Gary A. Watkins Construction Inc., Manassas Park, Va., has developed a marriage of detailed management systems and inventive shop solutions to do projects few shops its size can handle.

One recent project involved a coffered ceiling, wainscoting, hidden cabinets, custom curved mouldings and marble shallow countertops, all installed in a massive residential library. The room sweeps in a gentle curve, demanding tricky joinery. It was a $300,000 job for the eight-person shop and showcases their woodworking. But owner Gary Watkins and production foreman Bob Hovmiller say it takes a lot more than just crafstmanship to keep projects like that profitable and efficient.

Planning the job

Watkins and Hovmiller both emphasize meticulous planning and preparation work designed to carry every job through to success. Typically a project begins with careful site measurement, photographs and initial pencil sketches that Watkins develops. When they tackle a big job like the library project, they work in phases, dividing it up between different people in the shop. In the case of a coffered ceiling project like the library, Hovmiller separates the ceiling work from the cabinets because the ceiling is built mostly on site while the cabinets are done in the shop.

Every job is numbered. Project sheets in protective clear jackets ride with the job as it moves through the shop. A job board on the side of the spray booth makes it easy to check progress of each project.

In the design stage, Hovmiller uses  Planit Cabinet Vision and  Enroute 3 software to develop drawings and programs for their  Multicam 3000 CNC router. A fairly recent addition to the shop, the CNC machine has changed more than just machining. "We learned quickly that there are steps we can take to help us because of the CNC machine," says Hovmiller. "I'm always thinking how my machine is going to save me time."

Laying a foundation

Normally one thinks of building from the ground up, but Watkins and Hovmiller say you have to work from the top down to do a coffered ceiling correctly. "The foundation you lay a ceiling on is paramount," says Watkins. "It has to be square and straight." To get that, the shop builds a system of "ladders" installed as an underlayment for the ceiling. They provide a level and square base for the fancy woodwork to come.

Watkins and Hovmiller integrated their CNC machine into the design and preparation. They used it to cut all the blocks with holes for electrical wiring and all the brackets to mount crown mouldings on the walls. "Those two things alone cut days off the labor costs," says Hovmiller.

Ironically, the shop didn't originally plan to go to CNC machining, thinking of just adding another table saw. But a trip to the IWF show in Atlanta four years ago changed their direction. Now they continue to find new ways to use the machine, often marrying it's capabilities with the output of more conventional machines (see sidebar above).

But they are fully aware that CNC automation won't solve all problems. Watkins points out that they still make mistakes with the CNC. For example, something gets labeled incorrectly and worked upside down, but they see some of that related to the need to keep their staff excited and involved.

"Cabinetmakers are not robots," says Hovmiller. "We still have to give them things to stimulate them."

Evolving specialty

Watkins is unusual in that it is a residential cabinet shop that doesn't do kitchens. Originally started as a construction company building houses, Watkins began to specialize in interior trim work in high-end homes. He said they built some "carpenter cabinets" on site, but it wasn't until they got the chance to do their first library project that the idea of becoming a shop-based operation really took root.

Hovmiller was working for Watkins at the time and had previous cabinet-shop experience. At first they set up shop in Watkins' garage. The first big job they set up in the basement of the house being built.

As one successful project led to the next, "We lost the trim guys and the cabinets took over," says Watkins.

While the shop still works regularly with some builders doing mid-range and higher-end new home projects, Watkins says that's primarily to ensure steady cash flow. The real emphasis of the shop now is on high-end libraries, coffered ceilings and related cabinetry. Besides referrals from existing or previous clients, new customers find them on the Web at www.watkinscabinets.com.

Continuous improvement

As the target market has evolved, so has the production methods of the shop. Today, the shop operates with a U-shaped production flow. Work begins at the front of the shop, travels through cutting, CNC, moulding and assembly operations to the back on one side. Then it moves over to the other side through sanding, finishing, and shipping out the loading dock at the front.

A long line of miter saw stations are mounted against the center dividing wall. Each station is a separate bench area for an individual mechanic, but they share the same continuous table. No matter how long the piece to be cut, or where the cut needs to be made, it can be handled easily.

With the advent of the CNC machine the shop invested in more material handling equipment. Hovmiller emphasizes using machines not muscles to move things. The shop has elevating, rolling carts, a fork lift, and a raised dock. "We don't carry things," he says.

Watkins and Hovmiller trumpet continuous improvement. "What we learn from one job we use to make the next job easier," says Hovmiller.

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