Chris Harmon’s Azure Cabinets in Nashville, Tenn., is not your typical low-tech one-man shop. He leverages technology and lean thinking to be able to please demanding customers with big budget contemporary custom residential projects. Harmon uses a combination of CNC production, conventional manufacturing, veneer work, and even custom metal fabrication to satisfy the needs of demanding clients in the cutting edge affluent Nashville residential market.
Nested based manufacturing
Centerpiece of the shop is a CNT Motion CNC router that Harmon uses for full nested based manufacturing. Harmon was not really computer savvy before entering the world of CNC. He bought the router second-hand from Bob Buckley of True32 when Buckley shut down his own cabinet shop. Now semi-retired, Buckley is still available for consulting work, and he helped Harmon get his CNC system up and running.
Pointing to the detailed instruction manual and macros Buckley developed for the CNC, Harmon says, “It makes it really easy for someone who is not familiar with computers to run the machine.”
Harmon loads sheets into the machine from a rolling cart on one side and then the machine sweeps the finished parts out the other side for efficient flow. Harmon relies on KCD software and a custom library developed by Buckley.
Parts are assembled on a custom low assembly table Harmon built. It features cubbies to house all the hardware and supplies Harmon needs for typical cabinet assemblies. Even though he’s just a one-man operation, he tries to apply lean manufacturing principles to make processes more efficient. He does sometimes bring in outside help to aid in installations, but he still installs everything personally.
Even though the lion’s share of production at Azure Cabinets is handled by the CNC, Harmon still relies heavily on some conventional equipment. A Holz-Her 1225 vertical panel saw is regularly used to cut toe kicks and other straight rectangular parts such as slab doors while the CNC is cutting other cabinet parts. Edgebanding of cabinet parts is handled by a Brandt edgebander (which is also a great place to display his kid’s artwork).
Investing in equipment
Harmon says he learned early on about the importance of investing in quality equipment. His wife’s parents came from Holland, and Harmon had the opportunity to visit a number of woodworking shops in Holland. While small woodworking shops in the U.S. might make do with lesser brands of equipment as they got started, he noted that was not the case in the European shops he visited.
“I’d go into these shops (no matter the size), and everything in the shop is Martin (machinery),” he recalls. “I said to myself if they can afford that, I can afford to have nice equipment in my shop.”
Of course, not every shop can accommodate full-size industrial equipment. At one point, he had a shop that took up one bedroom of a sixth floor apartment in New York City. “The doorman opened the door for me to carry plywood up, but I never got a complaint,” he says.
In Nashville, he spent a number of years as a contractor, building houses. His wife is an interior designer, and he started making conference tables for some of her clients. Eventually he got into custom European-style kitchens as his main market. He focuses on million-dollar homes, working with a few contractors and designers.
“Nashville is a good market,” he says. “There is the hospital industry and the country music industry, a lot of high-end customers.” He noted that things did slow down with the recession and some of the home values where he works dropped to the $600,00 to $700,000 level, but he says last year was a good year, and he is on track for another good year this year.
No big secrets
Like most small shop woodworkers, Harmon is largely self-taught and has no formal business education. His business marketing model is largely based on making sure he has happy customers to generate good word of mouth and develops good repeat relationships with contractors and designers.
“We just do what we say we’re going to do,” he says. “We don’t have a problem with getting work. We just give them really good service.”
That service includes lots of custom options. While the CNC ensures precise and quickly built cabinet boxes, it also gives him more time to devote to custom finishes and veneer work or even custom metal fabrication. Using his metal skills, he built his own vacuum veneering table and will even fabricate specialized metal furniture parts.
Harmon uses Bob Buckley’s True32 Business Partner software for estimating. That software also includes a link to Conestoga that makes it easy for him to specify and order out his doors. He also uses CCF Industries and Conestoga for outsourced drawers.
Getting the right finish is important to successful custom work, and Harmon does most of his own finishing. For example, he recently completed a job in rift oak that required a seven-step finishing process. For top coats, he relies mostly on conversion varnish from Sherwin-Williams because he finds it the most forgiving. He uses an airless air-assisted spray system from CA Technologies.
But even with the right spray equipment and finishes, a few tricks in the spray booth help Harmon get the finish he wants. He uses simple eye screws and S hooks to hang flat parts from racks he made using Hafele closet rods. To obtain a perfect custom color match on edgebanding, he paints edgebanding himself using a rotating drum made from a cardboard tube originally intended as a concrete construction form.
“No free ride”
As a primarily self-taught woodworker, Harmon acknowledges the challenges of learning how to do high quality work efficiently. Some of his veneer work he’s actually learned by watching videos by Paul Schurch on the Internet. He regularly networks with other woodworkers on the Cabinet Makers Association and True32 forums. Still, he recognizes that working without formal training comes at a cost.
“There’s no free ride,” he says. “You’re going to pay one way or the other (for learning).” Unfortunately, he adds, sometimes “paying” for learning means “messing a few things up.” But he learns from those mistakes and moves on, making sure that he still leaves satisfied customers in his wake.
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