After purchasing Chico Woodcraft in Chico, Calif., in 1999, it didn't take long for Jeff Ford to fill up the 3,000 square foot shop. By 2003, the shop had a Robland sliding table saw, a Striebig panel saw, an SCM edgebander, an SCM widebelt sander, an SCM shaper as well as a TigerStop on a CTD cutoff saw. Plus, he had four employees besides himself.

Then he decided to purchase an SCM Pratix CNC router.

"It's always been kind of a crowded shop, but we really compounded it by putting in the CNC," Ford says. "And I said, This is crazy. We've got to redo this.' "

Time to reorganize

To prepare a place for the large footprint of the CNC router, Ford cleared unused mezzanine space above the shop and built a new office there. The original office on the shop floor a long, rectangular space was opened up and the edgebander was moved in. Cabinets in the former office were cleared out and now hold screws, clips and other supplies. Workbenches originally near the edgebander were moved toward the back of the shop.

Ford shifted material storage into vertical racks near the front of the shop around the corner from the newly cleared CNC router space. He moved the vertical panel saw against a wall near the material storage, and moved the sliding table saw into a space parallel to the panel saw. He installed cabinets and racks on walls around the shop for storage.

Having mobile equipment is especially important, as Ford pulls his delivery truck into the back of the shop each night, so there must be space for it. Ford put wheels or casters on everything he could. Wood clamps were placed on a rolling rack as well.

Ford also acquired two 20-foot trailers, which he keeps behind the shop; finished work is stored there. He also uses off-site storage for extra equipment and extra hardware.

CNC challenges

In the new layout, material storage ended up around a sharp corner from the CNC router, and it quickly became apparent to Ford that moving material around the corner to the CNC router would be an issue. Ford explained the situation to Tawi USA Inc., whom he hired to install a Vaculift system for material handling. Tawi assured Ford that one of its subcontractors could supply a curved monorail that Ford could install that would enable him to bring material around the corner.

Ford installed the monorail per the supplied specs, but there was a problem it would not work with the vacuum hose attached. Inquiries to the subcontractor through Tawi revealed that the system needed to be supplemented with a trolley system, with the hose attached to the monorail via chains and clamps, similar to a shower curtain. Ford installed the trolley system, and it is working, though not quite as well as Ford had hoped.

Ford has ordered another section of monorail that a local machine shop will bend into a wider radius in hopes of doing away with the current trolley system. "It's still a work in progress," Ford explains.

Push for frameless

Space considerations at Chico Woodcraft have even influenced the shop's preferred cabinet style. "I always try to push the frameless both because I like the look and the faster production in the shop," Ford says. "I find face-frame production takes longer in the shop but is faster on the install. Since we are cramped for space, faster out of the shop is better."

The new space allocations of the shop leave little room for variation in production flow. Pieces for frameless cabinets are cut on the CNC router, then placed on a wheeled cart, moved through the edgebanding room and then out the other side and on to assembly. For face-frame cabinets, pieces are cut, moved through the edgebanding room (though they don't get banded), bored, put through the widebelt sander and then moved to assembly. Once cabinets are completed, they are moved into one of the 20-foot trailers behind the shop.

Staying out of the shop

Most of the time there are two people (one of whom is usually Ford) out on a job site performing installs, which reduces the daily body count in the shop. However, when all hands are on deck, Ford admits the shop can feel pretty crowded.

Despite the crowded conditions, Ford still keeps an eye out for new labor. He has been searching for an installer, but to date hasn't found anyone who meets his standards. For now, Ford says he is fine doing installs, as it keeps him out in the public as the "face" of Chico Woodcraft, which makes his clients feel more comfortable.

Nonetheless, Ford looks forward to expanding. "If I had the space, just sitting there, to have another one or two more assembly tables, we could probably do another $100,000 a year."

A new space

Ford has actively looked for a larger shop space in Chico for some time, but hasn't had much success. While rent on his current space is reasonable, Ford wants to purchase a building to build long-term equity. Ford has toyed with the idea of purchasing the small piece of land behind his current shop, but costs outweigh the benefits.

In addition, there are some drawbacks to his current location. Being in the "college" part of town (near the campus of California State University at Chico), he says he gets couches "donated" to him regularly, and he has had one small flatbed trailer disappear on him as well.

However, Ford takes these events in stride, and realizes that moving to a larger space is his only real long-term solution. "I think I've squeezed every last inch out of here that I can," Ford says, and then pauses. "However that space over there has some potential," he waves at the corner of the shop near the delivery door. "There's still something over there I can do."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.