Preparing for the Next Century 

Chris Mazurk is using CNC technology to keep his Deerfield, IL, shop competitive.

BY SAM GAZDZIAK

 

When the year 2000 rolls around, Chris Mazurk will be ready. Ever since he started his own woodworking business 14 years ago, he's been trying to keep his company ahead of the pace.

"My big thing is the year 2000 being an end point and a start point all at the same time," he said. "When you hit 2000, all the rules are going to change. If you don't get involved in the technological aspect of it, you're going to have a hard time making it."

To help his company, C.M. Wood Works Inc. of Deerfield, IL, prepare for the next century, he spent $85,000 for a CNC point-to-point for the shop. The C.M. Wood Works shop is 1,600 square feet.

"The machine installer half-jokingly said, 'Don't take any offense, but this is the smallest shop we've ever put one of these into,'" Mazurk said. "Well, thanks. At least I know I'm going in the right direction."

Mazurk takes pride in C.M. Wood Works being a true custom woodworking shop. He said they will do entertainment centers, bookcases, cabinets, architectural woodworking, doors or whatever else is on the customer's mind.

"I always go back to the custom woodworking, saying the customer dictates whatever they want me to make," Mazurk said. "The kitchen and bath market is pretty competitive. This seems to be a niche that works out pretty well.

"I enjoy doing a lot of different projects. I think part of it is enjoying the craft itself, as opposed to saying I just want to make a box and that's all there is to it."

Mazurk learned about the industry by spending four years working in a cabinet shop in Barrington Hills, IL. He became foreman of the custom division when he was 19. When the company started a moulding division, he began piling up 80 hour-a-week shifts.

After his landlord kept finding him asleep in his car in the driveway after a day's work, he started pushing Mazurk into working on his own. Finally, at 22, he left the cabinet shop and started his own business three weeks later.

"I've always said this company was started on 215 bucks, because that was the amount of the down payment on my first job," Mazurk said. As he got jobs done and bought more equipment, the prizes started getting bigger. He got all of his work from referrals, which he still does today. His work usually comes from Chicago and the suburbs, but he has taken jobs in North Carolina, Michigan and California, too.

His shop now consists of one full-time employee, Chuck Kohler, who Mazurk called his right-hand man. Another employee, Todd Daniels, works part-time. Mazurk's mother, Colette, a retired bookkeeper, comes in once a week to do the paperwork and pay the bills.

"Paperwork is an aspect of the business that eats up time and it's something that has to be addressed, but it doesn't make you money," Mazurk said. "It's a nice peace-of-mind to know that as I'm out doing jobs, getting bids or whatever, that aspect of the business is being taken care of." With one concession: Mazurk had to replace the old cabinets in the office to appease his mother. "She complained enough, and it was time to fix them," he said, laughing. "Don't lose the bookkeeper. Whatever you do, don't lose the bookkeeper."

C.M. Wood Works does about 85 percent residential work, with the rest being commercial work. Although Mazurk prefers woodworking, he also works with laminate, colored lacquer and paint-grade cabinets. He said that his customers have been varying their choice of species but noted that cherry and oaks are popular. He also does all of the finishing in his shop. He uses a Kremlin spray gun to cut down on overspray and VOC-compliant M.L. Campbell products.

His most expensive jobs to date, for a house full of cabinets or for architectural woodwork, has been $60,000 but, "if someone wants $500 worth of work for a cabinet, we'll do it," he said. "If they want to go higher, we'll do that too." C.M. Wood Works made over $260,000 last year, and Mazurk is on a pace to clear over $300,000 this year. He also has a current backlog of four months.

As a tribute to his skill level fellow woodworkers have used him to do work on their own houses several times. One project involved building two curio cabinets, two entertainment centers and lockers for the children's clothes in a "mud room." Another builder, who owned a cabinet shop, had Mazurk create an entertainment media room for his house after they worked together on a project.

For that job, Mazurk helped create a 10-seat theater that had the feel of an early arcade, complete with a ticket booth and candy counter. "We pretty much took it from start to finish," Mazurk said. "His cabinet shop was set up to do kitchen boxes. They didn't do this type of work, so for me to do something like that made a lot of sense." One of the modern touches was an infrared dot in the keystone that activates all the equipment.

Another house that he worked on was featured in the Chicago Tribune Magazine home design edition for its creative designs. The owner requested that Mazurk stain the kitchen cabinets in six different colors. "I don't know if I'd do it that way for my own kitchen," he said, "but that was actually the fun of it. There aren't too many people who want to do that, who are willing to do the unique, original things."

The ability to empathize with his customers has kept Mazurk's company successful. "If somebody wants to change their mind or do something a little bit different, if it's not made, we can react right away," he said. "It goes right back to custom woodworking. I should be able to give a customer whatever they want.

"Clients usually have a pretty good idea of what they're looking for when I walk into the house. It's up to us to educate them on different material types and how things go together that will help them achieve what they want. Now, that we've brought in more 'techie'-type equipment, that's helping us provide a wider range of products, and we can do it faster."

While visiting a fellow woodworker's shop in nearby Northbrook, Mazurk got a chance to see a CNC router in action.

Mazurk said, "He was a pretty big influence on me to get involved because I saw what he could do. I was like, 'Wow, you're not touching anything. Look at it go. I like this.'"

After shopping around and attending trade shows, he settled on a Holz-Her 316K CNC point-to-point boring machine, which also has a router, in June 1997. He uses that machine to do line-boring and construction doweling along with cutting out unusual parts, like grommet holes and arches. Mazurk said the hardest part about buying the machine was not waiting for the next version. He noted that there is always the temptation to wait six months for the new model. "Well, there's always going to be a new one," he said, "so get involved and learn it and understand what it's going to do. Live with what you got, try to do the best you can with it and move on from there."

In buying a CNC machine, Mazurk skipped steps in upgrading his shop. "A year ago, we were making cabinets with biscuit construction," he explained. "Knowing that point-to-points were of interest to me, dowel construction was the way we had to continue. Normally, people use stand-alone machines that have construction dowel capabilities [as an equipment starting point]. As opposed to getting that in and learning it, I decided I would go right to the final step, go right to the CNC and not have to go through the learning curve again."

A major selling point for Mazurk was that the salesman said the point-to-point was the equivalent of adding 21Ú2 men to his shop. "Well, from a 21Ú2 man shop, adding 21Ú2 men says basically I should be able to double my capacity. I think that's feasible," he said. He also noted that he doesn't have to worry about workman's comp or sick days, and the skill level will always be the same.

When the machine was installed, Mazurk went through a week of training. He said that the biscuit-to-doweling transition required a whole new mindset. "You've got to think line holes, you've got to think metrics," he said. "There's a lot of nuances to CNC and how it works. The software itself, the programming at the machine, was pretty simple."

His shop also includes a Timesavers 36-inch sander, an SCMI sliding table saw and edgebander, and a Holz-Her case clamp, which was bought to accommodate the new dowel construction. All of Mazurk's machinery was bought outright because of his unwillingness to owe money. However, laying down $85,000 at once for the point-to-point would have drained his business, so he got the machine on a very aggressive two-year lease (a five-year lease is the norm).

"When I talked to them [at Holz-Her], they kept saying 'What are you thinking?'" he said. "I knew I could do it. I wanted to get through the payment. Economic times are good; while they're good, I'd rather use it and be productive because of it."

Mazurk doesn't mind letting others take advantage of his new machinery, either. In the past, he has rented out time on his sander and edgebander to nearby smaller companies. "I'll guarantee that the smaller shops that have used the sander have paid for that machine," he said, adding that he can do in a couple of hours what someone with a belt sander would take all day to do. He hopes to be able to farm out time on the CNC as well.

"Anybody who's nearby who needs parts milled, I have no problem helping. We all help out each other," he said.

Mazurk can see a time when every shop will have such high-tech equipment, for the convenience and high-production it provides. And he plans to continue keeping his own shop "up-to-speed" on technology. "I'd rather be ahead of the curve than behind it," he said.

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