“We’re not a three-dollar door company,” explains Michael Wilkinson. “We do so much more than cabinet doors. If you want a mass production, white cabinet door, don’t come here, even though we can do them.”
The focus at Custom Wood Products in Charles City, Iowa, is on design and creativity in a product area that many companies look upon as a low-cost sideline.
“We’re small enough that we can react to any given product or request,” Wilkinson says. “If a large store fixture company calls and asks if we can do a certain product and sends a drawing, we may tell them we can make something similar to what they’re looking at, and we can make it better.
“We really are a specialty type of company. The challenges of designing a product and making it what the customer really wants drives us. A white slab door is not what we’re about.
“Our head designer can look at a customer’s ideas and come back and say that we can’t do (one thing) but we can do something like it. He can show and explain our process, from multi folded tapered table legs to extra long curved counter that has to jointed together.
As an example, a well-known closet company wanted an eight-inch thick moulding from solid wood in the form of a six-foot arch. “For real cherry they would have paid $600 just for that. We laid out a cool-looking moulding, and sold the whole works for $300. (You don’t need) to bend it. Ours is made on the CNC router and then 3D laminated.” The six-foot long arched moulding is 8 inches wide then pressed in cherry.
“What makes us strong as a company is that we can make outside-the-box type of components. (Also,) we have a full door catalog for MDF doors, and do a lot with the RV industry and store fixtures, and kitchens and closets. We’re starting to get into the health care industry. RV is our strongest area, with almost half of business, and 20 percent store fixture, 20 percent cabinets, health care 5 percent but growing.”
For the RV market, CWP makes everything from the smallest switch plate covers to radio mounts, TV surrounds, drink trays, slide out tables, and countertops throughout the coach or trailer.
CWP’s specialty is components, and they would usually provide the component part rather than the finished product. Often, components can be shipped flat to the job site for assembly at much less cost. “If we’re doing a lot of bank work, teller fronts and teller tops, we’ll send it flat and put it together on site,” Wilkinson says.
LDF and vinyl.
The company uses MDF primarily, but they also use LDF and some hardwood. They don’t stain and finish the wood. (CWP will occasional get an order that requires paint or powder coating, but 95 percent of products are wrapped in vinyl.)
On LDF, Wilkinson says that you have to be a little more careful when sanding it because material is removed more quickly. And it doesn’t have nearly as good a finish as regular MDF. So the scrap rate is higher, and the cost of LDF is about 35 percent higher than MDF. But some industries, including RV or marine, will pay for any weight reduction.
CWP has four primary suppliers of the vinyl 3D laminate product: Dackor, Omnova, Renolit and Kydex. Wilkinson says Omnova and Dackor are awesome, with Dackor coming out with new material that falls in CWP’s realm of “outside-the-box,” such as a high-gloss alligator design. Kydex is a thicker product with different applications and is usually customer driven.
“The suppliers have come a long way just in the last few years, everything from the ticking ( real wood grain look) that is embossed into the vinyl, to the look of stone, granite, concrete, even a carbon fiber look, not to mention the high gloss films that have come out and are just amazing,” Wilkinson says. “It really looks painted with gloss lacquer.
“They’ve come such a long way. In the 1980s it was plastic, and it looked plastic.”
Wilkinson and a partner bought the company in 2002 from the previous owner, who had run the business for 25 years. CWP was in a 4,000 square foot building in Charles City, and then moved out to a new 30,000 square foot building in an industrial park in 2004.
“When we bought the company, we were running three shifts,” Wilkinson says. “There was only one router, and we couldn’t make the product fast enough. My background was in sales, working for a large machinery company, and he wanted to increase sales. We bought more routers, a second press, and our busiest year was 2006.”
When times got tough, Wilkinson bought out his partner so the partner could concentrate on another business.
Three routers, two presses
CWP has three Anderson routers. An Exxact Plus is also the newest, making fixtures to hold onto small parts. Wilkinson says that he likes the Andersons because they do their job. “The support I get from them is outstanding, and their representative in Minneapolis comes down and helps us out. We haven’t had any problems.”
An Anderson Andi NC-1515PT multihead Anderson router is used to make door blanks. A third Anderson, a Stratos, is a smaller machine that was bought for test runs, but it is also used in production.
“We bought this one as a prototype machine, but a month later it was running just as much (volume) as the other ones, so I never got it back (from production),” Wilkinson says. “So now we need another prototype machine.”
Two table saws cut sheets, but this is kept to a minimum. “If we can take a four by eight sheet and nest it correctly, we shouldn’t have to use the saw,” Wilkinson says.
All parts are hand sanded, and a Denray downdraft table is used.
A glue room and glue booth are used to spray glue onto components before wrapping. CWP has a garage door to separate the glue room and avoid dust from outside. Avoiding contamination of the part is key. Two presses, one Shaw-Almex, another a Greco from Midwest Automation, are used for the actual wrapping.
“It’s like autobody work. If you press it and it’s not smooth, (the defect) is going to telegraph through, and we’ll see it a mile away,” Wilkinson says. “And once it’s on there, it’s not coming off. So you have scrap.”
Avoiding scrap on the press is another concern. Having the correct riser height and spacing, and keeping smaller parts in position and not falling off is also a challenge.
One day, Wilkinson walked into the prep room and saw a 55-gallon drum full of scrap. He was told that small parts were moving around on the press. “I had it fixed the next day,” he says. “It took as little as creating a fixture that would hold the little block. We were double-pressing this block, 1-1/2 x 4 inches long. Dovetailing before pressing solved the problem so it wouldn’t move.
“If you put parts too close together on the press, you can’t do deep holes without blowing a hole and losing suction, so (you have to) drop a puck. You can also splice the vinyl, so they can press two different colors of vinyl on one press table.
“If that press table is not full, I get all kinds of wound up,” Wilkinson says. “We have to have a full press table. A fixture allows us to make two different types of vinyl.”
CWP keeps an inventory of many individual components already machined on shelves. MDF components that have been machined but not wrapped yet are kept in inventory so someone could order something in a certain color and get it quickly.
“We’ve done a good job in educating the customer on what can be done and what can’t be done. A customer will ask for a six-inch drop. We can’t do that, but we can probably fold it, and chamfer the side corner, or do miter folding. We did a tapered table leg, and it had nine folds in it.”
Creativity isn’t limited to vinyl. CWP has also made a glass inlay mosaic on a panel, different 3D surface effects, lightweight LDF countertops, windows, small parts and assemblies for healthcare.
An “idea room” contains possible future products, including University of Iowa tables, plaques and ceiling tiles made under license. Customer ideas may come from drawings or a pdf image. CWP is strongest in Alphacam.
Wilkinson attended the Black Bros. press event last year and got a lot out of it. “I would probably never miss another one,” he says. “I don’t know anywhere where you can get that much knowledge in one facility. At Black Bros. they’re all there. You can get an answer. There is a lot of knowledge there. I bought a piece of HPL, they looked at it, and tried it. Also had some glue questions.
Speaking of glue, Daubert is primarily used, and CWP recently went to a single-part formulation.
”We’re in the cold part of the country, so we buy glue ahead of time. A lot of freight companies won’t ship it heated. They put a heat blanket on it and say heated truck. That doesn’t work. Come November, we’ll take the money and put it to good use. It requires some space, not too much, but it sure beats fighting the temperature.”
For the future CWP is looking at getting into the HPL laminate business for countertops and slot machine bases as well as the office furniture industry. This is customer driven and is similar to vinyl. Also solid surface. “That’s a category where we think we can do well.
"Thereare a few large well known companies in our industry, we are not as big as themyet, butwe can offer a lot of thethings they can, but quicker. And our quality is outstanding, letting peopleknow we are here and ready is the key.”
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