CNC Provides a Competitive Edge

Custom shop owner David Evanoff says his high-tech equipment helps him keep expenses low and productivity high.

By Hannah Miller

     
Pivotal Design

Charlotte, NC

Year Founded: 1998

Employees: 8

Shop Size: 5,200 square feet

FYI: Borrowing from his background as a mechanical engineer, owner David Evanoff says he likes to add little convenience features to his custom furniture pieces.

 
   
     

Woodworker David Evanoff remembers standing before officials at the University of Virginia several years ago, bidding on a $150,000 job when his company, Pivotal Design, had only two employees besides himself. He publicly assured his prospective clients about his Charlotte, NC, woodworking company’s ability to do the job. But he privately wondered how they would ever get it done.

However, he says, “We’re like puffer fish. Those little fish, when they get spooked, they get real big.” Exuding confidence, he got the job. Stretching themselves to work long hours, he and his small work force got it done.

Evanoff has seven employees now besides himself. He says he avoids temporarily swelling his work force for big jobs, relying instead on putting in extended hours and using his highly efficient, computerized equipment. “When I hire people, I want to retain them,” he says, “and employees generally want to work overtime.”

In its five-year existence, Pivotal Design has grown to about $500,000 in yearly sales by doing residential and commercial furniture, cabinets and fixtures, including display cabinetry for museums and other clients in the exhibits field. It is owned by David and his wife Kym, and he is president.

“I believe in adding machinery rather than people,” David Evanoff says. Pivotal Design’s sophisticated machinery can be operated by relatively unskilled woodworkers, he adds, and this way, payroll expenses are kept low, providing flexibility in bidding jobs.

     
 
The Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, NC, near the former senator’s hometown, sponsors lectures by world figures. Working from Evanoff’s memory of the United Nations building in New York City, Pivotal Design fashioned this desk for the center. It commemorates a Helms UN visit. “Talk about pressure,” Evanoff says. “We finished this up on a Friday. Margaret Thatcher was coming in Saturday.”  
     

One prospective client, Evanoff recalls with amusement, “thought we had missed something in the bid package because we were so low.”

Actually, Pivotal Design has won jobs because it had the technology to simplify custom products and produce them quickly, he says. Its competitors could not, he adds, because “they didn’t have a sliding table saw or a CNC router set up for capacity.

“You have to be fast. There’s always somebody there to cut you off at the knees,” he says.

Evanoff, who worked five years for another woodworker before going out on his own, has a plan for buying machinery. He bought a Weeke BP50 CNC router a year ago. He also has an Altendorf F45 sliding table saw. “The next thing on the horizon will be a widebelt sander,” he says. He already has one picked out, a Butfering from Stiles Machinery.

He plans ahead for purchases, rather than leasing machines. He says he has seen woodworkers with lease payments “that eat them alive.” So he prefers to buy equipment outright.

When he started the company, he bought machines on eBay. He still uses some older machines that he really likes, like an Oliver joiner made in 1928. “It cost me as much to ship that across the country as the piece itself cost,” he says. He also uses two Lamello biscuit machines and Fein hand tools, including several 6-inch random orbital sanders.

Pivotal Design does its finishing in a totally enclosed spray booth. It is by Americure, which is a brand normally used for automotive finishing. The spray guns are DeVilbiss, and the catalyzed lacquers are from Sherwin-Williams.

There were several reasons for investing in the spray booth, Evanoff says: It keeps dust down, moves the air around and reduces fumes. As he was interviewed, a dozen or so lacquered black boxes lay drying in the booth. The plywood boxes were drawers that fit into makore casework, and their blackness provided a striking contrast to the wood’s elaborate grain.

A Detour to Woodworking

After growing up in Cleveland, OH, and earning an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology from Cuyahoga Community College there, Evanoff went to work for NASA. He spent four years building instruments used in testing. When he moved to Charlotte, there were no similar jobs available. Having always liked woodworking, he went to work for veteran Charlotte woodworker Tom Hobgood.

     
 
Pivotal Design did this combination display cabinet and bar of solid cherry and cherry veneer for a University of Virginia sports center. It features 1-1/2-inch cherry bullnosing and applied panels underneath.  
     

Hobgood downsized his shop five years ago to concentrate on a limited production line of furniture he and his architect brother introduced. So Evanoff went out on his own, with Hobgood’s blessing and customer contacts.

Today, Evanoff indulges his engineering bent by adding conveniences and special touches to the furniture, cabinets and fixtures that Pivotal Design builds. For instance, cantilevered nightstands that he built into an architectural wall include light switches that can be easily flipped on or off from bed. If you want to turn on the light from a conventional bed, Evanoff gripes, “you have to physically move yourself.”

Telephone jacks are inside rather than outside the nightstands, which are cherry veneer in a contrasting pattern. “I didn’t want to put these crazy white plates on my nice cherry,” Evanoff says.

He says he pays close attention to the aesthetic elements of woodworking, as well as its more practical side. He marvels at a piece of extra-wide Macassar ebony that he bought at considerable cost from a company now out of business. It came from Germany in the 1930s, he says. Most of his veneer comes from Certainly Woods in East Aurora, NY, and Herzog-Elmiger Inc. in High Point, NC.

Evanoff says he learned from Hobgood how to continue a veneer grain almost seamlessly across the several surfaces of a piece of furniture. In the aforementioned cantilevered nightstands, the top, face of the frame and drawer fronts were all cut from the same taped piece of veneer, so the grain runs together with almost no interruption.

The match was accomplished by making the piece of veneer wider and longer than the top and front combined, Evanoff says. It was first pressed to the top piece. Then the remainder of the veneer was knifed off quickly and attached to the face of the frame. Just as quickly, the drawer fronts were razored out.

Timing is important in such work, Evanoff adds. Veneer absorbs more moisture when it is not pressed to a substrate, and the smaller the pieces, the more moisture is absorbed. “You have to do it real quick. It’ll grow on you,” he says.

After pressing veneer to the top, he tries to let no more than a couple of hours elapse before assembling and veneering the rest of the box.

Evanoff handles sales, design and hand-drawing of plans. His brother Chris, is shop manager. Evanoff’s wife Kym, who works in e-commerce for a large Charlotte bank, “makes it all possible” with her support and advice, he says. Occasionally, he adds, he recruits her to help with sanding.

     
 
A $150,000 University of Virginia job included cabinetry for its Sports Hall of Fame.  
     

The CNC router from Stiles Machinery, “is a great equalizer,” says Chris. His two years’ experience matches up against David’s 10 years when he is using the router, he says.

“I can do in a few minutes things he probably couldn’t do in a day” using a non- computerized router and a straight edge, Chris adds.

Pivotal Design’s small work force represents a variety of nationalities, including Mexico, Colombia and Vietnam. David Evanoff gives them credit for sharing his own serious attitude about the work, he says, adding, “They are loyal. They enjoy working for me.”

Coming from countries considerably poorer than the United States, he adds, they try to save everything, which can almost be a challenge. For example, he says he would be “covered up in saved scraps of wood” if he allowed it. “I can’t throw foam out without someone getting upset about it,” he says. “I haven’t had to buy packing materials in a long time.”

Included among Pivotal Design’s client list is Pfeifer Furniture in High Point. For Pfeifer, the shop makes simple, clean-lined pieces often used as store fixtures by retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue. “Contemporary is pretty much the bent we have here,” Evanoff says.

He believes that versatility is the key to survival for woodworking shops. Pivotal Design’s exhibits and museum work dropped sharply after 9/11, he says, as people traveled less. “I was able to shift from exhibits to furniture and get through that tough time.”

The machines he keeps adding in the 5,200-square-foot shop also help ensure Pivotal Design’s continued success, Evanoff adds. “Every piece we put in place makes us that much more competitive.”

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