At Harden Furniture in McConnellsville, N.Y., the prophets of doom for domestic furniture production have been heard, acknowledged and dismissed.

 

"As we look out at the retail universe, we say, What are the opportunities for $15,000, $12,000 retail bedrooms and dining rooms?' We know it's limited," says Greg Harden, president and CEO. "But I'd much rather be competing in that market than competing in the lower-priced market. It's really competitive in our part of the market, but it's fatally competitive in that part of the market."

 

Undaunted, Harden has initiated a three-pronged plan to grow its position in the fiercely competitive high-end furniture market. Last year it launched a new, less formal product line, a dazzling array of finishes and a marketing concept aimed at bringing in a new generation of Harden buyers.

 

And it appears that Harden is on the right track. In 2005 it posted $40 million in sales and is expecting to exceed that number in 2006.

 

In the fall of 2005, Harden unveiled its new Cabinetmaker's Cherry group, a collection of residential furniture, casegoods, upholstered pieces and occasional items. The group has been well received, and is a departure from the type of furniture that Harden has traditionally done. The Cabinetmaker's Cherry collection uses a more relaxed lumber standard, featuring the natural defects in the wood.

 

"Harden's demographic was predominately our parents' age it was kind of 50 years old and above," Harden says. "However, there's a high-income, quality-starved 30 to 50 demographic out there that is fashionable. They like fun product, they're very aspirational, and Cabinetmaker's Cherry really appealed to that."

 

Harden believes Cabinetmaker's Cherry will continue to do particularly well in the mountain states, New England and the Adirondacks, though he admits the collection is a "180 degree change" in terms of the formality of the product for Harden.

 

31 finishes

The second of Harden's initiatives has been in the realm of finishing. "Our finishing has always been good," Harden says. "However, a couple of years ago we determined that our finishing had to become world class." Harden will quickly tell you that goal has been accomplished. Harden Furniture now offers 31 finishes, including stain and glaze finishes, artistic paints and distressed finishes. Further, Harden will match existing finishes such as a family heirloom and catalog it for future reference.

 

"We really feel we're the best finishers in the world today," Harden says.

 

Customer communication

The third initiative by Harden has been to create a vehicle for communicating with customers about its new finishes and product line. The vehicle is the Harden Home Studio, a 1,000-square-foot display where the company shows a variety of furniture. The studio includes kiosks, a design center and examples of Harden's 31 finishes. The studio is built to sit inside a retail furniture store.

 

"In that 1,000 square feet we try and show a cross-section of what makes Harden different," Harden says. "That differentiation thing is so important to us. If we can't communicate to that consumer why we're different, why we're better, why they should buy our product, then they're not going to."

 

Harden Home Studio was tested in three markets earlier in the year with excellent results, according to Harden. As a result, a large roll-out of Harden Home Studios is slated to begin in the fall.

 

Operations

The production mix at Harden is about 15 percent contract furniture, 30 percent upholstery and 55 percent casegoods. "It's worked out to be a pretty good mix," Harden says. "The contract and upholstery really balance nicely the cyclical nature of the casegoods business."

 

Facilities at Harden are split into two main buildings the sawmill and the woodworking facility. In Harden's sawmill, the log first goes through debarking. The log is then squared into a cant by a head saw, and then goes to a resaw for a more accurate cut. The material is then straddle-planed, and then it goes to one of two Oliver optimizing saws. After that, boards are ripped to width.

 

Good material goes to a color matcher. After boards have been color matched and laid up, they go to the glue line. Harden uses only Taylor pressure clamps. "It's the best glue joint, in our opinion," says Bruce Brach, operations manager-woodworking operations.

 

After panels come out of the glue clamp, they are set on sticks for curing for at least 24 hours. Big conference tables, dining tables and dresser tops sit for 60 hours to avoid later planing issues.

 

Depending on the piece, panels then go to one of three Komo CNC routers for routing. Specifications of the piece determine whether a piece will be sanded before routing, after routing, or both.

 

According to Brach, Harden follows a practice of "manufacture to inventory." When a SKU falls beneath a certain number, the plant produces a production amount of that item. After the item is manufactured and assembled, it goes to storage. When an order comes in, it is then finished and upholstered to order.

 

All dining room tables and conference tables and most of Harden's contract office furniture are made to order mostly because custom sizes are often requested for those pieces.

 

Flexibility key

With the exception of its CNC routers, Harden has not embraced automated technology in its plant, preferring instead to use craftsmen and individual machines. Because of this, and because Harden's production runs are small usually 25 pieces employees have to be knowledgeable on many different products and processes.

 

As an example, Brach notes one employee who is "a table saw operator, a router operator, a boring operator, a bandsaw operator and a forklift driver." All employees are cross-trained, and only the CNC router operators and moulder operators are specialized positions, and then only because there is constantly work for those two machines.

 

After pieces have been roughed out in the saw mill, they are taken to woodworking production and assembly. The first stop in woodworking is the turning area. Bedposts, dining chair legs and dining table legs are done here. Hand-carving is also done here, as well as lathe work. Harden does no embossing. Shell drawers and ball and claw legs are all hand-carved. "There's something about the magic of the chisel that can't be reproduced," Brach says.

 

Moulding and cutting

Pieces that don't need to go to turning go to moulding and cutting. Harden uses a Mattison moulder, a Diehl moulder and a Greenlee double-end tenoner.

 

Pieces for drawers go to a drawer cell for dovetails, assembly and sanding. All other pieces go on to an area for sanding and inspection. From there the pieces are sent to the second floor of the shop for assembly.

 

The first stop in assembly is known as "first half assembly." Here, the carcase is assembled and re-sanded. From there, pieces go to "second half assembly," where the remainder of the piece is put together. Some pieces are then wrapped and put into storage, awaiting finish, and some go directly to finishing.

 

Nearby is the contract area, where office furniture is built. The contract area acts as a custom shop, and it has all the tools and machinery to operate as a standalone woodshop. The far end of the building contains Harden's upholstery operations.

 

Harden's 31 finishes dictate what happens to individual pieces as they go through its in-floor serpentine finishing line. Some pieces are sanded with a 5/8-inch disc sander; some painted finishes are distressed but not sanded; and some finishes get both sanded and distressed. An inspector checks that the finish has been done correctly.

 

"Twenty years ago we hardly did any distressing," says Andy Clark, operations manager-finished goods. "Now we do a ton of it."

 

A header card on each piece gives the style number, what it is, where it's going, production date, finish and a brief description. All pieces are barcoded, so the status of a piece can be determined at any given time.

 

Several employees are dedicated to working on contract and dining room tables; the remainder of the finishers take care of the rest of the residential line.

 

Harden uses NGR stain, and every step in the color process has a panel that goes along with it. Work is constantly checked against the color panels for correctness.

 

After staining, pieces travel through a drying tunnel, then through a glaze oven. A sealer is applied by hand, and the piece then goes through a sealer oven. The piece is then sealed or sanded if it is going to receive an additional coating. Once a piece is completely finished, it is wrapped and prepped for delivery on one of Harden's trucks.

 

Optimism high

Optimism is clearly high at Harden. "We certainly intend to grow this business. We're going to grow it as aggressively as opportunities allow," Harden says. "Our feeling is that just the incremental growth from Harden Home Studios will add about 10 percent to our top line.

 

"We feel we can grow our casegoods business, we know we can grow our upholstery business and we feel we can grow our contract business as well. We can also grow without pouring any concrete here because we've got a fair amount of excess capacity," Harden says. "There are tremendous opportunities out there."

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