine, Fischer & Ruckle edge gluer, Kuper stitcher and 5-foot by 12-foot Ott press. The company also has six Quality VAKuum vacuum presses for making curved veneer plywood panels.

“We do all of our stain toning in house,” Bernhard says, “to make sure that the solids match the veneers.”

Like Father, Like Son

Like his father before him, Bernhard says woodworking machinery is his “hobby.” To back up his claim, he pulls open a large file drawer rife with equipment brochures and technical manuals.

Bernhard has exercised his passion for cutting-edge developments by volunteering his time as an IWF Challengers Award judge since 1996. Not surprisingly, his father also served on the Challengers’ judging panel.

“One of the things I loved about my dad is that he wouldn’t expect his employees to do anything he wouldn’t do,” Bernhard says. “He was extremely good at delegating authority and letting people learn from their mistakes.

“He treated people with respect. He not only knew all of his employees by name, but knew their families too.

“I learned so much from him. Now that he’s gone I have even greater respect for what he was able to accomplish coming to this country with just a sixth-grade education and little more than the clothes on his back.

“He built this business from the ground up and earned a national reputation for high quality. My hope is to carry on my dad’s legacy.” -- R.C.


The downdraft system for sanding forces dust into a floor collection system. The spray room features a water-washed filtration system. Positive air pressure forces overspray into a waterfall where a pair of doctor blades skim the overspray from the waste treatment stream. The resulting sludge that is collected by the blades is safely and conveniently deposited into a drum for disposal.


Twenty-foot high white oak veneered columns grace the halls of the Stevens’ Convention Center in Rosemont, IL. Bernhard Woodwork manufactured tens of thousands of feet of crown moulding for doorways, chair rails and paneling.

The other major component of the system is a three-zone oven for flash off, cure and cool down. The computer controls the parameters of each zone, including the temperature and length of cure, based on the varying requirements of each type of finish. The computer also controls air makeup of each zone and even signals when filters need to be changed.

Quick-Curing Finishes

Bernhard Woodwork mainly uses Chemcraft Sadolin post-catalyzed lacquers, high solids materials, supplied by J.C. Licht Co., with the system.

“The combination of equipment and finish lets us get a harder, more durable finish faster,” Bernhard says. “We can sand the post-catalyzed material within one hour of curing as opposed to having to let a piece air dry for four to six hours as we did before.

“We used to think our finish quality was great, and that we couldn’t do any better. We have certainly found out otherwise. Our old finishing room was way too small. We would have to bring a conference table multiple times in and out of the finishing room to finish it and as a result risk getting dust in the finish.”

Another benefit of the new system is a major reduction of material handling, which adds up to less exertion on workers and fewer damaged parts.

“Our insurance company loves us because our guys are doing a lot less lifting of heavy parts,” Bernhard says. “Employees love it because it’s a very clean system. Employees used to come out of the sanding room looking as white as ghosts, which is no longer the case with the new downdraft booth.”

As for customers, Bernhard says they are gaining a higher standard of finish quality and consistency.

“This system represents a tremendous investment for our company,” Bernhard says. “But when you consider that finish quality can offer your company the biggest competitive advantage, then I think it’s well worth it.”

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