‘Light’ Woodworking Is a Lucrative Niche

An Illinois aviation company installs veneers into private airplanes using an unusual core material.

By Lisa Whitcomb

     
Midcoast Aviation Inc.

Cahokia, IL

Year Founded: 1971

Employees: 575 at the Cahokia facility at the St. Louis Downtown Airport; 50 employees in the finishing and cabinetry division.

Gross Annual Sales: $250 million reported for parent company, Sabreliner.

Facility Size: 288,000 square feet.

FYI: Midcoast Aviation has two other facilities — one in St. Louis, MO, at Lambert St. Louis International Airport, and another in Chesterfield, MO, at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport. However, the Downtown Airport facility is the only one that has a cabinet shop.

 
   
     

The Midcoast Aviation Inc. facility in Cahokia, IL, which is owned by Sabreliner, started as a modestly-sized maintenance company that worked on small corporate aircraft based in St. Louis. “As the years passed, we gradually grew into more advanced projects, completions and major modifications. Little by little, our facility and company have grown over the years,” recalls Kurt Bauer, manager of modifications and a 24-year company veteran.

In 1980, the company was doing a lot of “green” aircraft work, as well as major modifications and mechanical maintenance on older aircraft. “Green” aircraft are planes that come directly from the manufacturer with nothing in the main cabin interior except green paint.

“We grew out of doing green aircraft in the late 1980s and only got back into it three years ago when a plane manufacturer we used to contract with approached us and asked us if we would be interested in doing green plane completions again,” says Bauer. “It has really turned out to be lucrative for us.” This is because many of Midcoast’s competitors for green aircraft work were forced out of business in the ‘90s during the corporate restructuring era, Bauer adds. So, once again, this niche market became a major mainstay on the company’s balance sheet.

Creating a comfortable aerial retreat

From its humble beginnings, Midcoast Aviation has redefined what it does several times and continues to do so. “We are a nose-to-tail facility. There is nothing that we can’t do,” says Bauer. “We handle painting, hydraulics, electronics, avionics and maintenance, among other things.” The facility houses eight hangars and runs two shifts spanning 20 hours a day, six days a week.

     
 
This plane boasts the most woodwork Midcoast has ever installed in a plane. It is the only plane in which the shop has ever installed a wood floor.  
     

The most unusual aspect of the aviation facility, though, is its on-site custom cabinet and finishing shop, which is 20,000 square feet. Cabinetry, casework and other decorative millwork are fabricated in the shop using veneers which are adhered to an extremely light, but strong honeycomb aluminum composite core material. The core is manufactured by Nordam in Oklahoma and meets FAA burn regulations.

Veneered samples, complete with stain and clear coat, are produced for each client. They must meet a client’s final approval and pass FAA burn tests (see sidebar on page 72). Once a wood sample has been approved, the shop keeps one half to use as a guide and gives the other half to the client, so he can use it as a basis for inspection.

Extensive use of veneers is customary in these private planes. Inlays using a variety of species and starburst veneer patterns are extremely popular with clients. Comforts that typically can be found inside a custom plane include satellite televisions, divans that turn into beds, leather easy chairs, refrigerators, microwaves, coffee pots, radios and more, which may require custom casework to house them.

For millwork and casework, the shop uses domestic (like oak and walnut) or exotic veneers (like waterfall bubinga and Brazilian rosewood) from Carl F. Booth & Co. of Indiana to fabricate items such as side ledges, folding tables, cabinetry, trim, rails, decorative mouldings, flooring, bulkheads, commode surrounds, pocket doors, lighted crystal cases and other specialty items.

“The Carl Booth company is really responsive to our clients’ requests, and there is a quick turnaround from request to filled order. They supply all the major aircraft interior manufacturers with veneer, so they are pretty knowledgeable about aviation veneers. They understand how an airplane is laid out, so they know where to put the best pieces when they make the veneer for us,” Bauer says.

“We use one sheet to face things because the overall look is better,” he adds. “When you step into a plane and all of the cabinet doors are closed it is just beautiful to look at.” Bauer says the shop does not veneer some cabinet exterior side walls all the way back, because they are capped by another cabinet, so there is no reason to add the extra veneer and weight to the plane. “It also saves us the extra labor and thus saves the client on final cost,” he says.

     
 
Bird’s-eye maple veneer and Corian solid surface material have been used in this bathroom. The commode cover is a soft white leather.  
     

A green plane will take approximately six months from design to interior finish, and a modification will vary by how much a client wants remodeled. Midcoast offers a design service to its clients to help them better plan the design and function of a plane’s interior. The client first chooses from a myriad of wood and textile materials, then a 3-D rendering is produced and given to him, so he can get a feel for what the final project will look like.

     
Withstanding the Burn

Fire in an airplane can be devastating. This understood, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has some pretty stringent rules regarding the burn testing of any material that is installed in an airplane. The objective is to reduce the chance of anything on the plane burning quickly, like dried timber, while the plane is still in flight.

“We have to create a burn-test coupon, which is a representative sample of the finished material (i.e. veneer with a urethane finish, or leather upholstery). Paperwork accompanies the sample, describing its composition. The sample is then sent to the burn department, where it is analyzed for 24 hours in a humidity-controlled environment. After that time has elapsed, the sample is burned,” Bauer says.

Different types of planes with different passenger loads have different burn test requirements. The shop has to satisfy whatever requirements are necessary for the particular plane it is working on. Anything installed in the plane must have a fire retardant applied to it in some fashion. For example, veneers are treated with a fire retardant on both the face and the backing. Any stain or urethane applied to the veneer also has to have a flame retardant additive in it.

 
   
     

The designer then puts together a board of textile and wood samples based on what the client has requested. Midcoast has its own upholstery shop to fabricate what it needs for the planes it services. It also installs toilets, sinks, mirrors, AV equipment and lighting.

“We are a totally custom shop. If somebody is willing to pay for what they want in an airplane, whether it be black chrome, platinum or 24 karat gold, then we are more than happy to comply,” Bauer says. “It all depends on what a client wants and how detailed he wants it to be.” The average cost of projects ranges from $500,000, to sand and refinish existing cabinetry, to as much as $2.5 million for a complete interior, he adds.

Veneering up for flight

All veneers, boards and core composite material are stored in a climate-controlled environment where humidity levels and temperature are monitored. Each client has his own section in the room for storage. Once the veneer has been laid up on the aluminum honeycomb core material using a vacuum bag system for at least 15 minutes, it is sent to the finishing department where it is stained or left natural and then finished with a multi-layered urethane finish from Spies Hecker.

“The filled grain look is very popular right now. To achieve an ultra-high gloss finish, we build up layers of urethane and wet sand in between each layer until the grain is completely filled in [and smooth like glass.] Then we buff it to a shine,” Bauer notes. “Not many people are asking for a satin finish like they were a few years ago. Back when corporate aviation was younger, people were asking for tongue oil or wool wax finishes where you could still see some of the grain. Lately it seems like everyone wants a filled grain finish.”

It is important to keep dust to a minimum to achieve this type of finish, so the shop uses a couple of downdraft sanding and buffing tables from Denray Machine.The shop also is equipped with a central Murphy-Rodgers dust collection system. “Most of the equipment in the shop is tied into the dust collection system. If any dust builds up, it is cleaned up at the end of a shift,” Bauer says. Additionally, the shop houses three automotive spray booths. Two are used for applying the finish and one is used for drying and warming.

The shop fabricates its millwork and cabinetry on two 20-inch thickness planers, three Unisaws, two 8-inch DJ20 joiners, two 12-inch disc sanders, a radial arm saw, an edge sander and a bandsaw, all from Delta; a Powermatic bandsaw, 12-inch disc sander and shaper; Wilton 20-inch disc sander; a Safety Speed Cut H4 panel saw; a Performax 16-inch to 30-inch drum sander; a Halsty widebelt sander; a Jet spindle sander and more. “We don’t cut corners on anything involved with a project. If we need a new blade or router bit, then we just change them out because we want the project to be perfect when it is finished,” Bauer says.

     
Constructing Aviation Cabinetry 101

Since airplane cabinetry’s core material is an aluminum honeycomb composite, all new employees in the cabinet shop are asked to construct a miniature replication of an airplane cabinet to learn how to work with the material. They also cut and adhere veneer to the box, attach doors and hardware, and then send it to finishing, where the new hires learn to stain and finish the veneer. “We don’t throw them out there alone to drown; we are beside them through each step, guiding them,” says Bauer.

“This first cabinet that we have them do gives them exposure to what they will be seeing and doing here on a regular basis,” he says. This exercise also helps the shop place new employees based on their strengths and weaknesses. “It is easier to absorb a mistake on this level as opposed to having to strip a full-size cabinet all the way down and begin again,” Bauer says.

“We like to hire employees that already have basic woodworking skills and knowledge of tools and machinery used in the trade,” he adds. “We don’t mind training them from this point, because it can be hard to find someone who already has aviation cabinetry skills.”

 
   
     

The interior of a cabinet is either stained, if it is veneered, or finished with a wear-resistant fabric or high-pressure laminate, which is glued in place. If the exterior of the cabinet will not be seen when it is installed, then the core material is painted with a black lacquer from Spies Hecker. “If it is going to be a storage cabinet, some clients will request that a fabric be used,” he adds. The shop also uses (and fabricates) granite and marble, laminates from Nevamar, Formica and Wilsonart, as well as Corian’s solid surface materials for all countertop applications. Actron’s drawer slides and hinges are used on all cabinetry.

The employees in the cabinet shop are all assigned a station to work at and everyone is assigned to a particular plane, which is overseen by a lead man. “Most people have their own work stations. When a cabinet is started, it has to begin on a known flat surface bench. This way we know that every piece is perfectly square.There isn’t much room for error in an airplane, not like in an industrial or commercial situation. On an airplane everything has to be perfect. We cannot allow gaps in between cabinets. It is just not acceptable, and it is not the quality that we hold ourselves to,” Bauer says.

     
 
Divans like the one shown in the picture can be turned down into a bed.  
     

An opportune aeronautical forecast

Midcoast Aviation has not really seen a reduction in custom aircraft orders because of the recession, only slightly in the green aircraft sector. “High-quality private airplanes are a different sector of the economy,” says Bauer. However, the company spends “quality time” with its clients, building a rapport that keeps them coming back, he notes. Nationwide there are only a handful of other companies that offer services similar to Midcoast, Bauer says, adding that Midcoast also has an excellent reputation with its clients for on-time delivery. “Airplanes have schedules that they must keep. We cannot fall behind in production and go to a customer and say we need more time.”

Bauer believes the company stands apart from its competitors because of the close familial feeling between the employees. “Our people are our best attribute. We are not a mass-production facility. Many of our employees have been here long-term. That is because we grow our workforce slowly and have a low turnover rate as a result,” he says. All new employees are trained with model-sized pieces before they construct any major pieces for a plane.

Another benefit that keeps employees happy with their work is the custom nature of projects, thus reducing boring repetitious work like that found in mass production plants. While some basic components produced are similar internally, they all end up being different externally because of the veneer, fabric and laminate choices available.

The company plans to continue its green aircraft completions and major modification services, but it is also looking into expanding into the manufacturing sector. Recently the Midcoast cabinet and finishing shops have begun (on a small scale) constructing cabinets for other plane makers to install. “We want to supply more companies with cabinets to complete their aircraft in other facilities around the U.S.,” Bauer says.

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