Fingerjointing Adds a New Dimension to Great Lake Woods

Profile-wrapped parts expand component firm’s profits.

By John Iwanski

 

Great Lake Woods produces hardwood components for the kitchen cabinet business, as well as furniture parts for residential and office applications from its plant in Holland, MI. Among its clients are office furniture manufacturing giants Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth.

 

     
     
    Machining Center Boosts Custom Capabilities

Great Lake Woods has grown at a double-digit pace in the highly- competitive wood component market by meeting customer expectations with consistent on-time delivery.

In a little more than 12 years the Holland, MI-based company has grown to a total of 80 employees. The company has developed a marketing niche providing quality wooden and wrapped mouldings to the architectural, kitchen and bath, furniture, residential and store fixture industries.

The company currently has 60,000 square feet of manufacturing space, of which 22,000 was added in 1999. Next year, the company anticipates adding an additional 22,000 square feet to its plant to accommodate anticipated increases in production.

A fully equipped, full-service woodworking shop has provided the impetus for the company to grow. On-site ripsaws, six Weinig moulders, a tenoner and a pair of Omga double-sided V-2013 NC miter saws are among the high-volume equipment that enables the company to process 500,000 to 600,000 feet of mouldings weekly.

While the company has not had any problems cranking out large numbers of parts, it did fall short at times to take on sophisticated custom projects. This was apparent in early 1998 when Keith Malmstadt, one of Great Lake Woods’ owners, says the company had a specific manufacturing application that proved to be extremely complex.

A customer asked the company to supply it with finished end panels for high-end medical cabinets. According to Malmstadt, “It was a fairly sophisticated job requiring more than just moulding. Each panel required a number of wood cutting applications on ash, including drilling, boring and shaping operations. I realized that either outsourcing or using various small machining centers would not be the most cost-effective way to manufacture.”

A Trip to the Fair

Malmstadt attended the International Woodworking Fair in 1998 to gather information for the eventual purchase of a CNC router. He had his exacting specifications down pat as he visited virtually all of the router manufacturers’ displays. “I wanted a single machine that could perform boring, drilling, routing and sawing operations. I wanted an automatic tool changer to save time, a 5-foot by 9-foot bed to allow for efficient operations on the ash panels as well as other larger parts.”

At the same time, Malmstadt required a split vacuum table to function independently of each other in order to allow for continuous production on the machine. Finally, he required that the machine be heavy enough to handle hardwood products because of the wide variety of solid wood components the company manufactures for its customers.

“We cut virtually all kinds of wood,” says Malmstadt. “In any give day, we’re working with all kinds of American hardwoods, including ash, beech, hard and soft maple, poplar, red and white oak, walnut and MDF. We also work with a variety of exotic woods, such as mahogany.” He adds that customer workpieces range in size from as small as 1/2 inch by 2-1/2 inches by 2-1/2 inches to as large as 2 inches by 24 inches by 96 inches.

After narrowing his list to six manufacturers, Malmstadt chose an ANDI Stratos WFD router from Anderson America Corp. It features a single overhead spindle, automatic tool changer, drill pack, saw arbor and a 5-foot by 9-foot split vacuum table.

Getting Up to Speed

Delivery and installation of the Stratos was completed in early 1999. New shop personnel with CNC skills were brought on board to operate the machine. Anderson America and the local dealer provided training through the start-up phase.

Great Lake Woods utilizes a CAD system to create part programs on the router. The programs are developed in house from customer CAD files. The Fanuc controller provides Great Lake Woods with a base line record, critical in maintaining specified tolerances for its customers. Malmstadt says that CNC technology enhances the company’s ability to maintain the exacting tolerances. “Customer specifications demand tolerances that are ‘to the T’ for their own assembly operations.”

The vacuum table has proven to be a good choice for the company, he adds. For many applications, the table provides enough power to hold large sheets of material in place during routing operations. For other operations, the company designs and builds special fixtures to hold workpieces in place.

Although purchased specifically for a limited product line, the flexibility of the machine has allowed Great Lake Woods to develop other applications. “The router allows us to produce new parts that we couldn’t do before,” Malmstadt says. This includes complex decorative hardwood trim pieces, MDF shaping, boring and saw arbor applications.

Currently, the router is running continuously in one shift. Plans are in the works to move to a two-shift operation, as the company has secured new business for specific customer parts that require router operations. Malmstadt says that they are in the process of converting customer designs to the actual part programs on the CAD systems.

“Utilization of CNC machining technology has enhanced Great Lake Woods’ ability to be competitive,” says Malmstadt. He adds that the overall capability of the company has been increased, which results in meeting customers price points and maintaining on-time delivery schedules.

     

The company, which was founded in 1988 and is co-owned by Keith Malmstadt and Ben Philips, has carved out one of its most lucrative product niches from using the scrap wood pieces somebody else does not want. By profile wrapping fingerjointed materials for interior and cabinet mouldings, as well as cabinet door and door frames, Great Lake Woods has been able to cost-effectively offer components to local furniture customers, and now hopes to expand its scope out to a larger, more expansive clientele.

“Right now, we sell our capabilities to the customer,” says Malmstadt. “We manufacture what they need, to their specifications. It’s what we’re good at, and it lets the customers do what they’re good at, which is making furniture or cabinets.”

Fingerjointed Mouldings Take Off

Fingerjointed mouldings, typically consisting of poplar and occasionally basswood or aspen, represent one of Great Lake Woods’ fastest-growing product lines. The fingerjointed pieces, purchased from Red River Hardwoods of Kentucky, are profiled on one of the company’s six Weinig moulders, then wrapped with a variety of veneers, including cherry and mahogany, on a Barberan PL45 profile wrapping machine.

 

     
     
   
  The ANDI Stratos CNC router’s ability to shape, bore and saw allows Great Lake Woods to machine more complex wood and MDF parts for its customers.  

According to wrapping supervisor Wade Brooks, many of Great Lake Woods’ customers are driven toward fingerjointing because they need a product that is both consistent and straight. Fingerjointed products offer the end-user both benefits in one package.

“This is a cost-effective alternative to solid wood,” says Brooks. “The customers want a product that’s straight. But when you get a piece of poplar that’s 15 feet long, it is going to bow some. It is going to twist. When you fingerjoint that piece, and apply the veneer around it, the bow is almost non-existent. That is what the customer wants. And that is what we want to give them.”

Great Lake Woods produces a wide range of products, including trim mouldings for cabinets, top caps for Haworth’s office furnishings, signboard mouldings and casket parts. Great Lake also produces fingerjointed frames for various applications, including hollow-core doors and closet applications.

Production supervisor Rich Popa notes that the company has taken on special jobs because it has the knowledge and expertise to work with fingerjointed materials. For example, he says, Great Lake worked in conjunction with Herman Miller and the federal government to produce more than 6,000 fingerjointed tackboard panels in the first six months of last year.

“We produced a fingerjointed frame that was moulded to go around a tackboard panel. We also added a fingerjointed piece in the middle for stability,” Popa says. “The whole piece was wrapped in a fabric, and then the moulding was placed on the outside. It was a nice project that allowed Herman Miller to see what we could really do on a consistent basis.”

Outsourcing Fingerjointed Lumber

Great Lake Woods had a fingerjointing machine in 1990, but the company discontinued producing fingerjointed material in 1992. When Malmstadt came on board in 1994, he says he recognized the potential market for it and discussed it with others at the company.

Great Lake Woods has not looked back since deciding to purchase fingerjointed materials from Red River Hardwoods.

“We have an excellent source of material, and we are able to turn it around into a great product,” says Malmstadt. “Right now, we’re probably running about a truckload of wood from our supplier every month. That might not seem like much, but we’re turning out quite a lot of product. And as we see more restrictions in the supply of woods, and the costs of quality hardwoods continue to climb, fingerjointing is going to become an option for a lot of companies trying to keep costs down and quality up.”

In fact, because Malmstadt predicts demand for fingerjointed products will continue to grow, Great Lake Woods is studying the possibility of purchasing a fingerjointing machine to manufacture product from its own roughmill.

“With the increase of costs in woods, people are going to look to veneered stock as a way to get more out of the available wood supply,” Malmstadt says. “Cherry has dramatically increased in cost over the last year or so. Other woods are also going up. But if you take a wood like soft maple, fingerjoint it and veneer it, you can get the long 15-foot pieces that contractors want for baseboards and other applications. Red oak, mahogany — we want to be able to fingerjoint and wrap all that material here. That is our long-term goal, to bring fingerjointing back in-house.”

For the time being, though, Great Lake Woods is content to bring the fingerjointed blanks in, mould and wrap the product, and then send it on its way.

“The biggest savings for profile-wrapped materials is in the quality, the yield and the lack of rework, Malmstadt says. “Companies can get a fingerjointed 15-foot-long piece and it will have the quality of an 8-footer that is solid wood.

“As we see more restrictions on lumber, and the reduction of the import of foreign lumber, more and more people will turn to fingerjointing,” he adds. “As things become rarer, you are going to see more of this type of operation. The key is to make it profitable and keep the quality consistent with the needs of the customer. This could be just the tip of the iceberg.”

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