Software gives small shop the edge
October 14, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

Driving into the town of Iliff, Colo., one wouldn't necessarily think this is the place to look for a high-tech woodworking operation. The streets are mostly unpaved, and the population is fewer than 225 souls. But step inside Creative Woodworking and you'll find a small shop that has a dedication to modern technology including computers and software going back 14 years.

Owner Adam Rose said that commitment to technology began with his father, who Rose bought the shop from in 2000. Eight years before that, his father realized he faced a long-term shortage of help and needed to boost production capacity and efficiency. Computer software and automated production seemed to be the answer then, and neither he nor his son have ever retreated from that position.

Machinery to software

When Rose's father first invested in the new technology, it was both machinery and software that led the way. A new Biesse Rover point-to-point CNC machining center was paired with Cabnetware software. The system was set up to print barcoded part labels, and the machine could read the barcodes to access the correct machine instructions for each part. It was a pretty sophisticated system for 1992.

But the shop didn't just stick with that setup. New technology offered new advances, particularly in the area of software. Rose says he thinks his father was one of the earliest adopters of the cabinet design software offered by KCDw. "I think we have the number 35 license from KCD," says Rose. "It was even before it was a Windows program."

Over time, the software has taken an even bigger role than the machinery. The aging Biesse Rover is plugging away in the shop, but now Rose uses a variety of software that wasn't even available when the machine was first made, and he uses the software for more tasks.

Software solutions

Today, Rose relies heavily on KCDw as his primary design and manufacturing program. Most of his business is with high-end residential remodeling in up to a 150-mile radius of his shop. The famous outdoors store Cabela's has its headquarters 30 miles north of Creative Woodworking, and many of the company's executives and other employees have called on the shop to do cabinetry for them. Rose says having the realistic 3-D renderings produced by KCDw makes it much easier to sell a kitchen.

"A lot of people just can't visualize without that picture," he says.

KCDw offers a huge time and efficiency advantage to the process, too, he says. "With KCDw I can draw a typical kitchen in 10 minutes," he says. "If I had to do everything by hand, I would be so burned out I wouldn't be in this business." He says having software to automate and speed his work means more time for family and interests outside of work.

Whatever time he can save also helps because Rose has longer travel times to and from projects than many shops. Still, he likes to visit a customer's home even on the first meeting. "It's a chance to point out things to them," he says. "And I'll also do rough measurements on the first visit."

Although Rose could bring a laptop and draw the kitchen right there, he prefers to go back to the shop, draw the kitchen, then invite the customer to come to the shop.

Rose says he thinks the combination of showing the software's realistic rendering of the proposed cabinets and the customers' seeing the shop in action helps to seal the deal.

Pairing software

Rose has come to rely on his KCDw software primarily for design work, and he uses KCDw's CNC link to drive his CNC machine. But he also uses True32 software that meshes with the KCDw program to elicit additional information he needs.

For example, he uses True32's Business Partner program to develop estimates, and he uses True32's Report Center in combination with KCDw to print special reports and manipulate data already produced by the KCDw program.

Report Center imports the cutlist created by KCDw and uses libraries for outsource vendors for such things as doors and drawers so Rose can instantly create purchase orders that can be e-mailed to the vendor directly from the program.

Putting it together

When it comes to production in the shop, parts are first cut on an Altendorf Elmo sliding table saw before being machined on the Biesse Rover point-to-point CNC machine.

Originally, the system was set up for parts to be barcoded and then a scanner at the CNC machine would be used to access the correct machining programs for each part. But now Rose does without labels. When parts are cut, they are marked with a part number in an inconspicuous place. The barcodes are still printed out, but on sheets of plain paper instead of labels. The CNC operator simply matches the part number to the sheet and scans the correct barcode from the sheet.

After parts are machined, they are edgebanded in the Holz-Her edgebander. Most doors and drawers are outsourced. Grass boring and insertion equipment is used to install hardware. Cabinets are put together with staples and screws to avoid the need for a case clamp. The shop also uses a Castle pocket hole machine for face-frame work and other joinery. Finishing is done in house.

A niche for quality

Rose says his shop doesn't really have a true niche. While most work is residential remodeling, the shop also tackles commercial jobs and countertops. He says his biggest asset is a reputation for quality that was established by his father and that he is adamant about continuing.

He speaks highly of his two employees, Shane Kloberdanz and Shane Simonson, and his father still does some installation work for the shop. Rose started working in the shop under his father back in 1994, but Rose said he hadn't really planned on making it his career. Then, after majoring in business at the University of Nebraska and working for a while for an insurance company, Rose said he came to a realization. "I'd rather work with my hands and see some results," he says.

Rose learned in the shop with his father, working at everything from finishing to installs. He ran the front office on his own for three months before actually buying the business from his father, who was looking to get out of the day-to-day business grind.

Growing with the area

While the shop's location in quiet Iliff would not seem poised for growth, there is plenty of growth nearby. Besides the growth near Cabela's in Sydney, Neb., neighboring Sterling, Colo., is a growing community of 14,000.

But there's also competition. Another shop founded by a former Creative Woodworking employee, a separate cabinet dealer, and Home Depot have all come to town. But Rose doesn't fear the big orange box store.

"I love having that here," he says. "They're not really cheap, and they're like an extra showroom for people to get ideas."

Rose is in the process of setting up his own showroom in Sterling in a building not too far from that Home Depot. The 450-square-foot facility will feature a full working kitchen and other display samples.

When customers try to compare Home Depot's cabinets to what Creative Woodworking offers, Rose says it's easy to point out the differences and sell his quality advantage. "I point out that their cabinets are mass produced in a factory," he says. "When I build it and install it in their house, it will look like it belongs there."

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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.