September 2005

Stairmaker 'Steps Up' to Higher Profits

A new CNC router and CAD/CAM software give a Florida company an edge over its competitors.

When houses cost millions of dollars, the staircase often becomes a central interior focus, setting the tone for the residence's opulence. Such custom staircases can easily cost thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The parts for this dramatic staircase were cut entirely on Rock Woodwork's CNC routers.

To build these exclusive staircases with precision and beauty has always been the challenge for Rock Woodworks of Lake Worth, FL. But with the help of CAM software and new wood-cutting equipment, president Roger Rock is able to deliver staircases with style, beauty and precision fit.

Starting out as a general contractor about 25 years ago in the northern Palm Beach County area, Rock found himself being asked to also build staircases for his customers when they could not find anyone to do it. He says he was reluctant to build them, so he gave his customers a price with a generous profit built in, and they accepted it.

"Then people just kept coming and asking me to build stairs for them, so I figured I'd do it for a living," he says.

Currently, the company builds stair casements, railing systems, circular staircases and spiral staircases using wood or metal in traditional or contemporary styles. They also work with ornamental wrought iron, brass and stainless-steel, custom wood railings, hand-scrolled balusters and custom entry doors - all of which are usually done in-house.

Rock says that he targets high-end houses because they are not as affected by economy swings as lower-priced homes. In the Palm Beach County area, there seems to be no end to expensive houses where multi-million dollar canal homes sit alongside moored seven-figure yachts, he adds.

The company occupies a 10,000-square-foot building and has 14 employees. To produce precise wood components, it uses two Techno CNC routers in conjunction with Mastercam CAD/CAM software. The software is used to design components and interface with the routers.

Rock says, "I got on the Internet, started looking into CNC routers and was attracted to Techno because of the price. Never having been involved with CNC routers before, it was a little scary, but I went ahead. When it came time for software, my distributor recommended Mastercam. I took him at his word, and it has worked well for me."

A Host of Uses

One advantage for Rock is that few of his competitors own one CNC router, let alone two, which gives him an advantage in his area.

"I've had them almost a year now, and if we didn't have them, we would close our doors. I would quit," Rock says. "We do a lot of components with the routers and the software, such as stair treads, railings and newel posts. It just kind of goes on and on."

Rock Woodworks uses Mastercam software for stair design and running its two Techno CNC routers to cut the components.

As to what he likes about the software, he says, "The clear, illustrated dialogue boxes help explain the program and speed up the learning curve. Also, one of the functions I like is that you can type in fractions if you don't happen to know the decimal equivalent and it automatically converts it."

"We use it a lot for layout and renderings," Rock adds. "Whatever we draw in AutoCAD is sent to Mastercam and then to the router."

To help customers envision the final product, especially on an expensive job, the company also creates a rendering using the router.

"We put a point bit in the router's spindle and scratch out the stairway system in wood," Rock says. "We do a full-scale rendering of the whole rail system this way. Then we take it to the job site, stand it up and it goes together precisely. This allows the customer, who is spending maybe $50,000 to $70,000 on a railing system, to see what it looks like in the house. There isn't a week that goes by that we don't think of another thing for the software and router to do."

Rock's average stair and railing contract runs around $70,000 per house for a single system. But there have been projects that easily surpassed this figure, Rock says, such as one job that had $800,000 worth of stairs and railings in a 37,000-square-foot house.

Rock and four of his employees are trained on Mastercam. As for the learning curve, he says when they first purchased it, "We just got on the program and started working with it.

Large staircases are assembled in the shop to ensure a precise fit when they are installed onsite.

"We called our sales rep a few times and asked him questions, and we were on our way."

"I'm sure we're only scratching the surface of what the program can do," he adds. "But anytime we need it to do something, we either figure it out or call our sales rep. He really knows the program and what it will do."

With his expanded capabilities, Rock's future plans include moving into a new market niche, building circular stair kits for sale across the country.

"We're building these kits and putting them together, and they work perfectly," he says. "They're easy to build, and just about anybody can put them together. Somebody might normally have to pay $10,000 for a staircase. But we can get it to their doorway for $5,000, and they can install it themselves. We are selling them around our area to homeowners and builders, because that's primarily who we deal with. The money they save on the stairs, they're putting into custom railings. That's where the eye appeal is."

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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