Ohio Cabinet Shop Makes a Long-Awaited CNC Investment

Getting high-tech equipment helps a cabinet shop tackle a large library renovation.

By Sam Gazdziak

For Greg Luettke, getting involved in CNC technology was more a matter of "when," not "if." In the early '90s, the woodworking company he was working for bought a point-to-point machining center.

"It was fabulous equipment," he says. "I didn't run it, but I saw what it could do, and I knew if the time was ever right for me to have a shop, I would get one."

Luettke, who founded Walbridge Woodworks Inc. in Walbridge, OH, eight years ago, got his CNC point-to-point machine in 1998. "We went 6 to 61&Mac218;2 years without it," he says. "All during that time, I knew I was going to get it. It was just a matter of time when we could afford to get into it."

Since buying the machine, a Biesse Rover 322, Luettke says the company's workload has greatly increased. "I knew that if we got this machine, we were going to get more work that we absolutely could not do without it. And it happened. It was a good move."

Walbridge Woodworks started as a contract job shop for a store fixture company where Luettke used to work, taking on work that the company subbed out to him. From there, he started bidding on commercial jobs on his own. The amount of work Luettke procured for his company has gradually increased over the years, to the point that he got all of his own work last year. "There was very little supplied by the other company," he says. "It was good, and I found I could handle it all by myself." The company now has 29 employees, including Luettke, his wife Sue, who is the vice president of the company, and his daughter Aime, who also works in the office.

 

A series of tables for the Toledo-Lucas County public library are assembled and await shipment. Many of the components for these tables have been machined on the company's 14-month-old CNC point-to-point machining center. Behind the tables, a group of roll-top desks are ready to be shipped to an audio-video company.

Walbridge gets much of its work now from the Dodge Report, a paid online service that lets Luettke find and bid on local jobs. From leads supplied by that report, he has built casework for banks, department stores, theaters and doctors offices, among other clients.

The company has primarily done plastic laminate work, but it has also done several high-end hardwood jobs, and Luettke says he would like to do more of that work in the future. Favorite projects of his include the Owens Corning world headquarters. Walbridge worked on the company's strategy rooms and boardroom, and built a facade for Owens Corning's movie projector booth. That one project was worth $500,000. Walbridge also did some renovation woodwork for the historic Valentine Theater in downtown Toledo, OH.

"Things like that are very gratifying, being able to do something like that, so you can say that you had a part in the restoration of an age-old theater," says Luettke. "It is such an old building in Toledo, and we were able to put a lot of our craftsmanship into it. It's going to stand there 100 more years with our work in it, hopefully."

Much of the work Walbridge has done are for projects that Luettke says could not have been done without CNC technology.

Luettke invested in CNC technology once he had the workload and resources necessary to make it work. In 1997, he bought a Homag Optimat CH03 panel he saw at the AWFS Woodworking Fair in Anaheim, CA. It was the first year the company generated more than $1 million in sales. The company topped the $1 million mark in again 1998 and 1999.

"We had a smaller shop, so we were really limited in terms of size," Luettke says. "That was the first saw I saw of that caliber that fit our size and our budget."

Luettke says that the saw has since proven to be a time-saver for his company. Previously, workers would have to make cuts on large panels on a manual vertical panel saw, and they would have to move the panel for each cut. The Homag saw can make several cuts on a panel automatically. Plus, it can cut more than one board at a time.

When the 1998 International Wood-working Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair rolled around, Luettke says he knew it was time to buy another machine. He struck a deal to buy the CNC point-to-point machining center that Biesse America was demonstrating in Atlanta, GA, at a discounted price.

Once it was set up, his other daughter, Kelly, went to Charlotte, NC, for a week to learn how to operate the machine. "She was on it for only a couple of months before she could take any project and figure out how to design a program for it," Luettke says. He also added an employee last year with some knowledge of CNC machinery. "With a good operator to explain it to him, showing him the points that were necessary to know, he picked it up in a couple of days. So now I have two operators." Luettke says it came in handy when the company needed to run double shifts on the machine for a recent project.

Walbridge currently is working on a renovation of the main branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library in Toledo, OH. The company is building all the computer and study tables, some of which will stretch 18 feet long when assembled. The tables are all solid cherry with cherry veneers and require mortise-and-tenon joining.

The contractor actually called for the tenons to stick out of the table legs, but the legs are 3 1&Mac218;2 inches, and Walbridge's Bacci tenoner makes tenons up to 13&Mac218;4 inches long. So, Walbridge is making mortises on opposite sides of the legs. One hole will form the actual mortise-and-tenon joint. The other will have screws inserted to tighten the joint. The screws will then be covered by a false tenon, which is actually a small block that will stick out of the leg to make it seem like the tenon is going through the leg. The result is the look that the designer wanted and a stronger joint, Luettke says.

The point-to-point has been used to do the line boring, make tabletops from oversized blanks, bore the mortise and grommet holes and cut out toekicks for base cabinets. It has also machined 1 1&Mac218;2-inch-thick curved pieces of cherry that will be used as edgebanding for large circular tables.

The CNC technology made manufacturing of the needed parts much easier, Luettke says. "Anything that we're making that has a radius, we would have had to do with a router and a template of some manner that would have had to have been fashioned by hand. With the CNC and the knowledge of the programmer, it only takes a few minutes to write a program.

"The mortising of the legs would never have been done without me buying this machine, or a special mortising machine," he adds. "Would one have been available at a decent cost? I don't know." Luettke bought a Timesavers sander and the tenoner (purchased from E.B. Mueller Co.) especially for this project. He adds that Mueller will most likely sell the tenoner for Walbridge after the tables are completed.

 

Walbridge Woodworks' president Greg Luettke says investing in CNC technology has brought his company jobs it could not have previously done. Here, Luettke's daughter, Kelly, and Chris McHugh prepare to machine cabinet panels on the Biesse Rover 322.

In addition to those machines, Walbridge Woodworks' 14,000-square-foot shop also has Delta and Powermatic table saws, a Homag CNC panel saw, a Striebig vertical panel saw and a Brandt edgebander. A Delta radial arm saw has been modified with table saw fences, allowing employees to accurately cut boards up to 10 feet long on it. An Ayen multi-spindle boring machine is used when the workload for the point-to-point is too great to do line boring.

Walbridge Woodworks is becoming even more high-tech, thanks to Luettke. He recently bought AutoCAD and plans to start making his own shop drawings that can be downloaded to the point-to-point and the panel saw. Currently, all shop drawings are done by a local CAD company.

Luettke says that there has been no hesitancy about buying the CNC equipment. In fact, he's looking to get another point-to-point and a computerized saw. "If a cabinet company like this is going to make it, it has to be computerized," he says. "The point-to-point is where you can get more creative over a shop that doesn't have it. So there was no question in my mind about spending the money."

 

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