Widdicomb Updates Veneering Prowess
The John Widdicomb Co. combines Old World craftsmanship with New Age automation to improve productivity and offer "heirloom quality" sourcing services.
By John Iwanski
Located in a factory that "bridges" the gap between the handcrafted furniture built in the 1920s and the modern, efficient means of furniture production today, The John Widdicomb Co. of Grand Rapids, MI, has found a way to use both modern technology and Old World craftsmanship to achieve a look all its own.
The company has added a Wemhoner veneer press and adopted workcell methods to provide more efficient use of its labor-intensive work force. Splicers, a guillotine and a new adhesive mixing system have also improved the company's throughput.
Though the company is highly automated, credenzas and tables still receive handpainted treatment and intricate veneer patterns. Workers clamp a desk and shelf by hand while 10 feet away, a point-to-point machine spits out piece after finished piece. Even though all the finishing is now completed in one section of the company's old factory, company executives still ask when the "bridge date" for a piece of furniture is, a reference to the company's early days when built furniture was run across a covered bridge that connects the two parts of the factory separated by a street below.
It is in this environment that John Widdicomb has found an impressive way to link the future of woodworking with the history of woodworking craftsmanship.
Technology Spurs Growth
"When we built the addition, we wanted to make sure that we designed the area to be efficient," says Ted Venti, director of contract sales for Widdicomb. "By having a plan and an organized flow for our products, it allows us to be much more efficient than when we were in the previous building."
With the substantial investment that Widdicomb placed in its veneering processes, and the emphasis on the workcell concept that the company implemented, the new surroundings were icing on the cake for a dramatically improved work environment.
"In the old building, it would get cold and it was difficult to regulate the temperature," says Marty Jones, Widdicomb's veneer/rough mill supervisor. "In the winter, you'd have snow coming through holes in the wall. Some mornings you'd walk in and see a raccoon hiding by the press."
With new facilities and machinery that Widdicomb felt was even better than advertised, the company found that it had not only upgraded its technology to a level that would support company growth, but learned it could even take on work for other people. According to Venti, that is when the ideas began buzzing about performing high-end veneer contract work for other companies.
"To attract outside business, we looked at people who want the same quality that we put into our product," says Venti. "We're not for everybody because our standards are so high, but we feel that our product speaks for itself and that companies are looking for that type of quality."
Combining Computer Equipment with Hand Craftsmanship
"We just do our own lines and pride ourselves on having veneer processes which not only have a full range of capability, but also have high-end capability," says Venti. "Getting involved in the elaborate aspects of furniture and veneers and using today's technology to enhance the art of furniture rather than take away from the craftsmanship is what we believe in," he adds.
The company's processes are different from the industry norm in a variety of ways, but perhaps most evident when looking at the yield taken from Widdicomb's impressive store of veneers. Widdicomb refuses to allow yield to affect quality, often trimming or splicing a sheet of new veneer stock to get only one or two pieces from it.
"We're using a three-to-one, four-to-one yield process," says Venti. "That's how much trimming and splicing we do. But that's what's required to get the kind of quality product we want."
Jones echoes Venti's feelings, noting that, "I get comments all the time from guys who wish that they could have our GÃÆ?ÃÆÃÂ¿scrap' as their inventory. We make a point to always have what we need and make sure that the veneering process is exacting all the way through from start to finish. Some people are amazed to see what we end up getting rid of, but when customers see the designs and what we use, it's worth it."
From Rejects to Perfection Right on Down the Line
Before the company upgraded its veneer press line, there were often glitches in the complex process, resulting in defects that created a higher overhead, both in price and labor.
The challenge: find a machine that could give Widdicomb exact heat-control to ensure high quality. Venti says the new press suited the company's needs exactly, from capability to product support, including the training that Wemhoner provided for the press operators. As a result, Widdicomb's defects from the veneer line are negligible.
The system also gets finished panels into the manufacturing lines more quickly, which helps improve productivity. The half-million dollar investment has proved to be exactly what Widdicomb was looking for.
"We were using two machines to handle the work before," says Jones. "And we had a lot more defects and trouble. The machines weren't bad, but they were 25 years old. After a while, there's only so much you can do with them."
The company also eliminated another difficulty in the veneering process: mixing the adhesives. According to Jones, the company had three different people who were responsible for setting up the gluing agent and "every one of them did it a little bit differently. They were kind of like chefs in the kitchen. Each has his own way, and each was a little different. The problem with that is we weren't getting the consistency in bonding that we wanted."
Widdicomb now uses a two-part adhesive from Borden that is mixed with a siphon system to ensure that the adhesive mixture is always the same. The adhesive is then applied with a Black Brothers glue spreader. The mix runs from two large overhead containers and is spread on the panels as they pass through the spreader. Venti says that this method has helped the company cut back on waste, increase efficiency and flexibility, and that when pressed, sets up as a solid. This eliminates movement between and the face and core and allows the user to keep control of both the veneer and core panel.
A transfer table then runs the cores from the gluing and process area and drops it on the veneer on the lay-up table. Once the panels are run onto the lay-up table, anywhere between one and four operators center the veneer faces and prepare to run them into the machine, depending on the size of the cores and the job required. Some sketch faces are made up of different veneer species of different thicknesses. For varieties in thickness, thin cardboard is placed together with the pieces to guarantee uniform pressing throughout and provide a flat, even surface.
The panels are then run into the press to receive heat and pressure, joining the two with over 160 psi. Oil from a gas-fired furnace heats the platen. According to Jones, required veneer pressures are not has high as what is needed with steam heating.
Another unique feature which Widdicomb has enjoyed has been the presses' ability to identify pieces that are going in. An "eye" identifies cores and veneers as they enter the machine and notes their position. Once the operator begins the pressing, pressure is only applied to areas where cores are actually located. This reduces wear on the machine and also makes it easier to run.
Finding the Right Veneers
Mahogany, French walnut and cherry are some of the most popular veneers the company uses, but with pieces that incorporate up to seven species for an individual table top, Jones says "there is always room on the shelf for another veneer."
Satinwood, crotch and burl mahogany and European (figured) sycamore are also popular, and clear maple is used in a several pieces as well. Venti notes that clear maple has crept up slightly in price, as has cherry, but that for the most part, veneer prices have remained stable.
Focused on High-End Contracts
Widdicomb's largest client and collaborator was NuCraft. According to Venti, Widdicomb was performing $2 million per year in contract work for the furniture manufacturer.
Though NuCraft has taken on its own veneer pressing with a 20,000 square-foot addition, Widdicomb has still been very active in contract veneer press work. Michigan State University hired Widdicomb to prepare panels for the school's new School of Business. Four hundred panels for the project were completed on the company's new press. Widdicomb also performs contract work for Baker Furniture and is introducing a program to produce veneer panels for use at trade shows and seminar exhibits.
"We're pressing panels at the highest quality we've ever made," says Venti. "Between design development and manufacturers, there has been a lot of collaboration. That has helped us develop a sense of what we're looking for. It also shows potential clients our goals, what we do and the standards that we set for ourselves and our products."
Using the Past to Build the Future
"The heirloom-quality pieces are beautiful and we take great pride in what we make, but most of these are accent pieces that customers may purchase for a room," says Venti. "By that, I mean that they'll pick out one or two pieces and use those to highlight the room. As the high-end market levels off, which it has been doing over the last few years, we need to find other niches that we do well and will provide us with continuing opportunities to be profitable."
The contract capability is only one aspect of The John Widdicomb Co.'s vast area of furniture expertise. But with continued technological improvements, the company is finding ways to keep the 19th century in style as the world enters the 21st. a"
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