If you don't think we live in a global market, imagine this: A Middle Eastern furniture buyer in, say, Kuwait, orders an ornate chest in the style of Louis XIV of France -- and it's made in China.

During a visit to the WoodMac show in Shanghai recently, I had the opportunity to visit two woodworking factories in the Shanghai region and see how China's role in the international market is changing and expanding.

In one factory, much of the work was done by hand to make upscale, almost ornate classical designs. In the other, a panel processing operation was moving to modern methods with advanced equipment.

Neither shop had dust collection, and working conditions were, by American standards, difficult. Both companies exported a large portion of their production. (Thanks to Maria Trombly and Anna Zhang for arranging these visits.)

Trade with China isn't a one-way street. There's great demand for American brands of all kinds of consumer products.

It's also worth noting that an upscale furniture store in central Shanghai featured attractive room settings and made-in-the-U.S. furniture from Ethan Allen. The number of Chinese who can afford more than $1,000 for a quality chest or table might surprise you and that number is growing every day.

Handmade classics

Medusa Furniture Manufacture Co. Ltd. specializes in handmade classical furniture in European and Asian styles. The company, in the Minhang district southwest of Shanghai, employs 250 in a 36,000-square-foot factory.

According to Medusa, it offers "the quintessence of classical furniture that lies in the long-standing culture and tradition from generation to generation."

The company's products are sold in the Middle East (the ornate Louis XIV style already mentioned is especially popular there), Europe, Australia and the United States, Robert Bowen Hu, business manager, told FDM. U.S. production is sold through a Los Angeles distributor.

All work is custom, Hu says. There is much hand work and hand carving to make the upper-end furniture. In one small room, men hand-carve table legs one at a time, using a mallet and chisels. In another area, women cut out laser-outlined inlays by hand. They are later pressed into veneer, which is laid up on MDF substrate.

Medusa's furniture often features much ornamentation, including hand-painted panels and medallions with a metallic finish.

Limited equipment

Equipment here was limited. There were a few small to medium-sized table saws and small presses. There was no dust collection in the plant. Medusa is planning to expand to a new plant next year with 600 employees, Hu says.

Hujing Furniture Co. Ltd.'s 500 employees produce primarily office and hotel furniture, using modern European equipment in a 135,000-square-foot plant located in the Nanxiang area west of Shanghai, and in a second nearby plant. About 40 percent of its products are sold in China and 60 percent is for export. U.S. customers usually provide the product design to Hujing for its office and hotel furniture, Jeffery Ji, sales manager, told FDM. One-half of the business is custom, the other half is made for inventory.

Much of the process centers upon making large laminated panels for desktops and conference tables. Hujing recently added a new Kuper veneer splicing machine, and has an older Quilin veneer press.

Many roller conveyors are used in the plant, carrying panels from one place to another and staging assembled pieces. Hujing has Homag double-end tenoners, Brandt and Homag edgebanders, and a Viet sander on hand. Of special note is a new Homag BOF 211 machining center, which was just added in May, Ji says.

The finishing section includes older spray booths, but final finishing is done in a new, large Schuler booth, added in December.

The company also has quality control systems in place, including inspection of incoming materials to final checking before packing. Every piece is lacquered, put in the final inspection area and then shipped in a flat box. Desks are shipped flat to U.S. distributors. Hujing has several big box customers in the United States, Ji says, including Wal-Mart.

"We're paying more attention to technology," Ji says. "We're always looking to add technology."

At WoodMac itself there was a variety of panel processing and solid wood equipment, most of it made in China. Hujing wasn't the only company seeking to add technology to its manufacturing process.

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