European Shop Combines Two Markets for Steady Sales
Caerels-Braems, a small company in Bruges, Belgium, maintains a smooth cash flow by producing unfinished solid wood furniture for consumers and dowels for other furniture makers.
By Helen Kuhl
Many small woodworking shops in the United States diversify their products to maintain a steady work flow when various markets are slow, and the same could be said for Caerels-Braems, a five-man shop in Bruges, Belgium. The unusual twist at the European shop is the sharp contrast in its product mix - half of its work is building high-end unfinished furniture and half is mass-producing dowels.
The company produces about two million dowels per month, which are sold to furniture manufacturers throughout Belgium. Owner Dirk Caerels estimates that he supplies about 10 percent of the Belgian market, providing dowels in lengths ranging from 30mm to 150mm and diameters between 8mm and 18mm on a just-in-time basis.
The dowels are made of Belgium beech, which Caerels-Braems kiln dries in its 16,000-square-foot shop in Bruges. A Wadkin four-sided moulder is used to produce blanks for the dowels. The blanks are then run through a modified Weinig Profimat 23 moulder, a model originally designed to make pencils, to produce the long dowels. They are cut to their finished size at another location, using a proprietary system that Caerels developed for cutting and rounding the ends. He says that he constantly experiments to find the best way to produce dowels in the fastest method possible.
Caerels-Braems' furniture was started as a secondary business to the dowels, but now accounts for as much as 50 percent of sales. The furniture is made from oak imported from the U.S.
The company produces small pieces, such as cabinets and tables, which are sold unfinished directly to consumers. Small tables sell for about $85, while a small cabinet goes for about $260, Caerels says. The shop also produces several large antique reproduction-style pieces, which it sells wholesale to another Belgium firm that does the distressing and finishing and then markets the furniture. Those pieces include armoires, buffets, cupboards and dining tables, plus a variety of occasional tables.
The company follows a well-structured production cycle, spending two weeks manufacturing furniture components and then two weeks in assembly. Although it does no finishing, Caerels-Braems does about everything else involved in production, including drying its own lumber. It also makes all its own doors and drawers.
The shop has two DIFRA clamps for gluing panels, and a jointer and shaper from Gomad, a Polish manufacturer. Besides the dowel blanks, the Wadkin is used to produce mouldings for the furniture. The company offers various styles of turned table legs, which are done on a Walter Hempel lathe. The shaper is also used for some legs.
A Robland Z320 panel saw (available in the U.S. from Laguna Tools) is used for all cutting and squaring up of panels, as well as putting miter cuts in trim. The company has a Cosmec CNC router (sold in the U.S. through Koch Machinery & Systems), which cuts tabletops and side panels for cabinets, does fluting for cabinets and is also used for some shaping.
All furniture is joined by dowels; holes are drilled with a Hirzt Punto boring machine and pieces are clamped in a Ramarch case clamp. Other shop equipment includes a Sicar widebelt sander (available in the U.S. from Derda Inc.). The production area comprises about 9,600 square feet, with about 6,400 additional square feet used for wood storage.
While Caerels sees dowel production as the company's mainstay with the small furniture pieces as fill-ins, he expects the antique reproduction business to grow. He says of the company, which is 20 years old, "It's small, but it's all mine."
Equipment Manufacturer Works 24 Hours a Day
Not far from the Caerels-Braems furniture and dowel plant is the manufacturer of one of the company's key machines. Robland International, maker of combination machines, panel saws, shapers and jointer-planers, has its 77,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Bruges, Belgium. Manned by just under 100 employees, the plant is filled with the metal-working equipment needed to produce 3,500 different parts in-house, including laser cutters, grinders, cutters, lathes, presses, drills and punches, as well as equipment for powder coating and baking the metal parts. Much of the equipment is automatic, and many machines are in operation seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Robland produces about 95 percent of the parts for its machines in-house. Many parts could be outsourced, but the company prefers to keep production in-house to maintain quality and productivity and keep prices competitive, says General Sales Director Guido Blomme. The company sells about $22 million in machinery worldwide each year, shipping an average of 25 combination machines, 12 panel saws, 3 shapers and one jointer-planer each day.
The company was founded in 1972, with seven employees in 1,100-square-feet of space. It initially produced combination machines, which are very popular in small European woodworking shops. It later added panel saws, shapers and jointer-planers.
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