Steve Ferguson's shop, JDG Inc., is not in the most likely location for a technology-driven cabinet shop. You've got to drive down a winding dirt road through lush forests and ferns outside Eugene, Ore. And even when you get there, you'll see a three-story timber barn next to a picturesque log home. Don't let the image fool you.
Low-tech to high-tech
Location hasn't stopped Ferguson from not only jumping into full CNC automation, but also marketing to high-tech, high-end customers in Silicon Valley and even considering new enterprises as far away as Alaska.
And it all began with software.
Steve Ferguson wasn't always into the latest technology. He comes to cabinetmaking with a heritage of handcraftsmanship handed down from his father, Frank. But the journey from handcrafting heirloom furniture to using the latest technology to build cabinets follows a logical path.
Early on, Steve realized there was no point in his business trying to compete on price. So, he steered his shop to what he describes as "super high-end." The cabinetry and millwork produced features lots of furniture-style detailing and quality materials. The shop does a lot of beaded face-frame cabinetry for homes in affluent markets such as San Jose, Calif. It uses all plywood and solid wood construction, with dovetailed drawers and hardware by Blum and Knape & Vogt.
But even targeting the top portion of the market, Steve realized he couldn't compete with bigger shops. That led him to consider changing his three-man shop's all-conventional production to CNC automation.
Starting with software
Steve's introduction to new technology came through Siskiyou Products Cabinet Pro software. He gravitated to the fellow Oregon company's product not just from proximity but from the attractive price. "I can't afford the huge programs," he says. "I'd rather have another $20,000 to spend on a machine instead of spending it on the software."
He started using Cabinet Pro in 2001. "I knew I needed something to eliminate the stupid mistakes you make drawing by hand," he recalls. "I was surprised how inexpensive it was while still producing truly custom cabinets and accurate cutlists."
Of course, going from paper and pencil to computer wasn't easy and instantaneous. "It was quite a learning curve then, but it's easier now," he says.
After several years of working with Cabinet Pro on a daily business, Steve was ready to take on the challenge of adding a CNC machine to the shop in 2006.
Moving to CNC
Steve approached his purchase of a CNC machine much as he did his software choice. He wanted a heavy-duty machine with good performance, but he didn't want to spend any more money than he had to. He ended up with a Techno Premium Series CNC router.
Steve and Frank expanded the shop to accommodate the router, adding piers under the floor of the wood frame shop to fully support the big machine. A phase converter took care of the electrical challenges that arose in handling the three-phase router in the single-phase shop.
There was also lots of learning on the software end. Steve gives plenty of credit to Frank Jimenez of Cabinet Pro for helping him through the process to make sure the software and machine worked effectively together. Steve learned G-code in the process, and three weeks after the router arrived in July, it was running and productive, he says.
But Steve jokes that he didn't immediately reap the full efficiency benefits of the new machine because they spent too much time admiring it. "It was supposed to be a time-saving device, but for the first two months there wasn't any time savings because everybody just watched it," he says.
Steve knew it would take some doing to get the hang of the new machine. The first set of cabinets built on it was typical of the learning experience to get the machine running properly. "I butchered a unit of plywood, taking 25 sheets instead of six to do the job, but that's cheap college," says Steve. Although he still tends to optimize after he's built one cabinet to test, Steve says production is now much smoother and more efficient.
Another hitch they ran into with the CNC machine was dealing with inconsistencies in the thickness of plywood. He and Jimenez from Cabinet Pro worked out a solution that keys the width of a dado cut to the actual measured thickness of the panel that fits into the dado.
Those issues behind him, Steve feels the CNC machine is transforming his shop. "The machine has made a huge difference," he says. "In 45 minutes it can cut all the parts that would have taken all day to cut before. We run it two hours a week and it does more than we could do in one or two days."
He says the machine also helps the shop save time in assembly. No longer do they need jigs for drawer guides, and they can install all hardware while the parts are flat. With a multi-boring head installed on the CNC, the shop felt the router handled boring chores well enough that they sold their line-boring machine.
Previously, Steve did all of the cutting himself on Powermatic or SawStop table saws. Now those machines are used for specialty cuts, and Steve can devote more time to sales.
Selling cabinets in Oregon often means battling a competitive, price-sensitive market. Once JDG hooked up with designers in California, the shop found a growing and profitable market. "I can charge 15 percent more and still be a bargain," Steve says. He acknowledges the long-distance logistics are an issue, but he's worked that out.
One big advantage JDG has in competing in the California market is speed. Steve prides his shop on being able to turn around jobs quickly, and the CNC router makes that even faster. Demand in the San Jose market is apparently beyond the capacity of many local cabinet shops. "Everybody there is 1-1/2 years out," says Steve, describing standard job lead times. He can easily beat that with a six-month to one-year schedule.
California, here we come
Typically, a California job involves three trips, two for site measurements and one to deliver the cabinets. JDG does not do installations or finishing and relies on sources nearby the site for those services.
Currently the shop is working with two designers in San Jose and one in Oregon and does no advertising. Steve feels his biggest challenge is keeping up with production, although he's beginning a project that could dramatically increase his production demands (see "North to Alaska" on page 78).
He's also exploring ways to add even more high-end features to his projects without having to outsource more services. The Techno router has an 11-inch gantry, so he could run a fourth axis to do more carving and column fluting.
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