Having weathered what he hopes is the worst of the recession, Jim McGrew is upbeat about his business, and part of that optimism comes from having solved a problem many cabinetmakers face: How do you maximize the usage of your CNC machine to compete in a down economy?

When McGrew upgraded to CNC machinery at his company, McGrew Woodwork, Inc. in Columbia, S.C., he made sure to match it with good software. But he also took pains to target the right kind of work, maximizing the use of the CNC on each job. That’s when he found his CNC equipment really started to pay off.

McGrew had always looked at woodworking very traditionally, thinking and believing that you could be a decent successful woodworker without a CNC machine and do quite well. “In fact, I had sort of sworn I would never have a CNC because of the complexity, the cost, and integration fears.” But in the fall of 2007 he purchased a pre-owned CAMaster CNC machine. When McGrew first bought his CNC he didn’t use it to cut parts (his panel saws did that quite well) but instead to carve and do complex features to enhance the cabinetry.

Signs of change

But what happened next changed everything overnight. A local sign company approached McGrew with a fairly simple request for some signs for a nearby apartment complex. “I didn’t know how to do it,” says McGrew, “but the guy who helped me with setting up the CNC machine taught me how to write the proper file to accomplish the task. I made enough money on those first two apartment complexes to pay for that machine.”

At that point he got into more and more contact with the person who set up the CNC machine for him, Joey Jarrard at CAMaster, who helped him develop the machine that he wanted. McGrew bought another CAMaster, a brand new one this time. The complexity of projects he could tackle using his new CNC equipment grew exponentially.

From 2D to 3D

McGrew also credits the British software company Vetric with his success. Vetric’s Aspire software allows users to quickly and easily convert 2D sketches, photographs, drawings and graphics into high quality 3D carvings and designs. McGrew met with the owners of Vetric in Atlanta where they showed him their 3D software.

“At that point I caught fire,” he says. “Now I am on their beta team, helping to test their software. Such activities have exposed me to some really cool information.”

Aspire has a slicing function which came in handy, especially for the construction of pieces for a life-sized chess set McGrew was creating, and which has drawn interest (and press) from all over.

“We’ve learned a lot about the craft during the construction of the chess pieces,” says McGrew. “It has also carried over into my regular cabinetry work. For example, recently I did a kitchen for a New Orleans customer who wanted a very ‘New Orleans-style’ kitchen.” McGrew carved a panel that looks like musical notes made out of food to be placed over the customer’s sink. “I learned how to do work like that by making the chess players.”

Custom parts in house

McGrew now manufactures parts with his CNC that he previously would have ordered from a catalogue; for example, a $500 connecting column. “In the old days I would have flat out bought it,” he says. “And for something like fluting on a column it takes a guy with a single-handed router hours to do what we can now do in minutes. Time is money. It is now possible to make a month’s payment on a CNC machine by making columns for a fancy kitchen job.”

“Everybody wants a touch of real custom,” says McGrew. “I can now actually carve a fluted column right into their woodwork. Now when I show potential customers what I can do, then all of a sudden there is no competition anymore. The other guy is standing there giving dollar amounts for this extra item or that while I can say ‘for $23,000 I can do it all – just tell me what you want.’ It makes the sale a lot easier.”

No magic buttons

With the CNC, McGrew feels unafraid to try new things. “Still, for anyone looking to get CNC equipment they need to know that this equipment is not going to save their business overnight,” says McGrew.

“You have to build up with what you can do with it until you reach the point where it can really make a big difference for you in your business. But there are no magic buttons. You have to want to learn how to do this, as no one is going to do it for you. And if you don’t want to learn how to do it it’s going to drive you nuts. There is definitely a learning curve and patience is vital. I like to point out to people that there is value in the lesson. If something doesn’t have a profit for you monetarily, there is still value to be had during the course of the learning process.”

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