Steve Bell, president of Pacific Crest Cabinets, knew if he really wanted to go to the next level in his company's quest to become one of the premier cabinet companies in America, he needed to substantially invest in his finish department.

"I looked at the other premium cabinet companies and their claim to fame was always finishing," he says. "The finish was the number one driver in the designer/dealer market that we wanted to be in. It's all about finish, all about glazes and flecking, spackling, crackling, distressing."

Pacific Crest Cabinets is a vertically integrated frameless cabinet company building an average of 160 cabinets a day, all special ordered.

To solve its finishing dilemma, Pacific Crest added a  Cefla  automated flatline finishing system. It also added new door sanding and manufacturing machinery and new waste grinding and dust collection systems. A 21,000-square-foot addition allowed the company to bring production from three shifts back to one.

"We build an upper-medium priced frameless cabinet," says Bell. "We're going after the upscale dealer market. We can do a lot of what the big national luxury cabinet companies can do for less money with faster turnaround.

Bell says the flatline finishing system gives the company a lot of flexibility, and its frameless product is "perfectly suited" to flatline type finishing. "We don't have frames to deal with, we don't have any big bulky parts, and we finish everything before assembly. We don't build any cabinet before we finish it."

The flatline finishing system was a big investment, says Bell, but he believed it would pay off in a big way. So far, it has. Material usage has been cut 25 percent since the line began running in September 2003.

Bell's target market

In the United States, Bell says the cabinet business is driven by builders, who buy inexpensive cabinets for the houses they build. Pacific Crest's Ridgeline Series includes 15 styles and color combinations and is intended for the builder market.

"Our market is upgrading those houses a few years down the road. About 65 percent of the company's business is going into remodeling and restoration business and 35 percent into new construction," says Bell.

Pacific Crest has focused on higher-end dealers that have moved away from lower-end products and the result is a lot more variety and flexibility, says Bell. "The dealer market is looking for uniqueness, quality and flexibility."

The company's primary market is the Pacific Northwest, and it is growing in the Bay Area, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Hawaii is also an important market and is driven primarily by the Pacific Rim and European influences.

The trip to the top

Bell started the company in his garage, but really got going when he merged with Armstrong Lumber in 1988. He purchased the Pacific Crest Division back from Armstrong in 1995. He was then selling to a local home center called Eagle Hardware & Garden, which expanded to a 40-store chain, then sold out to Lowe's.

"During those 10 years, we put innovation on the shelf and focused on volume and simplicity," he says. "We were building a basic product until four years ago, when Lowe's purchased Eagle Hardware."

The year 2000 was the toughest Bell ever had. Pacific Crest still does business with Lowe's in 18 stores in Washington, but that wasn't going to be their only future.

"We needed to get back to our roots and cater to our dealer base if we wanted to survive," says Bell. "Four years ago we started to improve our product quality and flexibility. We looked at what the dealers wanted and tried to create a company around what they needed."

Flatline goals

Bell had four goals for the new flatline finishing system: A better-quality product, increased throughput, improved efficiency (the company went from 16 people on three shifts to 13 people on one shift) and material savings, which wasn't completely expected.

"Our first goal was to create a high-quality finish. We have a two-pass conversion varnish door that looks like what a lot of people get in three or four passes," says Bell. "It lays down flat and then is dried in a perfectly controlled environment. It comes out smooth as silk. Our conversion varnish finish is a better finish."

The new Cefla line is used for clear sealing, top coating and painting. All staining is done off line. Integrated oven systems give Pacific Crest a less-than-one-hour complete turnaround in its finishing. These are the first gas-fired ovens of this kind that Cefla has installed in the United States, says Bell.

Pacific Crest has four full-time stainers, each in a separate booth. One booth is used for drawer boxes. A door can be touched when it comes out of the line, and it can be put in assembly in 10 minutes.

Bell believes water-based UV finishes are the wave of the future. And when he bought the Cefla line he made sure everything in it was compatible with water-based UV. "All we need to do is put a UV curing lamp at the end of the line," he says. But going to UV brings a whole other set of learning curves.

Panel processing

"We are a just-in-time, one-off plant," Bell says. "Our flat-stock suppliers show up at our plant every morning with our day's cutting stacked in the order we want to cut it. It was ordered the day before at 2 p.m. We have one straight line running from our Holzma saw to final assembly. Every station is required to finish the order in front of it before it can physically start the next job."

At the Holzma panel saw, panels are cut and bar-coded labels are produced for cut parts. A Holz-Her 1265 vertical panel saw is also used. Cut parts are banded with PVC or wood edgebanding on a Holz-Her Triathlon 420V edgebander. A Weeke Optimat BP 100 machining center runs with CutRite software, and a Tritec Gannomat 280 handles boring and dowel insertion. Pacific Crest offers four interiors: white melamine, maple melamine, Nova maple plywood and white maple plywood from States Industries.

On the separate door line, doors are made oversized and sanded down. A Voorwood A117 is used for panel raising and door sizing. A Diehl ripsaw and Whirlwind cutoff saw with TigerStop are used for rail cutting. A Voorwood A115 shaper sander, Taylor clamp carrier, small sliding table saw, Ritter coping and moulding machine, JLT Door Pro door clamp, and DMC Unisand four-head widebelt sander are also used in the production of doors. A Quickwood Pro 1100 denibber sander is the last step before the finishing line.

Separately, a manufacturing cell with an Omec F8 dovetailer puts together wood dovetail drawers. Customers can also choose Blum metal drawers. Blum hardware and Salice hinges are used on the cabinets.

Cabinet box parts are put on a conveyor and assembled, then hardware and drawer fronts are installed. There are two assembly lines, each with a Biesse Comil case clamp, and one Signode strapping machine.

Pacific Crest installed a 30,000 CFM bag house from LMC and a Retech rotary grinder. It also installed a return air system on its dust collector for which it received a 50 percent grant from the local utility company. Warm air is returned to the building so the heaters were not needed last winter.

Customer service and flexibility are key for a custom product, says Bell. "We are extremely flexible in our approach to what is customizable. We will use exotic materials and customize cabinets at a reasonable price point. Customer service is our hallmark. Our customers like to deal with us because we're genuinely interested in their success. We're passionate about shipping complete orders on time. We run our company on a core set of values."

When interest rates go up, the cabinet market will likely slow down, but Bell believes that Pacific Crest will be positioned for further expansion.

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