It wasn’t so long ago that the phrase “small shop” conjured up images of a handful or even just one solo skilled craftsman working away in often cramp quarters with hand tools and decades-old machinery to turn out heirloom furniture or custom cabinets. But technology has largely done away with that quaint image. Oh sure, there are a few woodworkers out there like that still, but with automated CNC technology available to –and affordable for -- even the one-person operation, today’s small shop is different.

I learned just how different it could be when I visited Kris Kunik and toured his Aspen Cabinetry in Conover, N.C. If you went to see a 19-year-old woodworking business with just one full-time employee besides the owner plus a couple of part-timers, what would you expect to see? Probably not 12,000 square feet packed with multiple CNC manufacturing cells designed to produce cabinets, doors and drawers with a maximum in modern efficiency. But, with more than $1 million in equipment, that’s what Aspen Cabinetry is, and Kunik is adamant that his investment in technology pays off.

He is also adamant about staying on top of technology and new developments in the industry. He tries to upgrade equipment on just a three-year cycle. He’s constantly visiting other shops – even when he is on vacation – to see what they are doing. And he goes to the big trade shows to see what’s new.

Those romantic old-fashioned small-shop woodworkers with an emphasis on age-old processes don’t necessarily need to go to a big trade show to learn about hand planes. And that big old antique table saw they bought years ago will likely keep creaking along so long as they care to maintain it. But those guys aren’t going to be able to compete very well in a 21st century market driven by technology and with fewer customers who can even appreciate hand work.

Going to a big show like the AWFS Fair in Las Vegas is the single best way to learn about the latest tools and techniques, machines and materials in our industry. Plus you can network with hordes of like-minded, forward-thinking woodworkers to help advance your business. Or you could stay home and repour the Babbitt bearings in that old boat anchor of a saw to keep it from creaking so much.

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