Investment in a Komo CNC Mach I router has allowed Hensen workers to spend more time on craftsman-type work like crown mouldings and less time on routine chores.

For the past couple of years, contemporary-style cabinets have been on an upswing, as more residential and commercial customers have sought a sleek, pared-down alternative to the ornate, elaborate look that has dominated the style scene previously. In the heart of the Midwest, where traditional styles normally rule, Hensen Fine Cabinetry of Sun Prairie, WI, has answered the call to provide chic, high-gloss contemporary cabinetry to its customers.
 
Hensen was started in 1982 by Gene Hensen, father of current company president, Jeff Hensen. The elder Hensen was working for a company in Madison, WI, that produced frameless HDL cabinetry, incorporating radiuses, concave and convex doors and tambours for high-end kitchens in the Chicago area. When the company went out of business, and despite the fact that mortgage rates were at 18 percent, Hensen obtained the previous owner’s blessing to go after the contemporary cabinet market and took the opportunity to start his own business.

Starting in a small rented shop with just three people, Gene Hensen and his brother Rick, with Jeff helping on weekends, the company got most of its early business from one dealer in the Chicago area. As the years went by, the dealer’s salespeople began splitting off and starting their own dealerships in other areas, bringing the Hensens more jobs, often originating from word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied customers.

“We did four to six kitchens a week for several years,” Jeff Hensen says. “Much of it was high-gloss, pin-striped Formica. We used to buy pin-striped Formica by the pallet. We would lay up all our own doors, and we bought an edgebander.”
 The company’s reputation for quality and the demand for the contemporary style brought them enough jobs that they bought their own building, adding on more space through the years, until by the early ’90s they had nearly 50 people working in their 33,000-square-foot shop. Fashions change, however, and the market for the contemporary style dried up when the look became less popular and consumers turned back to more traditional wood styles.

Hensen still found plenty of work, expanding to complete high-end projects in any style requested. When Gene Hensen moved to northern Wisconsin, they successfully opened a showroom that has proved a lucrative venture, especially with the high-end vacation home market in the area. Meanwhile, Jeff says the contemporary look has made a comeback in recent years, albeit with a somewhat different appearance.  

“The contemporary look is back, but all wood and soft,” he says. “At K/BIS last year, European companies were all over the high-gloss, painted polyester contemporary lines and door hardware. Europe drives a lot of the new styles, but it takes awhile to trickle down. We had a dealer in Milwaukee who recently wanted us to develop a high-end line of high-gloss, painted cabinets. We looked into it, but it is really expensive.”

Route to Success
Although Hensen chose not to invest in creating the high-gloss line, the company has not been shy about investing in new equipment. Six years ago, Hensen purchased a Komo 5-by-10 router, which he says has paid for itself through its speed and accuracy.

“We didn’t buy it to eliminate positions in the shop,” Hensen explains. “We wanted to get our employees out of the doldrums. Before we had the machine, we had a gang driller. You would drill four shelf peg holes at a time, but you had to set your stop, slide it up, drill four holes, move your stop, slide it over, drill four more. Now, with the router, it goes down the row and pings them all out for you. Now that the guys don’t have to do that, they can learn more of the craftsman-type work, doing crown moulding and stuff like that.

“With the CNC router, we also have been able to get away from butt joint construction,” Hensen continues. “We now use a blind 1/16-inch dado glued and screwed together.”

The company also invested in a Biesse edgebander, a VacuPress vacuum press and a Kundig Magiq 2 widebelt sander with segmented platens for sanding veneer panels.

The plant averages six to 10 jobs at a time, which can include kitchens, baths, closets, home entertainment centers, Murphy beds, home offices,  bookcases, commercial buildouts for developers (break rooms, file storage), casework, medical/dental clinics, banks and retail store casework.

Much of the work is produced using thermally fused, melamine-coated particleboard. Hensen says the company uses a lot of this product, because it is less expensive than plywood, has good consistency and machines well, as well as for other reasons.

“As our standard drawer box, we build a 3/4-inch-thick melamine drawer. It’s better than a dovetail, because it cleans up so much better. If you spill something in a drawer, melamine is much easier to clean than maple dovetail.  We certainly will do maple dovetail — we do it all the time. It is just another selection the customer has,” Hensen says.

For hardware, Hensen uses Hettich undermount slides with soft-close, Blum hinges and Accuride heavy-duty side mounts. “We use what we think is the best in hardware,” he says.

On to the Finish
One of the most noticeable aspects of Hensen’s work is the shimmering glossy finish applied to much of the company’s products. Jeff Hensen spent his first 15 years in the company spray booth and says the look came about through “trial and error and lots of hard work.”

“We spray catalyzed Italian polyurethane, which we believe to be a great product,” Hensen says. “You could take one of our doors, lay it down and pour a puddle of acetone on it, and just let it sit there until it evaporates, and it won’t take the finish off.” Hensen says the polyester is the same product that is used on custom cars and musical instruments.

“Using the same clear finish,” Hensen continues, “we have pigments in-house and we just tint it off. We can make opaque colors with it, and that’s our paint. We can buy it pre-tinted or in white, but for any dark colors, we make almost all our own formulas.

“Wiping stains, dye stains, glazes — we make all our own, because you can go into the local paint store and get paint matched pretty accurately,” he adds, “but with stain, it is a whole other thing when you’ve got wood that you can see through and all those color tones on top of it.

“All of our pieces are touched with sandpaper by hand,” he says. “We do four steps of wet sanding and then four steps of polishing. For us, we don’t compromise the quality of our product to make a buck or save a buck. We are putting what we feel are the best products out there, and that is why we use the Melesi finish.”

Quality and Service
Hensen says it was a conscious decision to focus on a high-end market from the beginning.  

“Sometimes I wonder if the profit margins are less there, because it takes so much of an extra effort,” he says. “But our name is on our product and that means a lot to us.

“There is a lot of competition out there. As a small, family-owned company, you have to carve out your own piece of the pie,” he adds. “We have always been about the best quality of product we can build and customer service. Our guys out in the field really give the white-glove service. They clean up after themselves, and they care about what it looks like when they finish.”

Hensen says this runs in the family.

“We had a strategic planning meeting, and they said we needed to have a mission statement saying that we care,  and my dad said, ‘what do you need to say that for — isn’t that the way all businesses are supposed to be run?’”

Interns Help Out
One way Hensen Fine Cabinetry has found to help its community while benefitting the business is by working with the Madison Area Technical College internship program. The company offers a student the opportunity to work at its facility to earn school credits.

Tiffany Esser, Interior Design Program instructor at MATC, explains how the program works. “Our internship program is for 2nd-year students in our two-year Associate Degree program, who typically are in the last semester prior to graduation. The number of students placed each year is between 15-25, with 17 currently enrolled.

“The requirement for internship is 144 hours of on-the-job experience, which includes a variety of duties as assigned by the employer. We encourage employers to offer a wide range of experiences for the students to gain further knowledge and hands-on opportunities to expand on the skills they have been learning in the program. It is a win-win situation for MATC students, employers and our Interior Design program.”

Jeff Hensen says the program has been a success, with the company offering permanent jobs to several interns who have shown promise at the end of their internship. Most recent interns have worked with Hensen in producing designs for customer jobs in CAD. The current intern is assisting Jeff in upgrading the company’s online catalog.  

For more information about MATC, visit www.matcmadison.edu.

Investment in a Komo CNC Mach I router has allowed Hensen workers to spend more time on craftsman-type work like crown mouldings and less time on routine chores.

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