Chair frame producer stays busy in contract market

Drive around High Point, North Carolina, and you will see allkinds of famous furniture names, and major suppliers that aren’t as well known.Business has been slow at some of these companies, and a few have closed. But othershave remained busy.

Ralph’s Frame Works is in the latter category.

This High Point company is primarily a manufacturerof solid hardwood furniture frames for seating, including ottomans, benches,chairs, sleepers, sofas, headboards, table tops and other items. They specializein the manufacturing of exposed wood frames.

The company makes frames and components for hospitality,residential, institutional, and health care furniture manufacturers. Their nichein the furniture industry is the ability to provide high quality, exposedwood frames with the use of CNC technology.

“This is a high-end frame operation, buying all kiln-driedlumber,” president Tommy Rice said. “About 80 percent of wood is maple andEuropean beech, with oak, ash, walnut and cherry also used.” The company alsomakes plywood frames that can be assembled like a puzzle, and they buy curvedplywood for some pieces.

Ralph's Frame Works employees 100 people in a 60,000square foot building in High Point. More than 75 percent of piecesproduced are exposed (not covered in an upholstered frame).  The company does not provide any finishing.

Ralph’s might do 85 percent of the work on a chair, for example,while an upholsterer may finish the piece with a seat back. Ralph’s name is noton product.

Rough end

At Ralph’s, the flow of work starts in the rough endsection with the use of cut-off saws, ripsaws, glue machines, moulders,planers, and CNC routers.

There are two sides on the rough end, a crosscut-first and a rip-firstoperation. Rice explained that the rip-first line can produce longer, clearerlengths. A computerized gang rip and a chop saw are optimized for best yield.

The company can take smaller pieces, glue them into panels, andthen produce a number of components from a single panel on a three-axis router.

The second phase of production involves the use ofband saws, and mostly older Bell and Medalist double-end tenon machines alongwith dowel inserters, table saws, corner block machines, vertical andhorizontal boring machines. Newer Koch dowel inserters and a Balestrinidouble-end tenoner are also used, along with several Tannewitz saws to cutcurved pieces. Other machines trim, bore and insert dowels.

The third phase of production includes shapers,sanders, profilers, and carving spindles to help prepare frames for finalassembly. Then frames are assembled and sanded for finishing. The last stage isthe packaging of assembled and unassembled frames and shipment.

Moulders can be used for cosmetic pieces, thinner pieces, and showwood. Older equipment is used for shorter runs, for now. A sanding line is oneof the last steps before chairs are shipped.

Five-axis CNC machines

The centerpiece of Ralph’s production are two Padefive-axis CNC machining centers, programmed to cut plywood and hardwood frameparts. Previously, the each piece had to go through several different machines,including boring machines, shapers, tenoners and dowel inserters.

The first Pade was set up here in December 2012. Rice said thatthere are not many craftsman out there anymore, so the new technology herereplaces the old hard-to-find skills. He likens this machine to a sophisticatedvideo game.

A second Pade five-axis machine was added in May. Ricesaid that the advantage of using Pade equipment is that it allows sevendifferent operations to take place in one stage. The CNC machines can take material straightfrom the ripsaw. They can trim, insert the dowel, mortise, and cut edges andgrooves in the wood.

The second Pade will have a few changes that Ralph’s requested, includinga dead stop, and changes in the clamps and safety glass.

The major CNC investment is a big part of Ralph’s productivityand quality gains. The CNC machines are the centerpiece of their manufacturingoperation and expansion of their capabilities, and are changing their business.

Changes in contract

One feature of the High Point operation is the “Showroom in theSky,” which consists of hundreds of chair frames suspended from the ceiling –and examples of many different designs made by the company.

Contract, hospitality and health care businesses require highvolume and shorter lead times than residential furniture.

Things have changed since the time Rice’s father started thebusiness in the 1950s. With the internet, it’s easy for people to see designsand want something similar.

Rice said that Ralph’s won’t sell someone else’s design, butthey will use common designs that they have developed themselves. Today, muchof the business is really acting as a jobber. A well-known furniture name will jobthe work out to other manufacturers. Much of the work Ralph’s does is forname-brand, high-end manufacturers.

Imports don’t work well in the contract business, Rice said. Ralph’scan deliver in only four to six weeks. China’s success has been in casegoods,not in upholstery, and there is still a lot of upholstery work in High Point.

Rice said a key manufacturing goal overall was reducing themovement of work from point A to Point B. The goal is to do four operations,for example, at one place.

“Other improvements in the manufacturing processthat we have made include updated software for the office and CNCrouters,” he said. “Future plans include further automation of equipment.”

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About the author
Karl Forth

Karl D. Forth is online editor for CCI Media. He also writes news and feature stories in FDMC Magazine, in addition to newsletters and custom publishing projects. He is also involved in event organization, and compiles the annual FDM 300 list of industry leaders. He can be reached at [email protected].