Toolmaker expands during challenging times
December 22, 2009 | 12:00 am UTC

In 2006, Tim Weaver, president of Carolina Specialty Tools, made what many would consider a risky move: he expanded the business to include poly crystalline diamond (PCD) tools. The decision involved purchasing nearly $1 million in new machinery, a big chunk of money for this small North Carolina company. Furthermore, while the potential for revenue from PCD tooling clients was large, there were no guarantees.

However, the risk has paid off. Since making the leap to sharpening PCD tools, the company is now able to offer a larger menu of services, which is opening doors to new clients and enabling CST to serve a wider territory. Currently the company is experiencing an increase in sales, and company president Tim Weaver anticipates even more growth ahead.

Time for change

Prior to 2006, CST primarily focused on manufacturing and servicing carbide and insert tooling for the woodworking industry. While the company was successful, particularly with insert tooling, there was no way to escape the effect of the downturn in the economy. "When furniture started disappearing around here, we realized we needed to look at other markets," Weaver says.

While the move into PCD tooling was risky, Weaver considers the move a necessary one. "The biggest reason that I got into diamond tooling is because in the past five or six years all the casegood and furniture companies shut down around here and became warehouses and went to China. The larger cabinetry companies, the larger flooring companies, even the larger furniture companies all use diamond. So if you're going to be a player in the future in the big game, you'll be in diamond tooling."

It was while looking at other markets that Weaver made the decision to move into PCD tooling. In the past two years, CST has added four Vollmer PCD tooling machines to its complement of machinery: a QWD 750 wire machine, two QW machines and, most recently, a QM eco wheel erosion machine.

New capabilities

The addition of the Vollmer machines has helped set the company apart from its competitors. "There are thousands of small saw shops around the United States," Weaver explains. "But when you get into diamond tooling and even insert tooling there's not many shops doing it because it's such a big investment, in both machinery and manpower. I've got to have four or five engineers on staff," he notes.

CST has also expanded from serving a few states to all 50 states, Canada and Mexico. Weaver says the company used to work mostly with the furniture industry and now serves flooring, log homes, cabinetry and millwork. The company has also increased its presence among distributors.

New markets

Another market that has opened up for CST is machinery manufacturers. According to Weaver, the logic was simple. "We started going to machinery manufacturers and saying A machine's no good without tooling, and tooling's no good without a machine, so why not put them together? They're going to eventually get together at some time or another.'"

Now CST is working to be in on the initial sale of machinery so it can put together a tool package for the time of delivery.

Shop tour

Jobs for cutter heads for both carbide and diamond insert tooling begin with a work order from the company's engineering department. From there, the lathe operator pulls and cuts the appropriate amount of material for the job. Jobs are scanned as they move through each department, so management is able to check on an order's progress via computer as it moves around the floor.

Once the material is cut, it goes to a Mori Seiki turning lathe and then on to a five-axis Mori Seiki CNC milling machine. Carbide inserts are machined on a Tigra insert grinder, or in some cases it is loaded robotically into a Schneeberger insert grinder, one of CST's more recent purchases.

After grinding, the cutterhead and inserts are taken to an adjacent area where the cutterheads are black oxided and the insert knives are installed. Before shipping, the heads are put on a Haimer balancer and checked on a Parlec inspection machine.

"The bodies are made the same way for diamond or carbide," Weaver explains. "The way we cut them on a machine is a little different, but otherwise it's the same; the steel is cut, then it's turned on the CNC lathe and milled on the CNC milling center. For diamond, it's shifted over to the diamond section and the diamond is brazed on."

Diamond tooling

Once diamond has been brazed on to PCD tooling, it goes to one of the Vollmer machines for final production and sharpening. Since diamond is so hard, it isn't ground; it's eroded. The Vollmer machines use an electrically-charged wheel to erode the tooling over a period of time.

"A typical carbide cutter could be ground in about 30 minutes," Weaver says. "A comparable PCD cutter will probably take about six hours."

For tooling with more complicated profiles, the Vollmer QWD 750 machine is used. "The 750 uses a thin wire instead of a wheel so it can work with real tight patterns and sharp corners," Weaver says. It has a probe on it so it can go in, probe the tool and determine location on its own."

In contrast to the hi-tech PCD tooling, simple carbide-tipped cutting tools, a staple of CST's business when it opened, now occupies only one room in the building and about three employees.

Always opportunities

As to the current downturn in the economy, Weaver is both philosophic and positive. "The hard times are when you do your best inventing," he says. "Not the good times. That's what put us behind. We had too many good times and not enough bad in the beginning, so we didn't foresee five years down the road. After being in the business 17 or 18 years, now I know, I'm thinking five years down the road," he adds. "There's always opportunity somewhere."

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

About the author
Ken Jennison

Ken Jennison was a senior editor at CabinetMaker and FDM magazines from 2006 to 2008, writing more than 70 articles about cabinet and furniture manufacturers. He is currently director of acquisitions at Hearland Historical Properties LLC in San Francisco.