What custom woodshops do is they take a basic product and change something about it so that it more accurately meets the needs of a customer. That customization can include altering the dimensions of a box or upgrading the quality of construction or manipulating an aesthetic consideration such as species, stain or shape.
From there, it’s not a big leap to change the function, too. The skills and machinery required to build kitchens and entertainment centers for the residential market are pretty much the same as those needed to create industrial casework and furniture for other markets. Most of the time, the biggest difference will be in the materials, especially if the clients are hospitals, clinics, eye-care facilities and dental offices. Hygiene and germ/bacteria management require that these businesses use impervious surfaces, so they tend to build with plastic laminates, glass, solid-surface materials, sealed natural stone, ceramics and melamine products.
Some of the requirements in this market are that the bottoms of countertops are sealed (usually with laminate or a phenolic backer) or perhaps that shelving is edgebanded on all four edges and laminated on both faces. Each job will have very specific needs, but virtually all of these projects involve an architect or a project manager who is well-versed in the minimum requirements. Those professionals will provide detailed specs that will be appropriate to different locations such as labs, operating rooms or patient interview rooms. That is, they’ll tell you how to meet the market’s requirements.
Building casework or furniture for health care facilities requires the ability to be diligent and conform to instructions. There’s a learning curve here, so most shops start small and expand their scope as experience allows. There are state and federal requirements, hygiene rules devised by professional associations such as the American Medical Association and often site-specific specs developed by the draftsman or architect. In this market, wood filler doesn’t fix too many mistakes.
Is it a match?
Does your shop have what it takes to work in this market and, even if it does, is it worth the effort? Those are two big questions. Let’s look at the shop first.
Plastic laminates, melamine and MDF cores all tend to dull sharp edges very quickly, but that’s the least of the challenges. The biggest initial question is this: does your shop have access to the right equipment? Is there an edgebander that can handle the volume and sizes required since some counters need to be quite thick. Is there a CNC router with free time available that can handle the doors and panels? Does the shop have the ability to apply laminate to sheet goods in-house and do so safely (fume extraction, adhesive spray equipment, presses, rollers and vacuums)? If not, is there a supplier who can provide laminated sheet stock that meets the casework specs and can deliver it on time without high shipping costs?
Is your team well-acquainted with the new materials or will they need to have some training? A crew that has worked with plywood and hardwoods understands how the tools work, but might not appreciate how the materials work (especially liquids). If your shop already hires a subcontractor to do plastic laminate counters, that could be a good place to start looking for instructors. The laminate product suppliers might also have resources available and, of course, there’s a lot of information available online.
If this new direction will generate enough business to warrant hiring another woodworker, that can be an opportunity to find somebody who has spent a lot of time working with medical casework. Buying (well, renting) experience is often less costly than gaining it on the job. Hiring the right person can mean that the shop has a go-to guy for questions on water-based contact adhesives or the right mount for a sink or even the correct way to seal a backsplash.
Given how much is involved in changing gears from primarily wood construction to plastics, is it worth chasing this new market? A lot depends on the scale of the transition. Is the shop just adding capacity (that is, will the volume of other jobs be unaffected) or will the business be changing its entire focus to building custom medical casework? How much of an investment is required? How much training?
The best answer is to collect as much data as possible and buy lunch for a good accountant. He or she will ask enough questions to be able to go back to the office and work out an estimate for gross revenue and costs. If the numbers work, then the decision is a whole lot simpler. Now you just need to decide if it’s worth the headaches. And those don’t stop at training fabricators and supervisors, or redesigning workflow. You’ll also need to learn how to sell in this new market.
Entering the market
So how exactly does a shop — small or large — break into the medical furniture market? Sometimes it’s as simple as a doctor asking a patient who owns a cabinet shop if he or she can build a specific workstation or reception desk. That first brick in the wall might be very small, but it could lead to more work from the doctor and his/her associates. Doctors working for clinics are usually associated with hospitals and hospitals update and expand.
But that approach seems arbitrary and there are a number of logical ways to familiarize oneself with the parameters and the players. For example, large specialty millwork shops create moldings, stairs and other architectural details and many of them subcontract the box-building part of the process. A little Google time will usually produce a short list of millwork shops within driving distance. Visit them and have a conversation. If they subcontract, they will at least want to know what you can do for them.
Visit with the authority at City Hall who issues building permits (an engineer or building inspector). Permits are a matter of public record and they list the general contractors for every project. If a permit has already been pulled, you’re probably too late to bid the casework on that specific job, but knowing the general contractors is the key here. Go visit with them and bring a portfolio with photos of some jobs your shop has completed. Don’t worry too much about the materials: they’ll be looking at your quality of the work as much as your capacity to work in different materials.
Larger cities have a venue where jobs are posted for bids. Both general contractors and architects will usually be able to tell you what that procedure is. Nowadays, the venue is often a website. Sometimes bids are solicited through a contractors association and, in addition to the website, they are often advertised in newspapers or trade-specific journals.
Distributors who sell medical supplies, stainless-steel hardware and even plastic laminates might have some good leads.
Trade associations are a great steppingstone, too. The Architectural Woodwork Institute is a non-profit trade association founded in 1953 (www.awinet.org). AWI represents nearly 4,000 members consisting of architectural woodworkers, suppliers, design professionals and students from around the world. Membership in the AWI is a gateway to several specialty markets and a path to knowing your competition, but also to making friends in the field. On the AWI site, click on “Find a Member” and then choose “Manufacturer” as the Membership type. Then scroll down and click on “Architectural Casework, Sect. 10.” Pop in your state or zip code or city and hit “Search.” The results will reveal shops that are building architectural casework in your area and are already members of AWI. If you call those shop owners, asking them about the benefits of becoming a member of AWI is a great way to break the ice. From there, the conversation can wander where you need it to go.
As a nation, we’re all pretty concerned right now with the future of health care. But as woodshop owners, there are some heartwarming trends in this field that can give us comfort. First of all, the United States has a birth every eight seconds and a death every 12, so the population is going up. The Census Bureau says that the nation’s total population will cross the 400 million mark in 2051. That means a lot more hospitals, clinics and dentists and all of them will need more cabinets.
Secondly, health care is a hot issue and subject to more potential legislation than any other section of the economy. More regulation usually means updating facilities and that means more cabinets.
The population is getting older. Let’s face it, we baby boomers (persons born between 1946 and 1964) are starting to unravel at the seams. We need more and better health care all the time and that means more facilities and more cabinets.
By the way, that aging population stat might also warrant a look at getting into the manufacturing of both caskets and urns.
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.