Imperial Woodworking Commands Its Own Destiny

This Illinois-based firm specializes in the design, manufacturing and installation of architectural woodwork and other specialty fixtures.

By Karen M. Koenig

     
Imperial Woodworking Co.
Palatine, IL

Imperial Woodworking is among the largest architectural woodworking firms in the United States. From its beginnings 40 years ago, the company has grown to 350 employees, with 2002 sales exceeding $40 million, plus subsidiary sales of $30 million.

Three Keys
1. The company is a full-service, turnkey operation, offering design, manufacturing and installation services. In addition to veneered and solid wood components manufactured in-house, the company also supplies metal-, fabric- and leather-wrapped items.
2. The in-house veneer operation enables Imperial Woodworking to control the quality of the matching and layup of the veneered panels.
3. Monitors located throughout the shop floor enable the company to accurately track the time spent by employees on each job component and task. The information is used to determine actual cost figures and control project scheduling.

 
   
     

Imperial Woodworking President Frank Huschitt III is seeing red these days — ruby red — in honor of the company’s 40th anniversary celebration this October.

It was in 1963 that his father, the then-26-year-old Frank Huschitt Sr., came to America armed with a master’s degree in cabinetmaking from his native West Germany.

“I felt there was a need in the (U.S.) architectural woodworking industry at that time to provide a total package service (manufacture, finish and install). I chose the name ‘Imperial’ to identify my company with the highest quality and first-class service,” Huschitt Sr. explains.

Like his company, the industry itself has evolved in the past four decades, Huschitt Sr. adds. “The evolution of the architectural woodworking industry over the past 40 years has been in step with my original company’s goals. Now, a total package woodwork contract is more commonplace. Our industry, similar to the automotive industry, has also stepped up tremendously in providing very high-quality products to the end users.”

Growing Venture
From its original four employees, Imperial Woodworking has grown to more than 350 people, with 2002 sales exceeding $40 million, plus subsidiary sales of $30 million.

The Palatine, IL-based company has four subsidiaries, each specializing in its own niche. They are: Colorado-based Imperial Woodworking Enterprises which services the architectural woodwork, store fixtures and hospitality industries; Iowa-based Calmar Mfg. Co., a century-old manufacturer of “Tru-Bilt” laminated casework for schools, hospitals and other institutions; German-based Lotter Objekt which manufactures products for European market architectural woodwork and store fixtures; and Hong Kong-based Imperial Woodworking Asia Pacific Ltd., which provides custom architectural woodwork to the Asian and Pacific Rim markets.

“We opened the Asia Pacific office in the early ’90s when the architects here were facing a strong recession. That entity is strictly a marketing and sales office to service clients on projects overseas,” Huschitt Jr. explains. “Our regular U.S. customers that opened offices abroad desired the highest quality woodwork and dependable service that they have been accustomed to from Imperial Woodworking.”

Full-Service Operation
Its reputation as a full-service, turnkey operation is what distinguishes Imperial Woodworking from many of its competitors.

     
 
Imperial Woodworking manufactured and installed the woodwork for 21 floors of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois building. The company also designed and constructed the stainless steel-clad lobby desk to coordinate with the cross-hair design on the floor.  
     

In addition to manufacturing veneered and solid wood cabinetry and woodwork, Imperial Woodworking also supplies a variety of other items including fabric-wrapped panels, leather-wrapped items, and metal and stone pieces. With all its products — those manufactured in-house as well as outsourced — “We guarantee the fit and finish so everything is coordinated to match the architect’s intent,” Huschitt Jr. says.

For a recent Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois installation, Imperial Woodworking was responsible for the architectural woodwork on 21 floors, including the stainless steel-clad lobby desk.

“We not only manufactured a beautiful desk that met the architect’s design, we also brought it in on budget for the owner and contractor,” Huschitt Jr. says. “Our engineering department, after working through all the difficult geometry and manufacturing obstacles, provided a fully-coordinated drawing for all adjacent trades.

“It’s this attention to detail that separates the men from the boys,” he adds.

Attention to detail was critical on the Kimmel Center concert hall in Philadelphia, in which every inch of the wall and ceiling was covered with curved wood panels, “1,465 in the ceiling alone. The entire project was drawn in 3D, then exploded and flattened into dimensioned parts for machining on our CNC routers,” Huschitt Jr. says.

“In the curved balcony rail, which serpentines the hall, 206 pieces (1,750 lineal feet) had 164-inch tolerances for each piece. That is unheard of in the woodworking industry.”

Timing was also critical. Imperial Woodworking was awarded the project in August 2000. By the fall, shop drawings and engineering were completed and approved. Imperial Woodworking released the first element for production in January 2001, and had the entire project completed in 11 months — in time for the grand opening concert on Dec. 12, 2001.

“There’s definitely pressure in this business to be on time,” Huschitt Jr. says. “For that reason, we try to get involved very early on in projects and provide drawings and templates, not only for our own use, but for use by the other trades involved. This also helps us pre-determine all the variables before we get on-site.”

All woodwork and panels are pre- assembled in the shop. “We try to build the woodwork in as large of a section as will physically fit into the building so there’s fewer individual pieces to handle during installation,” he adds.

     
 
The Kimmel Center’s cello-shaped Verizon Hall features quartered figured mahogany veneer obtained from sustained growth forests. Two hundred and six pieces were used to manufacture the curved balcony rail which serpentines the hall. The project was constructed and installed in 11 months.  
     

All pieces are foam and blanket wrapped and delivered to the job sites in semi-trailers. The company sends its own carpenters to the sites for installation.

“We take every precaution to ensure the finished project looks as good in the field as it did in the shop,” Huschitt Jr. continues. “The fine veneers used in the projects are often virtually impossible to replace.”

Technological Evolution
The veneer operation is at the heart of Imperial Woodworking’s manufacturing.

Woods from all over the world are hand-chosen for color, grain and quality. “We’ll call in the owner, architect and contractor for a veneer-approval meeting,” Huschitt Jr. says. The flitches are prioritized then blueprint sequence matched in-house.

Veneers are clipped using a Savi guillotine, then spliced on a Diehl splicer or a Kuper veneer splicer which was recently acquired from Stiles Machinery. Stitching is done on the Kuper FSI 1250 veneer stitcher, and the completed veneer sheets are run through a Black Bros. roll coater which applies the PVA. The face and back are laid up on the substrate and the panel is conveyed via rollers to the Wemhoener hot press.

“We prefer to have our own in-house veneer department. That way, we can control the quality of the matching and layout in our own shop,” he adds.

Veneer flitches of two or more leaves are centered and cut equally to their final size; thus each leaf is equal in width and centered on the panel, Huschitt Jr. says. The larger panel loads are cut-to-size on the Schelling panel saw, while a recently acquired Giben front-loading panel saw is dedicated for smaller runs.

The veneered panels are then conveyed via carts to the various machining stations. A Komo VR 12 CNC router is used for cutting intricate shapes and designs, and a Homag SSE740 single-sided edgebander applies thin banding on radius edges.

An Omga TR35INC chop saw and Omga double-miter chop saw are used for processing solid wood mouldings. “The double miter saw also does compound miters. With the two saws, I just have to do one cut, one time,” he says. The company also uses a compound miter crosscut saw with an automatic push arm for larger crown mouldings.

Imperial Woodworking uses an environmentally-friendly finishing system for applying its stains, varnishes and specialty finishes. The finishing system is from Eisenmann and includes a waterfall spray booth to draw any overspray, a computerized conveyor system and a 150-foot-long flash off/drying tunnel which dries the panels under 120F of hot air before allowing them to cool.

Following the cooling phase in the tunnel, the panels are conveyed to the sanding stations. Depending on the finish, they are sanded on Heesemann KSM2 widebelt sander or a newer Buetfering, both from Stiles Machinery, or sanded by hand. All panels pass through the finishing system three times.

In order to gain an accurate accounting of the time spent by employees on each job, Imperial Woodworking has installed six Trakware monitors located throughout the shop floor. Employees log in when they’ve begun and completed specific job tasks. “We analyze the input on a daily basis and determine actual cost figures,” Huschitt Jr. says.

Software Streamlines Processes
In addition to the data obtained on the shop floor, Imperial Woodworking uses the Trakware System software for much of its back-end services. These include: tracking purchasing, receiving and shipping of goods, and estimated vs. actual costs. The information is downloaded to an accounting system, which handles billing. Trakware software has also been installed recently at Imperial’s Calmar plant, where it is being used to a greater extent.

     
 
A Komo VR 12 CNC router cuts intricate shapes and designs on solid wood and veneered panels.  
     

“Software plays a huge role in the success of our business,” Huschitt Jr. says. “The information flow is huge: to support the fast tracking of a project, we have to have information available quickly and accurately.”

A separate program is used for marketing, including maintaining of the client database, proposals and success rates.

The drafting department uses many different programs, including those offered by AutoCAD, Pattern Systems International, CIM Tech and a new drafting log program developed in-house which automatically tracks and updates shop drawing status.

“The shop drawing program connects AutoCAD to a database of information, including the ID number on the sheet, submittal records, when it was returned and if the drawing was approved. We can track the complete history of the drawing. It also links the drawing to any previous ones which takes the redundancy out. Also, if someone pulls up a sheet, the program automatically keeps track of how long he was on that sheet,” Huschitt Jr. explains.

Imperial Woodworking is in the process of digitally archiving 40 years worth of CAD and hand drawings. “We’ll be able to access any project we’ve done, at any time and be able to reproduce it for the customer, consistently and accurately.

“It’s an extension of our theme — ‘Quality Without Compromise,’” Huschitt Jr. says.

 


Rise of a Family-Run Woodworking Empire

Frank Huschitt Sr.’s reality has surpassed his dream.

Back in 1963, the 26-year-old master cabinetmaker from West Germany started a four-man woodworking shop to produce “the finest custom architectural woodwork in America.” What he ended with was a $40 million woodworking empire, plus subsidiary sales of $30 million.

Based in Palatine, IL, Imperial Woodworking continues as a family-owned company, with Huschitt Sr. as chairman of the board and son Frank Huschitt III as president, a position he has held since 1998. In addition, Elizabeth Huschitt, Frank Sr.’s sister, has managed marketing and sales since 1974. Annette Huschitt, Frank Sr.’s daughter, joined the company in 1991 and is the vice president of finance.

In addition to Imperial Woodworking Co., the company has four subsidiaries: Imperial Woodworking Enterprises Inc., Calmar Mfg. Co., Lotter-Objekt and Imperial Woodworking Asia Pacific. Combined, the companies have more than 225,000 square feet of manufacturing space, including a 16,000-square-foot finishing operation with 350 employees.

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