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

 

Utilizing technology to augment its hand-craftsmanship, Widdicomb presses multiple veneers to produce "heirloom quality" pieces like this end table.

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

The Wemhoner veneer press features a 5-foot by 10-foot platen and is capable of pressing up to 50-square-feet of material every two minutes, depending upon the dimensions of the core. The press works in conjunction with a workcell that was thought out and designed when the company constructed a 60,000-square-foot addition in 1996. The addition houses the press, rough mill, veneers and lumber, as well as some of the basic furniture construction operations. The rough mill and veneer operations moved into the building a year and a half ago. Prior to that, Widdicomb leased the area to other tenants while the operations were transferred from the old building.

"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

Because the company strictly manufactures high-end furniture reproductions, Widdicomb's biggest task with increasing automation was finding ways to incorporate technology into its operations without sacrificing the hands-on quality its customers had come to expect. That challenge, added with increased numbers of contract sales, might spell trouble for a lot of organizations. But the company remains true to its roots, focusing on the production of high-end residential pieces and contract panels that the company would use in its own products. According to Venti, the "heirloom quality" aspect of Widdicomb's lines are what makes the company's products so special and Widdicomb goes to great lengths to preserve that.

"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 G�ÿscrap' 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

One-Hundred-Forty Years and Counting

With a history that dates back to 1858, The John Widdicomb Co. is one of the oldest continuously operating furniture companies in the United States.

Originally started by George Widdicomb, who emigrated from Devonshire, England to Grand Rapids, MI, the Widdicomb Furniture Co. brought European-style training to what was then the American frontier. The marked difference in style from the contemporary cabinetry of the time brought a prosperous amount of business to the company.

Following the Civil War, all four of George's sons, including John Widdicomb, joined the business and the company continued to expand. Grand Rapids was becoming the center for furniture production in the United States, and the company was at the forefront of the area's businesses. With the readily available woods of Michigan and improvements in transportation, the company expanded its scope and began selling products in Chicago, Boston and New York.

In 1897, John Widdicomb started up a new business separate from his father's. This company is known today as The John Widdicomb Co. Constructing interior woodwork and fireplace mantels in a plant located across the street from his father's location, he was joined by his nephew Ralph Widdicombe, who designed every piece of furniture the company constructed until his retirement in 1951. Widdicombe was awarded numerous awards, including first place for his modern bedroom suite at the 1900 Paris Exposition. He also introduced Louis XV Provincial designs to this country in 1924, helping spark the interest in Provincial furniture that still exists today.

In 1970, The John Widdicomb Co. purchased the name of the Widdicomb Furniture Co., even though the latter had ceased furniture production several years earlier. Widdicomb continued to produce furniture in parts of the original facility, located just west of the Grand River in Grand Rapids. Some sections of the original factory started by John Widdicomb are still used at the current plant.

Widdicomb has also continued to evolve as the year 2000 approaches. In March 1996, Jim DeVries purchased John Widdicomb Co. from East Jordan Works. East Jordan, which produces cast-iron manhole covers, turned the company over to a furniture lover, adding to Widdicomb's colorful history.

"Mr. DeVries looks all over the world for furniture pieces," says Ted Venti, director of Widdicomb's contract sales department. "He is a furniture collector who is extremely passionate about great furniture. Not that we had any difficulties under East Jordan, but it's really nice to have a person who is passionate and loves furniture controlling and guiding the company's future."

Widdicomb has evolved from producing mantles and cabinets to the current manufacture of more than 300 French, Italian, English and Russian reproductions. And with 140 years in its back pocket, quality and craftsmanship are two things the John Widdicomb Co. has in great supply.

-John Iwanski

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

With the incredible array of furniture that Widdicomb produces, it is no surprise the company also stocks such a wide variety of veneer. Widdicomb has its own purchasing agent whose job is to select veneers. The company utilizes more than 25 different standard veneer types, but Venti noted that the company is not limited in the scope of veneers it selects.

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

Venti is responsible for all veneer purchases for Widdicomb's contract business. The department is run as a separate business, which Venti says allows the company more flexibility with its customers. Venti speaks with clients to find out their needs and lead times, then gets the materials together for the veneer pressing line to assemble.

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

Building furniture for over 140 years, The John Widdicomb Co. has seen trends come and go. But Venti foresees the contract aspect of the company's business to be a big part of its 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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