‘Light’ Woodworking Is a Lucrative Niche
An Illinois aviation company installs veneers into private airplanes using an unusual core material.
By Lisa Whitcomb
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
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
An opportune aeronautical forecast
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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