Cabinetmaker Is Bullish on Strawboard

Muskoka Cabinet Co. has introduced an alternative composite fiberboard into its product mix.

By Scott Bury

     
Muskoka Cabinet Co.

Ottawa, ON, Canada

Muskoka Cabinet Co. was established as a custom kitchen and bath cabinet manufacturer in 1989. The company’s 22 employees manufacture and install more than six kitchens a month.

Three Keys

1. Muskoka Cabinet has begun to manufacture cabinets with an alternative composite fiberboard made from wheat straw. It installed its first set of cabinets made of this material in April.

2. A few of the company’s homebuilder clients sublet retail space from Muskoka Cabinet. The company also uses its retail space to sell products from such manufacturers as Sauder Furniture, Bush Furniture and Richelieu.

3. The company expanded its product line to include 300 different combinations of door materials, colors and styles.

 
   
     

What would cause a cabinet manufacturer to switch the basic material it works with?

Last February, the Muskoka Cabinet Co. of Ottawa, ON, introduced the Woodstalk composite fiberboard to its clientele as an alternative material to its custom kitchen and bathroom cabinets, at no extra cost.

The company installed its first kitchen made of the new composite material in April. Since then, the product has taken off in eastern Ontario.

“Once we secure a good supply of Woodstalk, our goal is to use it exclusively,” says Luke Elias, president of Muskoka Cabinet.

What Is Woodstalk?

Simply put, Woodstalk is a particleboard that instead of being made with wood fibers, utilizes fibers derived from wheat straw bound with isocyanates, a formaldehyde-free resin.

Muskoka has only been using the product for a few months now, and so far it only represents about 10% of its total retail production. The other 90% consists of standard particleboard and MDF panel products.

To the best of Muskoka Cabinet’s knowledge, it is the first and only manufacturer of kitchen cabinets to use the Woodstalk boards. “I think it’s a great product,” says Eric Elias, Luke’s brother and a manager and partner in the company. “It’s denser than regular melamine particleboard, lighter and more water-resistant,” he explains. “Because it’s lighter, it’s easier to handle during manufacturing.”

Luke Elias runs the manufacturing facility, located about 30 miles east of Ottawa. “I haven’t found any areas where I prefer particleboard over the strawboard,” he says. “It’s a cleaner product than most particleboards so it’s easier on our routing bits and tools. In our tests, we find our tools last 20% longer than with standard particleboard.”

     
 
Eric Elias, vice president of Muskoka Cabinet, stands in the company’s showroom. It leases space to homebuilders as well as displaying its own cabinets.  
     

Luke says he tested Woodstalk’s water resistance by manufacturing two identical tables, one of standard particleboard and the other with the strawboard. He says he left them both outside through the summer. “The Woodstalk table is practically the same as the day we put it there,” he says. “The other one looks like it’s exploding” from having absorbed so much rain water.

One environmental aspect of Woodstalk is that it is made from wheat straw, something that is otherwise burned or thrown away. Muskoka Cabinet also promotes the formaldehyde-free aspect of the products to its customers. “This environmental aspect is the big appeal to customers, particularly to the high-end kitchen renovation market in Ottawa,” Eric Elias says.

Success in the Retail Market

In 1989, Luke Elias had just graduated from college and wanted to get into manufacturing. He bought a kitchen cabinet manufacturing facility called Thibodeau Kitchens, located the small town of Alfred, ON, just east of Canada’s capital, Ottawa.

The company was well-established in the Ottawa market and had customers across eastern Ontario. Elias’ brother, Eric, joined in 1993 to take on the sales and marketing side of the business. Then the recession hit in the early ‘90s. The Eliases responded by turning the company’s focus from retail to the institutional market: hospitals, schools and offices.

When the home renovation market revived about 1996, the Eliases adjusted their strategy again. Without giving up their industrial clients, they began selling to developers and home builders in Ottawa. This offered the possibility of selling kitchens by the tens or even hundreds of units. They opened a showroom on a major commercial street in the heart of Ottawa, and they changed the name of the business to Muskoka Cabinet Co., named after a popular summer cottage and vacation region of Ontario.

“The name ‘Muskoka’ evokes ideas of wood and craftsmanship, and we found that for our client base, it’s associated with ideas of quality work,” Eric Elias explains.

Muskoka Cabinet sublets some of its retail space to two of its homebuilder clients, Tamarack Developments and Domicile Developments. “One of the biggest areas for new home upgrades is the kitchen,” Eric says. Sharing retail space also allows the homebuilders to show potential clients what upgraded cabinets actually look like, and provides a valuable source of sales for the cabinetmaker.

Muskoka Cabinet’s reputation in the industry has given it the credibility to sell everything from bookcases and TV stands to shelf systems and wall beds manufactured by Sauder Furniture, Bush Furniture and Richelieu.

Muskoka Cabinet has doubled in size in terms of both sales and number of employees since 1996. It has 22 employees and just ended another record-setting year of sales. Muskoka Cabinet had its best-ever summer in 2003; retail sales were at least 20% over the previous summer’s. “We’re selling and installing more than six kitchens, at $15,000 and up, every month, and the wholesale side of the business has grown even more. There’s no recession in Ottawa,” Eric says.

     
 
Muskoka Cabinet Co. displays promotional material about Woodstalk and its uses in the showroom.  
     

On the production side, Muskoka has invested in modern equipment, but retained its existing, skilled workforce and work patterns. It has an SCM 320 horizontal sliding table saw. For edge finishing, there is a Biesse Polymac Ergo 5 edgebander with a return conveyor, buffer, powered height adjustment and hot-air PVC blower.

The company’s big investment was a Biesse Rover 30 CNC machine center with nesting table. This computer-controlled machine not only routs and bores panels, but Luke Elias explains that the company cuts every panel with it. Operators download an electronic file with the dimensions of all the panels to be cut, the dimensions for routing and boring, and then walk away while the Rover cuts, routs and bores panel after panel.

Muskoka Cabinet Co. has also expanded its product line. “We’re up to about 300 different combinations of door material, color and style,” says Eric, with some 15 different colors of wood are available and more styles are added every year. “We’re also using more stainless steel and glass in our cabinets and other products.” The company has recently added a new line of custom wall units as well as more old-fashioned, furniture-like cabinetry. Its most recent additions are new lines of custom closets.

Three years ago; Eric and Luke Elias started to look for a new material to work with. “We first found a new kind of MDF. It was great, but too expensive,” says Eric. Then, they found Woodstalk. “It’s a little more expensive than standard composite board, but much cheaper than the other MDF we looked at.”

Luke Elias says the company’s long-term goal is to totally convert its panel products to strawboard. However, getting enough in to make a complete switch to the product is still impossible because there isn’t enough available at the price that Muskoka Cabinet wants.

“We order our boards ‘laid up,’” Eric explains. “[Right now], Woodstalk is not available in the volumes or the range of sizes and options that a custom kitchen manufacturer needs.”

The Elias brothers add, however, that they are confident these limitations will be reduced as strawboard demand grows.

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