Some shops seem to think that true custom work and automation are mutually exclusive, but at Studio L, the automation actually drives the custom work.
David Lehmann uses his Omnitech CNC router and various software packages to solve problems and develop creative new products to meet the needs of customers and build business beyond simple furniture and cabinets. The result is a very diverse product line and a shop that has fared better in the down economy than many of its regional competitors.
Products at Studio L begin with cabinetry and custom furniture but expand the boundaries of those areas. One of the first areas that the Studio L custom touch can be seen is in the sample door offerings on the wall of the shop’s Teaneck, N.J., showroom. While the shop does outsource some doors to Walzcraft, most are built in house. Lehmann sees doors as a big opportunity.
“I like doing doors that are unique,” he says. “A box is a box. With a door you can change it up.”
Some of door options on display include complex textures manufactured on the CNC router. There are also doors in unusual materials such as bamboo and metal. Glass options abound, and the CNC comes to play a role in developing unusual door configurations that effectively highlight glass.
Beyond doors, the shop has expanded into a number of architectural millwork areas, again with its CNC capabilities carrying the load. For example, a recently added new product is wainscoting that is made on the CNC router using MDF. The painted product is ready to install and looks like complex fitted panels from yesteryear.
By using the CNC machine to machine complex products out of engineered materials instead of using hardwood and complex joinery, Lehmann can compete in a wide variety of areas. One recent example was a set of half-circle windows, again manufactured on the CNC router with MDF. Lehmann says that once properly finished, the complex windows will work just as well as their fitted solid wood counterparts.
Signs point to success
Another capability the CNC gives Studio L is to manufacture signs. Lehmann has found there have been many opportunities to expand projects with signage or to open doors to new work with signs.
“We do a lot of synagogue work,” he says, displaying samples of signage with Hebrew lettering. That makes for a good package with synagogue furniture projects and related millwork.
Another area that Studio L takes advantage of is work that many shops try to stay away from: repair. Lehmann says doing small repair jobs is good for business and creating customer loyalties. Frequently the pieces needing repair have sentimental value, and customers love that the shop can put them back in order.
From a business standpoint, Lehmann sees repair as positive. “It keeps things moving in the shop. There is no design time, no back and forth with a designer or architect,” he explains. “I like furniture repair. It takes a little thought and it brings people in.”
Lehmann’s all custom approach is impressed on customers from the beginning of the relationship.
“I ask the customer what do you need and I get a feel for what they really need, not just filling the space,” he says. Projects might start with something like a napkin sketch from a designer or more refined plans from an architect, but Lehmann always adds his own insight.
“I visit the house and try to match the house,” he says. “I try to get the flavor of the house.”
Some solutions become truly one-of-a-kind custom projects. Lehmann recalls one customer who had an antique silverware collection that she wanted a cabinet for. Lehmann built a piece that had special drawers with fitted and flocked inserts that were shaped on the CNC to exactly match each type of silverware.
It’s all the software
With all the emphasis on CNC manufacturing, Lehmann is the first to argue that the software is more important to success than the router itself.
“The router is just a dumb machine,” he says. “It’s all the software.” He uses Cabinet Vision, AlphaCam, Aspire and Solid Works, depending on the job at hand.
Confidence with the software has encouraged him to try new and unusual projects. “If I can draw it, I can make it,” he says. He notes an oval jig being used for a glue-up in the shop. The jig was quickly turned out on the CNC router faster than it could have been fabricated in traditional ways. Another project for a child’s room used a puzzle-piece motif in several levels machined on MDF. Lehmann says he would never have tackled such a thing without the CNC router and appropriate software.
Of course, not everything is done on the CNC router. The shop also has a Holz-Her edgebander, a Grizzly sliding table saw, and a SawStop cabinet saw.
Lehmann says he likes the SawStop saw, but he notes that he’s had its instant blade brake system go off a number of times, but never for a finger save. Unfortunately, workers have on multiple occasions used the saw to cut projects involving metal, and they neglected to turn the bypass key that disables the safety system for such work.
The shop currently has about five employees and handles its own installations. With the complex nature of his custom work, Lehmann is uncomfortable handing it over to someone else for the final installation.
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.