One afternoon in late June of last year, I received a short and somewhat confusing e-mail asking if we could “quote some end panels for bookshelves.” Nothing more, nothing less. I just about deleted the message without responding, grumbling to myself about the poor state of digital communication these days. But, since typing out a reply took almost no effort, I sent back a short message affirming that we could indeed look at, and provide pricing for, whatever work the client had in mind.
Let me just say that I am so glad I did not delete that initial message! The inquiry came from a company that was compiling a bid for the metal shelving and decorative end panels for a new public library that is being built in our town. The company was looking to us to provide a quote for 212 end panels. The end panels were quite custom and not something that they could easily get from any of their current suppliers.
Once I had received all of the necessary floor plans and architectural drawings, I began working on the estimate and very quickly realized that the size and scope of this job was bigger than anything we had ever completed before. When all was said and done, it ended up being about three times larger than our previous largest job! With that much money in question, I triple checked my material and labor cost, finalized the estimate, and held my breath as I pressed the “SEND” button. Two months later I had a contract in hand!
The estimated labor required for this job was in the neighborhood of 900 man-hours, which is gigantic for a small, 2-man operation! Thankfully, my brother was going to be working for me during the winter months, and his employee was also looking for work in the off-season. With the addition of their help, we had a fighting chance to build, finish and deliver what I was foolish enough to promise.
The required material was also a huge milestone for us. We would be ordering 120 sheets of quarter-sawn hard maple plywood, and 4,000 board feet of 8/4 quarter sawn hard maple. To put this into perspective, if we are particularly busy, a large order may consist of 300 board feet of hardwood and 20 sheets of melamine. We don’t even have a forklift, so landing a job of this size felt incredibly foreign, terrifying, and exhilarating all at the same time.
The easiest part of my job was estimating and landing the contract. The hardest part of my job was about to begin. It was now up to me to figure out the quickest and most efficient way to construct all 212 end panels and 36 countertops. There were multiple ways to approach the construction of these end panels, as is the case with just about every job. My goal was to determine which route was the simplest and most repeatable. Since I was going to have 3-5 employees processing the material at any one time, I wanted to eliminate any steps that required a “craftsman” skill level. Not that my guys aren’t good at what they do, but anytime you increase the skill level, you increase the chances for errors and mistakes.
I discussed multiple approaches with my brother, who would be running the production, we decided on the best method to process the solid wood rails and stiles and the plywood panels, crossed our fingers, and dove into the 8-foot-tall stack of plywood. Fast forward four months and all the parts and pieces were assembled, sanded, finished, delivered, and installed, with a happy client, and a new library full of patrons!
This job was a huge learning experience for us. It required us to work as a team more than ever before, and to communicate during every step of the manufacturing process to work out issues and snags. With this job, just about every guy in the shop was working alongside someone else to complete the task at hand, and to be honest, it was pretty cool to see! I pushed my management skills, since I had to not only keep this project on schedule, but also had to continue servicing current and future projects, and the guys pushed their production and organization skills, since a job like this can easily swallow up and overwhelm a small operation like ours.
We were able to complete the job quite a bit under my estimated labor projection, which gave us a healthy profit at the end of our efforts. As a result, we were able to purchase a new Saw Stop table saw for the shop, significantly increase the PTO (paid-time-off) hours for all of our employees, and squirrel away some cash, which we will be using for the down payment on the CNC we just purchased!
When you are able to navigate the logistics of a large job like this, and get your personnel to work efficiently as a team, there can be great rewards for your efforts. On the other hand, if you struggle to keep the manufacturing process organized, if everyone is going their own direction, and if there is no overall leadership, this kind of job can sink a small company. Thankfully, we were able to come together and work together as a team, deliver a great product, and make some money at the same time! jawoodworking.com
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