Innovator Jay Fagan uses ingenuity in architectural woodworking shop
February 23, 2010 | 6:00 pm CST

Right angles and square corners dominate much of the woodworking industry, but for Jay Fagan it’s what goes round that matters. For more than 20 years Fagan has specialized in turnings mostly for architectural projects and often on a massive scale.

It’s one thing to turn out a little spindle for a piece of furniture, but when the job calls for 20-foot columns, that calls for specialized equipment. In fact, a lot of the equipment in Fagan’s shop is so specialized that it was custom built in the shop by him and his brother, Tim, fabricating everything from steel frames to CNC controls. Tim Fagan has also fabricated machines for his own custom furniture shop.

Starting with staves 

Typical architectural columns made by Fagan start as staves. Long pieces are grooved and jointed to glue up into a hollow column that is close to the finished dimensions required. That means less stock has to be removed on the lathe. But since many columns require tapers or bows, that presents special challenges for milling the staves.
The solution at Fagan is a shop-built CNC moulder with a bed more than 20 feet long. Two cutter heads controlled by a computer can cut the precise shape needed for each stave to make for an easy glue-up and less waste.

“Before we had CNC, the machine used cams and steel templates,” says Fagan. Today it’s different and mostly done on the computer. “I do the drawings and write the G-code in CamSoft,” he says.

While he chuckles that the machine isn’t pretty to look at – they’ve never gotten around to painting it – one look at a stack of glued up column blanks shows it gets the job done.

Long lathes for long work 

While most turners measure the length between centers on their lathes in inches, Fagan measures in feet. His longest lathe started out life as an old South Bend metal lathe. They cut it up and built new ways for it. With 24-foot-long rails, the lathe is now capable of turning 22-foot columns.

His CNC lathe is 20 feet long and features a number of custom adaptations. Besides the CNC servo system that allows for automatic and complex turnings, there are pneumatic belt sanders mounted on swing arms that can rotate into position to speed up the sanding process.

Everything custom 

Fagan thrives on custom projects. “Everything we make is made to order,” he says. But the custom work has literally become more of a one-off thing of late because of the recession.

“We used to get orders for 50 columns,” he says. “Now we get an order for one column.”

Materials have changed, too. The lumber racks still hold remnants of straight grain old growth redwood that used to be a standard. There is also African mahogany and Spanish cedar. But today Fagan is just as likely to get orders requiring salvaged or recycled wood or even plastic materials. In addition to architectural work, he also does some furniture turnings such as table bases.

New marketing efforts 

Like everyone else in woodworking, Fagan has been hit by the recession and the drop in new construction. “This shop functions good with five people, but now it’s just me and two people,” he says.

To pick up the slack, Fagan is in the process of beefing up marketing efforts. Lisa Spetrini, who handles sales and estimating for the company, has reinvigorated the company’s Web site and is making some inroads in networking through online communities such as Sawdust Soup and Facebook. They are also exploring how to better appeal to the green movement with the use of recycled materials and efficient processes such as repurposing cutoffs. “Big stuff makes little stuff,” says Fagan.

They have also done a bigger percentage of their business lately in existing rather than new construction. “There will always be a market for reproduction and restoration work,” says Spetrini. 

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.