Lean manufacturing and other waste-saving techniques are helping Nichols & Stone fight imports.


This dining room setting features a Newport China Deck cabinet, the Clip Corner Keeping table and Rockport side and arm chairs which are steam bent for graceful curves. All of Nichols & Stone’s furniture can be custom finished to specifications.

Considered to be the oldest operating residential furniture manufacturer in the United States, Gardner, MA-based Nichols & Stone has survived 150 years of competition. Part of the company’s recent success can be attributed to a strategic plan which includes the implementation of lean and other waste-saving manufacturing techniques to speed production and improve quality, while reducing costs.

“You have to be lean nowadays,” says A.J. Peterson, vice president of manufacturing. “If you’re not, then you’re not going to make it.”

Nichols & Stone has made the transition to lean manufacturing by using a combination of high-tech and traditional machinery, plus a dose of handcraftsmanship. The company employs approximately 116 people to work in the 300,000-total-square-foot furniture plant.

Renowned for its Windsor style chairs, Nichols & Stone manufactures approximately 80 unique chair frames, including specialties such as the Harvard and Williamsburg models. Nichols & Stone also offers furniture for the dining room, bedroom and family room. All furniture can be customized with regards to species, paint color, stain, fabric or seat fiber. Distressing and other specialty effects, including engraving logos on chair backs, also are available.

“We have three bullets in our gun to beat [the competition]: quality, fast delivery and our ability to offer all kinds of options,” says Peterson.

Details Make the Difference

According to Peterson, attention to detail throughout the entire manufacturing process is what separates Nichols & Stone from its competitors. It starts with the selection of straight grain, defect-free grades of wood, primarily birch, cherry and ash, and continues throughout the production and assembly process, including the use of decades-old construction methods.

To manufacture chairs, Nichols & Stone bends the frames first by steaming the wood in a retort to soften the fibers, then by pressing the wood for approximately one hour in platens. “We also can bend bows and compound angles. We have hundreds of different size spacers for bending,” he says.

A variety of machines are used in the chair production process, including a recently purchased Byrnes/Veneta CNC bandsaw for back posts. In another cell, parts move from a Byrnes/Bacci profiler to the Solid Wood Systems/Balestrini double-end tenoner before being machined on a CMS router. Also located in the chair facility are Goodspeed crimp and chuck machines, Goodspeed lathes, Gardner machines for boring holes in the curved seat backs, a Costa & Grissom sander and Macoser/Caselli sanders for sanding round or small parts.

What distinguishes Nichols & Stones’ chairs are the construction methods used, Peterson says. Saddle seats, for example, feature planks reversed end over end and then glued to form a solid panel; this panel is then shaped using a McKnight saddle scooper. A special compressed tenon joint connects the leg to the seat. What makes this type of joint special is that the end of the leg is crimped or ribbed with deep cuts, which allows for a more uniform spread of the adhesive in the hole, Peterson explains. Mortise-and-tenon construction is used for joining other structural components. To ensure joints remain stable, small wooded pins are inserted at stress points, such as back spindles and leg stretchers — an extra step many other companies do not use, Peterson says.

“We put a lot of time into the small details,” he adds.

These details are also evident in the tables, cases and other furniture manufactured. For example, tables feature wood slides, interlocking aprons and corner leg bracing. In addition, each filler leaf is hand fitted and numbered to fit in a specific sequence when the table is expanded. For cabinets, Nichols & Stone uses face-frame construction and mortise-and-tenon joinery for rigid construction. Added-value features include dust panels, dovetail drawer construction and wood corner blocks and levelers.

Like the chair plant, the case/table facility uses a combination of old and new machines. The company purchased its first CNC machine back in 1994, “and since then, it seems like we purchase something new every year,” Peterson says. Integral to the manufacturing process are: five CMS CNC routers, including a six-axis NC 6X for contoured angles, an SCM moulder, a Costa & Grissom sander, and Comec and Balestrini mortisers from Solid Wood Systems.

Hundreds of programs can be saved in the Panotec FlexMode box-making machine’s system, which can produce single or multiple boxes for packaging tables and cases.

Green Initiatives

In addition to its lean manufacturing efforts, Nichols & Stone also puts an emphasis on sustainable initiatives, including the use of high solids materials and other VOC-compliant topcoats purchased from CE Bradley Laboratories. The company uses HVLP guns and has separate lines for finishing tables, cases and chairs, the latter two being slat conveyor systems and the first a palletizer system which is used with a Koch/DeBurgh 350-foot line.

Other ways in which Nichols & Stone demonstrates environmental friendliness is in managing its waste. In order to reduce packaging, the company recently purchased a Panotec custom cardboard carton machine for tables and cases. Because boxes are custom made to fit, “It minimizes waste because it programs for the most efficient width of the carton,” Peterson says. “It not only saves time, but reduces the need for inner pack foam.”

Other methods for minimizing landfill waste include using wood waste collected in Torit dust collectors to heat the manufacturing facilities.

This CMS CNC router uses vacuum pods to hold small furniture parts in place during machining.

Marketing Trends

Although Nichols & Stone does outsource a small amount of its products, the majority — 75 percent — are manufactured in house. Of that, 60 percent is chairs and 40 percent is tables and cases, says John Rice, vice president of sales and marketing.

According to Rice, Nichols & Stone keeps its product line fresh by debuting new product offerings twice yearly, traditionally in the spring and fall in conjunction with the High Point Market. Recently, he says, the introductions have been targeted toward baby boomers, with pieces designed for those moving into downsized homes.

In addition to its permanent showroom in High Point, Nichols & Stone’s furniture can be seen in many retail chains on the East Coast and throughout the nation. Business also is garnered through Nichols & Stone’s Web site, www.nicholsandstone.com, as well as the sites of colleges and universities which feature Nichols & Stone’s university-style logo chairs.

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