Cabinetmaking on the ‘Bleeding’ Edge

A high-tech shop serves high-tech customers in the Silicon Valley.

By Sam Gazdziak

Custom Craft Cabinets of Newark, CA, started 34 years ago as a one-man operation run by Bud Marshall, specializing in high-quality handmade cabinetry. In those 34 years, the area that used to be nothing but sage brush, farm lands and orchards has turned into Silicon Valley, filled by computer programmers, dot-com companies and very expensive housing. Custom Craft, now with 14 employees, has grown, too. Though it still specializes in all-wood, face-frame cabinet construction, every aspect of the company has been changed by technology — including the introductory sales pitch.

     
 
With its high-tech machinery, Custom Craft Cabinets can now offer radiused cabinetry, which used to be a time-consuming and labor-intensive process.  
     

Custom Craft is now co-owned by Marshall’s twin sons, John and Jim, who share the sales and design responsibilities. When prospective customers walk in the door, John or Jim will show them a 612-minute video, describing the company’s history and manufacturing capabilities. The video shows the customer several of Custom Craft’s finished kitchens and entertainment centers and describes a typical project, from beginning to end. It also highlights the company’s CNC machinery, just one aspect of the company’s high-tech nature.

Along with the video, the company’s Web site, www.customcraftcabinets.com, serves as a sales tool also. With its extensive portfolio, John says he can sell cabinets by phone. “If someone calls and says they want something stick-straight and simple, like European work, I would say ‘Go to number 37 on my Web site,’ and they can see the digital photos I’ve taken of a stick-straight job, as simple as we can make it,” he explains. “If they want something a little more ornate, I can tell them to go to number 38, which has dental details, fluted columns and plant-on medallions.”

The Web site and video are a natural progression from the traditional sales pitch and photo album. They also prove to potential customers that this is a high-tech company, which is extremely important in the Silicon Valley. “They’re all techies here,” says John, “so anybody who comes in my shop sees we’re on the Internet, we have digital photos and I can e-mail them information. It helps sell the job. They really appreciate that type of flexibility. They’re anxious to do work with us because they know we’re on the bleeding edge. (Bleeding edge refers to being just off the leading edge.)

     
 
These kitchen cabinets and island all had to be 40 inches high, because the owner has a fused back and needed to be able to work upright. Even the dishwasher was elevated.  
     

“There are some companies doing more sophisticated applications than we are, but for residential cabinetry, I’d like to think we’re right up there with the big boys,” he adds.

John Marshall has worked for Custom Craft Cabinets full time since he was 18; for much of the company’s existence, it was just him and his father. Bud Marshall retired in 1988, and Jim, who had been in the iron works industry, came on as a co-owner. “My father had an old table saw and a horizontal boring machine,” says Jim. “When my brother offered me a full partnership, we started making the major decisions. If this was to be our livelihood, let’s get with it. Let’s get computerized, let’s get machinery.”

The brothers made a commitment to put the profits back into the company, buying enough machinery to bring Custom Craft up to speed and make a better quality product. They moved into their current shop in 1990, which was expanded to 11,000 square feet last year. They use Cabnetware software package for designing projects. Three years ago at IWF 1998, they purchased a Sigma 90C panel saw and Tech 99L point-to-point machine from SCM Group USA Inc.

When the Marshalls design a project, they use Cabnetware’s panel optimization and CNC link packages to send the information to the panel saw. They also use CADCode as a post-processor to rewrite the information into label data. Each part that comes off the panel saw has a label applied to it, which is scanned by the employee at the point-to-point machine.

Along with hole boring and notching, the point-to-point’s stand-alone software, Task, lets Custom Craft do more specialized applications, such as lazy Susans or wine racks. The Tech 99L can also add details to the cabinetry, such as rosettes and fluted columns.

John Marshall says that one of his proudest achievements is being able to manufacture radiused cabinetry. In the past, it was very time consuming and labor-intensive. Now, with the integration of the new machinery, radiused cabinetry components can be manufactured in a fraction of the time.

Custom Craft can also make cabinetry in infinite size increments, not just the 3-inch increments typical of most modular competitors. One such custom job was for an orthopedic surgeon who also was the San Francisco 49rs team doctor in the 1970s. He has a fused back from the years of physical work, and the cabinets John Marshall designed reflect his needs. “The cabinets are all 40 inches high, way out of the norm, so he can work more upright,” he explains. “The dishwasher was elevated, and the cabinets are deeper and higher than normal.”

     
 
John Marshall designed this symmetrical set of cabinets. Both of the brothers design their own cabinetry using Cabnetware software.  
     

Custom Craft also owns an SCM Basic 2 edgebander, an SCM Sandya 10 four-head sander, an SCM-SI 16-foot sliding table saw and Whirlwind pop-up saw. Both saws use the Tigerstop measuring system to ensure accurate sizing. To accommodate the CNC machinery, the company had to add an LMC dust collection unit and an Atlas-Copco screw-drive compressor.

Last year, the Marshalls also added a Standard Tool spray booth and four full-time finishers. They use a European finish that offers a more sophisticated range of applications such as tinting, shading and glazing. “None of our local competitors are offering these kinds of high-end finishes,” says John. “It really elevates the quality of our product.”

Custom Craft has been so busy that John’s wife, Dori, started working for the company two years ago and keeps the office running smoothly. “She’s taken that burden off our shoulders, which frees us up to do more of what we do best, like meet with clients, design and edit,” John says.

Being so tied to a high-tech market, Custom Craft benefited from the boom of the dot-com market. “When it was booming, the dot-commers were partially the reason that we got that machinery in the shop, because we couldn’t keep up with their orders,” John says.

It has also felt the dot-com bust, but not as severely. Only three jobs were cancelled, which is less than 1 percent of the company’s yearly workload. John says the company had to eat up some of its backlog during the slowdown. But, he just signed the company’s largest contract ever in November, giving the company a total of $500,000 in signed contracts at the time of this article.

“Every time we’ve had a recession, the company has grown,” says Jim, adding that the Fed will lower the interest rate to spur the economy in a recession. Homeowners will usually opt to tap the equity in their homes and remodel rather than buy new. When the economy swings the other way, they’ll move and remodel or build new. Either way, Jim says, it’s a win-win situation for the shop.

“My Dad told me that even during the Great Depression, there were millionaires spending millions of dollars,” John says. “They were seeking out the guys who did the best work. There will always be a niche for what we do.”

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