Like many cabinet shops across the country, Certified Woodworking in Raleigh, N.C., faced a daunting challenge in the tough current economy: How to stay profitable amid a slowing demand for its primary residential cabinetry products? Owner Doug Smith decided to capitalize on his CNC capabilities to develop a new furniture line.

“I decided it was time to put my energy into something that was not cabinets,” Smith says. “I thought what do I have that I can utilize that is not available to every woodshop. That’s the CNC.”

Smith has long used a ShopBot CNC router in his cabinet production, but the new line he designed in Google SketchUp would purposely be a departure from that. Emphasizing curvy designs and an system that would allow for flat packing and easy assembly without fasteners, Smith started to develop a basic furniture line. Originally targeted at students, the first designs feature desk and shelf units, but they can easily be repurposed to any environment requiring computer stations and related storage.

He recently demonstrated one sample of the line at the ShopBot Jamboree in Durham, N.C. He showed how the separate pieces fit together with through mortises and tenons and locking tusks to make for sturdy yet simple construction.

Environmentally conscious

In addition to developing the line so it would be easily manufactured, easy to ship and priced competitively, Smith also wanted it to be environmentally responsible. Rather than using MDF like so many other ready-to-assemble products, Smith chose PureBond plywood in a 1-inch thickness. Developed by Columbia Forest Products and manufactured in North America, PureBond is a formaldehyde-free hardwood plywood that is both LEED and CARB compliant. The panels can also be specificed as FSC-certified upon request.

Marketing challenges

Smith is still in the prototype development stages for his new line, but he already knows that marketing will be his biggest challenge. He is exploring several options to partner with others on that facet of the new business. A longtime and active member of the Cabinet Makers Association, he has been networking with other CMA members to develop both marketing and production synergies that could benefit more than just his own shop in promoting and manufacturing the new products. But he readily acknowledges that he doesn’t expect it will be easy.

“In this market it is like you’re starting all over again,” he says.

Cabinet roots

Smith has been in his current location since 1990, but his woodworking roots go farther. We he started, he was framing houses and got to know the builders. That soon led to cabinet projects and setting up his own shop. At the peak of production doing residential cabinets and built-ins, he had five employees.

He moved out of doing kitchens in 2001 and started to focus on the other rooms in the house. Bookcases, window seats, entertainment centers and other built-ins became a specialty. A relationship with one designer-builder led to a profitable repeat business emphasizing bookcases.

But when the building boom went bust, price competition for the work that remained went through the roof, Smith says. Negotiated jobs went away and were replaced by competitive bidding situations. In one case, the winning bid was half his price, Smith says. As more competitive bidding took over a smaller market, the number of projects bid went up, but the number of jobs won plummeted. “The price is king,” says Smith, describing how his primary builder went from 25 houses a year to just four or five.

That’s when Smith decided he needed to reinvent his business or at least diversify beyond cabinets and built-ins.

CNC production

Smith feels he is well-prepared for a transition because he has kept up with technology on the production side. He uses a ShopBot CNC router and KCD software for cabinet design. Other shop equipment includes an Altendorf table saw with a TigerStop digital fence system for efficient cutting. There is also a Brandt Optimat KD5 edgebander.

Smith built a unique U-shaped cart to load and unload his ShopBot. The cart allows him to walk up the center to slide sheets onto the CNC or to pull parts off. While sturdy enough to easily support sheet goods, the plywood cart also has a bit of flex built into it, which Smith says makes it lots easier for one person to wiggle the first corner of a sheet onto the CNC work table.

He originally bought the CNC for use in his bookcase projects, saying it excelled for doing fluted stiles and arched headers. To increase the CNC’s efficiency, he added storage cabinets that house related tools and computer hardware in a convenient enclosed area under the worktable. He also built an enclosure for the control terminal to help deal with dust.

Scaling back and changing

Going down from five employees to his current one-man operation has been a function of the economy, but Smith also admits he actually likes the smaller size.

“When I had five employees, it was my job to get the jobs,” he says. “I’m happier as a one-man operation.”
Back in the shop, he is focusing on developing his new furniture prototypes and developing the systems needed to effectively market and manufacture them. He applauds his contacts through the CMA that have helped improve the business focus of his shop while providing local networking opportunities allowing multiple shops to team up to share knowledge, skills and resources.

He experimented in 2009 with a joint marketing program with two other shops exhibiting at a regional home show. That wasn’t entirely successful, but it provided the germ of the idea to help launch new joint ventures, including, Smith hopes, his new furniture line.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.