Since Steve Roark, owner of Roark Woodworks, started his business in 2000 in Moorpark, Calif., he has taken some unconventional steps to enable his shop to land big jobs without taking on the headaches of employees. Roark just finished doing three projects for 8,000-square-foot houses in which all the work was done by himself plus one full-time employee and one part-time employee.

How did he do it? The key element in getting product out the door is the Biesse Rover 4.5 CNC router that he purchased in 2003. Roark knew the router would allow him to work more effectively and add a few more cabinetry jobs each year without adding too many workers.

When Roark bought the router, he was doing $100,000 worth of business. "The first year I had the machine, I doubled my business. The second year I doubled it again," says Roark. "And now it's to where it's at $500,000-plus, and that's bringing on one employee and another part-time, almost full-time now.

Roark says if he wanted to, he could double tomorrow what he's doing now, but he'd have to take jobs that he really doesn't want to do. However, he wants to grow in new directions, not just get more jobs.

"I'm actually really picky about the jobs I take. I know the machine can do other stuff, so I'm looking for other stuff that I can do." Roark is competing with mid-size to larger shops and says he's able to do the jobs smaller shops can't do.

CNC router makes the difference

Roark always knew he would get a CNC machine. "I don't know how a small shop can be competitive in the future without it," he says. Once he knew he could afford it and got pre-approval from the bank, Roark evaluated his needs.

He looked at how he was cutting, processing and handling parts. On a good size job Roark figured that the process of cutting 40 sheets of melamine on his sliding-table saw and drilling all the holes would take him about a week, and it would involve a lot of handling of parts. "With the CNC machine I can do the same thing in a day."

When he bought the CNC router, Roark also purchased a Schmalz vacuum lift, which allows him to work in really tight situations, he says. "I've got that set up so that I can reach my CNC machine or my sliding-table saw."

In the early days of the business, before he ever had the router or vacuum lift, Roark bought a forklift. His neighbors thought he was crazy, but with a forklift Roark knew he didn't need a helper.

Roark purchased the router in 2003, and two years prior to getting it, he bought Cabinet Vision software. Roark also uses AlphaCAM and AutoCAD. When the router arrived, Roark was very familiar with Cabinet Vision, although he did upgrade to the CNC machining software package at the time.

He had a job backed up that he held up doing for a while after he was told the machine was arriving. Once the machine was installed, a Cabinet Vision technician came. The day after the technicians left, Roark came in to the shop and ran a big job. He says that Biesse gave him a lot of confidence, and it paid off. "I did a huge job that day off and I was back on schedule."

Prior to the purchase of the router, Roark had been working 60 to 80 hours a week. Now he says he's working 40 to 50 hours a week.

Building it better

Roark builds face-frame cabinets using dado construction. Although he does some Euro-style cabinets, he avoids doing them. "The end product is not as clean as far as I'm concerned," says Roark. "I want the end product to be special, something that I can be proud of. We don't compromise."

Roark uses a Mini-Max Formula S40 sliding-table saw to straight line everything. Roark modified the sliding-table saw with an air-driven clamping device, made with a long extrusion, that holds panels and parts securely in place and free from vibration. "I get a very clean cut through it. Also, when I clamp it down, it stays square," he says.

All face-frame stock is pre-sanded and pre-sized for thickness. Parts are sanded through a Biesse Levia 95 dual-head 37-inch widebelt sander. "I plane and sand to thickness and then I'll rip it to the width of what I want and then sand that down too," says Roark. "Everything is nice and clean."

Accuracy key

To further ensure accuracy, all the machines have digital gauges on them. Roark is looking for consistency and repeatability, something the digital gauges help him to achieve.

When edgebanding is required, it's often done while parts are being cut on the CNC router, since the Biesse Lato 28 edgebander is set up right next to the router. Roark is also working with R.E. Albright machinery supplier to buy a contour edgebander. Roark uses a Ritter pocket-hole machine and face-frame table, also set up near the router.

"And because I pocket-hole all my casegoods to back screw my face frames on, we're also pocket-holing them while the machine is running," says Roark. "Whoever's running the machine can do a couple of operations at the same time."

Shop drawings are done in Cabinet Vision and downloaded directly to the machine. Roark does check the cabinets to make sure it's truly what he wants. "It's not 100 percent foolproof," says Roark. "I'll go through and double check it and once it's there I can generate the code and download it to the machine."

Looking beyond cabinets

Unlike some cabinetmakers, Roark doesn't feel compelled to keep his CNC router working 24 hours a day. "Right now it runs one week a month and that's fine for me," he says. "It makes money for me at that."

But Roark does have some plans for the machine that will require no additional employees. "I know that machine can do more than cut cabinet parts," he says. "I'm looking for other stuff that I can do."

Roark recently developed a product line consisting of bamboo knife and utility utensil holders that fit into cabinet drawers. He is also working on spice holders.

He's selling his products to local shops now, but has also created an online store for his knives and products,  www.roarkwoodworks.net, and is talking to distributors.

"The easy part was designing and building the holders," says Roark. "The tough part is marketing it."

In the end Roark is happy with his cabinet business but doesn't want to grow it more. "But I want to diversify and do other things."

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