Finishing can be a great selling point. A new sanding and finishing line has increased Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp.'s ability to supply a wide range of finished wood components along with the company's primary cabinet door product. As a result, Conestoga has added table legs, corbels and mouldings to its selection of kitchen components.

"We are able to offer a wide breadth of product that gets finished all at the same time to ensure color consistency throughout the order, and that is a real advantage," says Jeff Eichenseer, director of marketing for Conestoga's Custom Division. "Being able to supply all their pre-finished components is invaluable to our customers."

Having quality and consistency in finishing are important selling points and strengths for the company, Eichenseer says. All components are built to order and about one-third of products are finished, and that share is expected to grow. Conestoga is finishing 2,500 to 3,000 doors a day.

The custom division grew 20 percent last year while maintaining published delivery times. Despite this growth, shipping on time (the company claims a 99.83 percent on-time and complete delivery rate) remained its major strength.

"Customers are telling us they can't find experienced persons to finish," Eichenseer says. "Environmental constraints are tougher. If you can outsource your finishing, you don't have to worry about emissions. Outsourcing doors also makes sense for companies bumping up against their VOC limits."

Conestoga offers more than 1,200 different combinations of species, glazes and stains, and also offers custom stain matching. More complex finishes such as glazing, antiquing and distressing are growing at a faster rate than simple stains. The company is also seeing growth in applied moulding designs that are dropped into the door frame by hand. The wood inventory includes Lyptus, and the use of MDF panels is increasing as the application of opaque finishes grows.

The company's Custom Division is in East Earl, Pa., and Kenly, N.C. An OEM division has two other plants, and a rough mill division has three plants. There are 800 employees in East Earl, 2,200 companywide. Most Custom Division customers are cabinet manufacturers and architectural millwork producers.

Asian suppliers tend to provide simpler finishes and the quality can be questionable, Eichenseer says. "People in the custom end of the market want something special, something different," he says. "They need to separate themselves from the stock box cabinetry and higher quality, complex multistep finishes help them accomplish that goal."

New finishing line

Topcoating and sealing was a bottleneck. Conestoga had staining booths and one Cefla line. It added a second Cefla line with updated technology to increase capacity.

"We were running out of capacity, and our finishing volumes were growing," says Arvind Rao, engineering manager of the Custom Business Unit. "We've increased our finishing capacity 40 to 50 percent with the addition of a second line."

The infeed section feeds into a panel cleaner that blows off and collects dust so doors are clean and dust-free. Then doors go into an enclosed reciprocating sprayer that applies sealer (or topcoat, depending on which pass through the system). Doors then go into a four-chamber vertical oven. Each chamber has its own temperature, gradually increasing chamber to chamber.

On a sealer pass, doors go into a sealer/sander, then into a transfer that flips and moves doors from the outfeed section to the infeed section. Each door will go through four passes like that: sealer on the back, sealer on the face, topcoat on the back and topcoat on the face. Both Cefla lines follow this routine.

Rao says the Cefla line was chosen, in part, because Conestoga had an existing line and had a good history with that. Also, Cefla's testing lab has a wide range of capabilities, so a team from Conestoga was sent to test different finishing combinations on its own products.

"One of the things we wanted to accomplish with this project was to look at all the curing technologies available," Rao says. "We looked at conventional, infrared and UV combinations. The project goal was to test every combination available and then make a decision on what would be the best for us."

Staining by hand

After whitewood sanding, finishing begins with stain application in a number of booths. All staining is done by hand, says Lori Mountz, finishing technical manager. From there, doors are inspected, placed on carts and sent to one of the Cefla finishing lines.

If doors are to receive a clear finish, they go directly to the Cefla line. Glaze application is made between the sealer coat and the topcoat.

Mountz says that Conestoga experimented with other processes, like spraying the stain on and then wiping it off, but that didn't work as well as the terrycloth application by hand. Finding experienced finishers is a continuing challenge. That's why there is more of a push toward automation.

The wide product mix can be a challenge. The more finishes that are offered, the greater the administrative tasks. Each batch of finish is tested for color consistency when it arrives at Conestoga. (Crystal white with a coffee glaze is currently popular.)

Other upgrades

In addition to the finishing line, Conestoga added two new DMC Unisand sanders, each paired with a Quickwood Pro 1400 sander. Rao says that the DMC orbital sander removes crossgrain scratches from the doors. Orbital pads are used in an oscillating motion. Doors then go into a Quickwood that performs what they call polish sanding.

A small radius on the edges, called an edge break, is applied to the edge of the door to improve finishing quality. Then the door is flipped and goes through same process on the other side. Then all necessary hand sanding is done as required on a sanding conveyor. (Conestoga has also recently added a new SCM Routech twin-table router.)

"The finishing department wants to stay ahead of the company's growth," says Ernest Hahn, finishing production manager. "We're looking at forms of automation to replace some of the hand work, and eventually, setting up a finishing line for mouldings."

Eichenseer says that they are also working with Valspar, their finishings supplier, to reformulate finishes to keep VOCs down as their usage increases. "The reformulations are letting us grow without worrying about being fined or shut down," he says.

Hahn says the company also maintains very good relations with local environmental officials. Conestoga has full-time people who track emissions.

Conestoga has gained a lot of business in recent months because of its ability to ship on time, while some competitors have increased lead times, Eichenseer says. Lead time for unfinished doors is seven to 10 days; finishing adds five days. Mitered doors were brought down to 10 days.

Eichenseer says Conestoga has invested more than $9 million in the last 18 months, including $3 million in finishing. The company expects to grow in the low double-digits in the coming years, and plans to build a new warehouse in East Earl.

"There are a lot of different areas where we're using technology to expand," he says. "Our use of automated equipment combined with craftsmanship is allowing us to grow." s

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