Connecticut Company Quadruples Output
Machinery upgrades and increased shop efficiencies help Starian Fabrication expand production without adding to its two-person staff.
By Greg Landgraf
In 1994, Starian Fabrication fabricated solid surface material for about two kitchens and four vanity tops per month. Today, monthly output is up to eight kitchens and 16 vanity tops.
Increased demand for the Danbury, CT company's countertops, aided by the strong economy, contributed to that growth, owner Stacy Boxer says. But new equipment and a reorganization of the shop also expanded Starian's capacity
The reorganization of the 1,400-square-foot shop is a continuing series of evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes. "We've straightened up this shop, reorganized it and reorganized it again to our benefit," Boxer says.
Part of that is the simple addition of shelves and cabinets to keep equipment accessible. Shop tools are stored in two areas to improve accessibility. Starian has separate installation tools, which it hangs on shelves installed as part of its organization efforts. Boxer says the arrangement eliminates worry over which tools are used for what purpose, because tools that go out on installations can be identified and gathered quickly.
Because of the variables inherent in the job, Boxer says installations have the potential to be a money-losing part of the job. To help reduce that potential, he says Starian checks every installation tool and supply for condition and quantity upon returning from a job. "If a battery drill needs to be recharged, it gets recharged and then put away," he explains. "So when it goes out on the truck for an installation next time, we know nothing's wrong with it."
Starian has also developed an effective system to store leftover material to be seamed and reused. Each sheet of solid surface has a serial number, and Boxer says if the numbers are within 50 of each other, the colors will usually match up perfectly. To aid in determining whether two pieces are close enough to use together, Starian puts a date on each leftover piece. "Different-sized leftover pieces are stored in different places in the shop," Boxer says, "but if the date is the same, the serial number will be also."
In terms of equipment, the biggest addition has been a Putsch-Meniconi vertical panel saw from Atlantic Machinery. Prior to purchasing it, Starian used a router and a straight edge to cut sheets of solid surface material until they were small enough to run through a table saw. "It took between five and eight minutes just to set up the routers and straight edges," Boxer says. "Now we're doing the same thing in under a minute."
The saw includes a package for V-grooving and cutting. Starian also uses the saw to trim the excess glue from joint edges, another function previously accomplished with routers.
Starian also upgraded its two-hp table saw to a five-hp Powermatic. Other equipment includes Dynabrade sanders, a JDS Air-Tech 2000 dust collector, a Delta 10-in. miter box saw with a triple chip blade for cutting solid surface strips, and about eight Porter-Cable 312-hp routers. Boxer says that Starian tries to keep routers dedicated to a single purpose, to save time by not having to change bits.
In addition, Boxer says that Starian had to specialize its equipment a bit to work with solid surfacing. "The industry is kind of a spin-off of the woodworking industry. We use similar tools, but not the same tools," he says. For example, while the company uses a panel saw that is suitable for woodworking, they needed it a bit longer and higher to accept a countertop, and a different blade to cut the solid surface. For a planned purchase of a power feeder for the table saw, Boxer says he will buy a set of specialized wheels to prevent slippage.
Other adaptations are not so high-tech. Starian uses a large conference table rescued from a real estate office demolition site for use as its primary workbench. One addition to it was a groove down the center of the table, which Starian uses to rout solid surface edges for mirror seaming. Two pieces of solid surface are clamped to the table, and the edges to be joined are routed simultaneously. The technique allows for invisible joints, because the edges will be mirror images of each other and fit together perfectly, even if they are not perfectly straight. Wheels were also added to the table, which allows it to be moved to make extra space in the shop if needed.
Starian also built a unit that doubles as a vertical seaming table and a material rack. The seaming table side is melamine, which the seaming glue won't stick to. The reverse side has racks to hold materials, and the whole unit is on wheels so it can be moved around the shop.
Both the new panel saw and the seaming table are tangible results of Starian's involvement with the International Solid Surface Fabricator's Association. The seaming table is based on one Boxer says he saw at another shop during an ISSFA tour. He says the panel saw was a major investment he wouldn't have made if he hadn't had the opportunity to speak with other fabricators and convince himself of the long-term viability of the solid surface industry.
Boxer credits ISSFA as a valuable resource. "Before ISSFA, if I had a question, I would call my distributor, and if he had heard a question like that before, maybe he could answer it," Boxer says. "Now, I have a list of 20 fabricators just in the state of Connecticut that I can call up."
Boxer entered the solid surfacing field in the late 1980s after attending a seminar hosted by Corian. The invisible seaming capabilities that solid surface offers attracted him to the medium. At the time, he was a general contractor, specializing in carpentry. "I did various things in the carpentry field," he says. "I figured this would be another thing to offer."
Boxer says he began to do larger contracting jobs, but made less money on them, due to the increased number of variables they entailed that cut into profits. In addition, contracting and solid surfacing were incompatible businesses. "When someone wanted a countertop, they couldn't wait until you were done with a deck," Boxer says. "When they needed the countertop, they needed the countertop."
While contracting, Boxer had built laminate countertops, so he knew the business. He decided to leave the general contracting field and build countertops full-time.
One of the negative surprises of jumping into the field was high material expense. Boxer says a sheet of solid surface can cost about $600, about six times the cost of a sheet of quality plywood.
The seaming capability is a prime benefit of the material, but it also makes for picky customers. "They talk about this stuff being inconspicuous," Boxer says, "but when you get right down to it, the customer wants invisible. If they see the seam, they're not going to pay for it."
Boxer began Starian Fabrication with a partner, who left the business in 1994. "There was basically no customer base, and the economy was pretty bad then," Boxer says. "It's probably just the last three years that business has really built up."
Boxer also began looking for outside work at that time, and began fabricating countertops part-time for Custom Craft Kitchens, a cabinetmaking shop in Monroe, CT. That arrangement turned out to be permanent: Boxer and employee Richard MacArthur still fabricate there about eight to 10 days per month.
Both sides gain from this setup. Custom Craft doesn't need to hire a full-time fabricator, which it doesn't have the solid surface work to support, but still has access to a full-timer's expertise. Starian, on the other hand, gets flexibility. "There are times when we're waiting two or three days for someone to install cabinets, so we can't get in there to measure," Boxer says. Fabricating for Custom Craft lets Starian keep busy while waiting for its own jobs to be ready to go.
Boxer describes Starian's work as being in the middle range of countertops. It does some work with inlays and poured inlays, though Boxer says the latter are rare because of the time and complication involved with grooving a space for the inlay, pouring it, letting it set and grinding it down. The company applies most of its edge treatments with stock rather than custom router bits.
About 75 percent of the company's work is for the residential market, and most is performed within 20 miles of Danbury. Boxer says an average kitchen from Starian costs between $4,000 and $5,000, while a single countertop runs about $1,000. Total sales last year were about $260,000.
Starian's marketing efforts include a mix of newspaper ads, home shows and word-of-mouth advertising, which Boxer expects will be a growing factor now that the company's production has increased. "I think there's something to the numbers that it exponentially gets the word out," he says. "If you're doing a job a month, there are only 12 people in a year who can possibly recommend you. Doing four jobs a month, there are four people a month that can recommend you - it doubles and doubles."
Boxer also sees good things for the solid surfacing industry as a whole. "I believe this industry is growing by leaps and bounds, in the last few years and the years to come," he says.
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