High-Tech Equipment Transforms Company’s Vision for the Future

Quality Woodshop’s new CNC router and nested-based software are helping to define this North Carolina cabinet shop’s product offerings.

By John Koski

 

Purchasing a CNC router and utilizing nested-based software was not a difficult decision for Billy Helig and Marty Williams, co-owners of Quality Woodshop of Albemarle, NC, to make.

“Everyone we talked to said, ‘This is the technology you need,’ and it absolutely is,” Helig says. “It’s not difficult to see that you need to jump to this technology.”

That jump resulted in the purchase of a Thermwood Model 40 CNC router this past April and incorporates the nested-based capabilities of Cabinet Vision software, which the company had already been using for several years.

The installation went smoothly and before long the new equipment was operational. Then came the surprise.

“We underestimated how fast and how efficient the CNC router and nested-based software would be,” Williams says. “The machine has literally outworked us. We got caught up in a hurry. What used to take 2-1/2 days to build, we can now do in a day.”

 

     
     
  Employees ‘Beat Up’ Cabinet Doors to Satisfy Client’s Request

Quality Woodshop of Albemarle, NC, is always open to new challenges and opportunities.

“Not long ago,” co-owner Billy Helig says, “a man brought in an antique-looking cabinet door and said, ‘This is the color I want and this is how I want it to look.’ What he was after was a distressed, worn, antique-type look. We felt we could create the effect he was looking for, so we accepted the job.”

The company then had to develop a time-consuming, multi-step process.

“The first thing we did was to take a new door and knock off all the edges with a sander,” Helig says. “Then we took a nail and a file to distress the surface and to get it looking like it was old. It was time-consuming because every door had to look different.”

 

     
     
   
  Although this cabinet door looks like an antique, it actually started out as a select hard maple door. An entire set of the doors was “aged” at a client’s request using an 11-step process developed by Quality Woodshop.  

Employees then applied a dark stain to the doors. After the stain had dried, sealer was applied to prevent the stain from bleeding through. The sealer was then lightly sanded.

The doors were then painted in a light color. Once dry, the doors were scraped by hand where they wanted some of the dark stain to show through, such as on the corners and edges. Then they were sanded and a hand-tinted glaze was applied. A sealer coat went on top of the glaze and the doors were sanded once again. The doors were then finished with two coats of clear finish.

Determining the finish color depends on what type of paint is put on and the type of glaze that is put on top of the paint.

“While finishing a normal set of cabinets would take less than a day, doing something like that took an entire week,” Helig says. “It’s not a secret process, but a lot of companies won’t do it, because of the time involved. It’s definitely hands-on.

“On a project like that, we couldn’t just put three people on it because every person does it a little differently. For example, one person might make the doors a little darker, while someone else will make them lighter.

“We have two people who do this,” he says, “but each person performs a different stage in the process to make sure that all the doors look similar.”

“The doors looked beautiful once they were installed, but the contractor told us that he could have gone out and bought a condemned house and kept the old cabinets and charged the homeowner a lot less. We had to really upcharge on a project like that because of the time involved.

“When we antiqued those doors, we used brand new, expensive maple doors that we beat up to make them look old,” Helig says. “However, we’ve learned that we don’t have to buy high-priced maple doors to do that. We could have used poplar just as easily, and possibly could have done it with MDF. To spend money on select maple doors and then beat them up doesn’t make a lot of sense. We learned a lesson on that project because the homeowner wouldn’t have known or cared either way, because all he wanted was a specific look. We learn lessons here every day.”

— John Koski

 
     

As a result, Williams is spending more of his time outside the shop looking for additional work to keep the CNC router busy.

“Up until we got the router we had all the work we wanted and all we could handle,” Williams says, “but now, I’m basically doing marketing by spending more time promoting our products and services. The machine does such a great job, it doesn’t make sense to just let it sit there, so we’re trying different approaches to marketing the services that it can perform.”

Back to the Beginning

Quality Woodshop is the result of a merger between separate businesses operated by Helig and Williams.

Helig began his career in the woodworking industry employed in the cabinet shop of a large mobile home manufacturer in the Albemarle area. In 1992, he started his own cabinet business in a 24-by-30-foot garage next to his home. Two years later, he moved the business to its present location, which consists of 6,000 square feet.

“I moved in here and there was no way I thought I’d ever fill it,” Helig says. “All I had was a Jet table saw, a Jet jointer, a Craftsman air compressor and a Woodmaster planer/sander/moulder. The equipment did what I needed it to do, but I knew where I was headed. So, I bought a 24-inch widebelt sander and then started upgrading to newer and bigger equipment. Sometimes I think I’ve done it too fast, but there are always machines that can help you, but you’ve got to choose the right ones –– and they’ve got to pay for themselves. You also have to look at the labor they save.”

In 1998, he and Williams became partners. “Billy and I sort of merged business and formed a new corporation together,” Williams says. “It’s worked out so well and we just love each other like brothers.

“Before we became partners,” Williams says, “I was involved in antique restoration and furniture building. I had my own shop on the other side of town and Billy and I met because he had equipment that I didn’t have, so when I needed something done I came to him. When we became partners, we merged our equipment and sold off the duplicates.”

“Not long after Marty and I became partners,” Helig says, “we realized that this building wasn’t big enough to produce both custom furniture and cabinets. We just ran out of room.”

At that point, Helig and Williams decided to focus on their most profitable segment, which was building and installing residential kitchen cabinets.

“We just didn’t have enough volume to justify continuing building custom furniture,” Williams says. “Billy basically built the business we enjoy right now.”

In addition to Helig and Williams, the business consists of Helig’s wife and four other employees. Yearly sales volume is around $1 million.

“At least 90 percent of our business is referral,” Williams says.

“We normally produce face-frame cabinets, but we do some Euro-style cabinets,” Helig says. “We probably do 80 percent face frame, but we’re trying to move into faceless and Euro-style so we can do more commercial work. Most of our business is residential, although we do have a few commercial contractors that we work with. We work with both homebuilders and individual homeowners.

“We feel that one of our strengths is that we produce for people,” he says. “If they want it, we can do it. Whether it’s glazing or something else.”

Quality Woodshop works in about a 100-mile radius of Albemarle, which includes all of the metropolitan Charlotte area 40 miles to the west, Lake Norman and Pinehurst, a large retirement area.

Growing Pains

As its cabinet business increased, space once again was at a premium.

“As we grew, we needed more space,” Helig says. “So, we asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to move into a bigger building or do we want to invest in machinery?’”

“We chose the machinery for now,” Williams says. “Until we decided to invest in the CNC router, we were seriously thinking about buying or building another building.

“The router does what it’s supposed to do,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that. But it has a lot more time available than we had anticipated. Probably the only premature thing we did was not having a strong backlog of products for the CNC router. Because it’s a major investment, we now need to find more work for it.”

The CNC/Software Combination

Quality Woodshop’s increased productivity and efficiency is attributable to the CNC router and the nested-based software working in conjunction with one another.

 

     
     
   
    Co-owner Marty Williams adjusts a shelf in a storage unit Quality Woodshop recently built and installed for a church. The project also included several kitchen and classroom areas.

The nested-based portion of the Cabinet Vision software used by Quality Woodshop automatically optimizes all the parts for a job and graphically displays the nested panels and materials on-screen. Print outs can also be made of the screen displays. In addition, the user can edit individual panels, add or remove parts and manually nest irregularly shaped parts for maximum yield.

For example, the program can create parts lists for 100 differently sized cabinets and then nest all of the individual components for those cabinets onto panels in a way that minimizes waste.

“We decided to use nested-based software after looking at the blind dado system that Thermwood had,” Helig says. “One of the problems we had with our vertical panel saw was that we were accumulating piles and piles of offal that we had no application for. So, it just made sense to go to a nested-based system where we can optimize material. Now, we sometimes even have to cut up good material for sleepers and nailers because we don’t create as much offal as we used to. It has reduced our waste by a tremendous amount.

“When we run a nested-based program,” he says, “we generally run from five to 25 sheets of 4-by-8-foot material. Our waste factor is generally around 15 to 20 percent, and it can get as low as eight percent. The only time we get into much waste is when we get down to the last items and the nested-based program had no where else to put them except on a full sheet. Compared to a panel saw or a table saw, it’s utilizing material much better.”

The CNC router is the other half of the equation.

“Before we got the Thermwood CNC router,” Helig says, “we cut everything on a panel saw and a table saw. We also had a cross-dado machine and a line-boring machine. Now all of those functions can be done on the CNC router.”

“In addition, the accuracy of the CNC machine is really a strong factor,” he says. “The panel saw cut accurately, but every time the operator had to set the stops, the question became, ‘How accurately is he setting them?’ Fatigue is a major portion of that because once you cut a board, you have to lift it out and reposition it to cut it the other way.”

“We did experience some slowdowns with tooling on the CNC router because we needed to understand the proper tooling and what we had to do for certain applications,” Williams says. “However, we’ve pretty much got that resolved and aren’t really having any problems anymore.

“For cutting angles, the CNC router is tremendous,” he adds. “If we had to do that manually, we’d have to use a jig. We can draw a piece on the computer, the software will automatically determine the angles and the CNC router will cut it out.”

Repositioning Employees

“We really had to rethink how we were using our people once we started using the CNC router,” Williams says. “Before we got the router, we had one person who was primarily our finisher. We would send the cabinets to the finishing area and he would get the job done by himself. Now, it’s taking more people to get that work done because we can get more cabinets to the finishing area faster because it doesn’t take us as long to cut and machine the parts and assemble them. The hardest part now is getting them finished and out the door.

“We used to have three people on the front end of the process doing the cutting and machining. Now, we’ve gone to the finishing side and it takes more people there because we get more done quicker. So, we’ve had to rethink how we are using our employees and who we’re using for doing what type of work.”

Looking Ahead

“Because we have friends in the area who have CNC routers, we knew what they could do and we knew that purchasing one would be justified for us,” Williams says. “But it’s just not being used enough, and that’s what we really need to focus on now.”

“We’re looking to get into commercial case goods work,” Helig says, “ such as office suites, reception desks, conference rooms and kitchens for commercial offices.

“One of the areas that we’re really going to push is commercial projects in Charlotte,” Williams says. “Charlotte is wide open with a lot of commercial construction going on. Up until now, we’ve stayed with residential because we didn’t want to get into the Euro look and faceless, frameless cabinets. But now, we’ve realized that that’s what the CNC router does best.

“Now that we’ve got the machine’s technology under our belts,” he says, “we feel comfortable going out and approaching the commercial market.”

“If I had my wish, I’d like to do strictly commercial work,” Helig says. “Commercial work is pretty much cut and dry because you’re generally working for a contractor. You still have to do quality work, but generally an architect is involved and has specified the design and finishes. So, you just go by the plans and build it.”

“Another area we haven’t really developed yet is fixturing,” Williams says. “There’s a furniture company here in town that has asked us to look into making chair components for them by the thousands. However, because it’s board stock, they would need to be fixtured on the CNC machine in order for them to be cut out. However, we’re excited about all kinds of possibilities for furniture components. We have done custom closet components for our customers as well as for other contractors. Likewise, we have cut and machined cabinet parts for other cabinet shops to help them with their backlog.”

“It would suit me just fine to do nothing but cut custom components for someone else,” Helig says, “and it could very easily happen. We’ve made a lot of connections recently with people wanting parts cut by the thousands. I’d like to get to the point where we need another CNC router.”

“Right now, we’re really struggling with space,” Williams says. “I think we could do a lot more if we had more room. If we had more space, the CNC router would lend itself more into taking us into furniture building, but that would take us away from our focus of what we have to do right now. We have the interest, and certainly geographically we’re in an area where there’s an opportunity to do make furniture because both Billy and I enjoy designing furniture and coming up with prototypes and production methods.”

Using the Internet

“We recently got on Thermwood’s Web site to market our ability to cut mouldings for other companies,” Williams says. “So far, all of the companies that have contacted us are producing upholstered furniture and are looking for frame parts, which would be sheet stock and flat material.

“The advantage to using sheet stock for furniture components is that we can optimize our material and can cut out components, such as legs, without fixturing the product on the machine.”

Lessons Learned

What advice would Helig and William give to other woodworking businesses considering purchasing CNC equipment?

“Look down the road,” Helig says, “Determine what your needs are now, but always look to the future. Think about what your needs might be a year from now. If the machine does what it’s supposed to do, then a year from now, it’s not going to be enough. It’s going to be cheaper to buy a bigger or faster machine now, than to upgrade in a year or two.”

Williams agrees. “Anybody who’s going to get a CNC router should be looking ahead to what it will be doing,” he says. “There are things that we wish we had done differently. One of them is having a 5-by-10-foot table instead of the 4-by-8-foot table we have, but it was additional money and we were limited on space. It actually took us longer to figure out where we were going to put the machine than it did to put it there. We also should have purchased the multi-spindle drilling attachment.”

“There was also a learning curve, and I’m still learning,” Helig says. “When we first started using the CNC router and nested-based software, it slowed us down because we didn’t know how to use them effectively. We were learning how to use them and we were making mistakes, but now we can cut out so many more components and do it so much faster and more accurately –– no matter what angles and shapes are involved.”

“When you make the decision to invest in CNC machinery,” Williams says, “you have to be able to make it work. Every day we learn new things about it. Not really what it can do, but what we can make it do. That’s where we’re learning something every day.”

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