Back to the drawing board

34_falk1Jim Falk, the owner of Progressive Wood Works in Port Chester, N.Y., has honed the style and fabrication techniques of his woodworking business through the years to produce a traditional English-style cabinetry in the most efficacious way possible. Established in 1983, PWW has built a solid reputation of making custom and innovative cabinetry with its high-end clients throughout New York and Connecticut.

About four years ago, a portion of the business was dedicated to design and preproduction services, and now the company's services are a 50-50 split between these and custom fabrication. Included with the design services are drawings in AutoCAD format for architectural submissions and easy interface with other design programs, along with complete detailing and cut listing for CNC manufacturing.

"Our design service allows the small shops to concentrate on sales and production, instead of the wood engineering. There's a lot that takes place between meeting with the client and saying we're going to build your job, and actually putting the pieces of wood through the saw," says Falk.

Working with associate Bill Walker, Falk does design work particularly for small shops that don't have the technical knowledge or ability to be able to put together architectural submissions and do some of the complex work. The popularity of this service has gradually made the company more focused on design rather than manufacturing, so much that Falk might let go of the fabrication end in the near future.

Starting solo

Falk grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he majored in psychology. He eventually began working for an insurance company as a building and safety inspector in the southern counties of New York.

Falk says he wasn't blending in too well with the corporate lifestyle and was lucky to find somebody that was looking for a cabinetmaker. He had been passionate about woodworking and was building furniture on the side throughout his youth into his adulthood. He took a 50 percent cut in pay, gave up his company car and went to work in a barn heated by a wood stove in Rye, N.Y.

34_falk2Jim R. Falk

Business: Progressive Wood Works, Inc.

Title: President

Location: Port Chester, N.Y.

Shop size: 4,000 sq. ft.

About: Progressive Wood Works is a custom cabinetry and furniture company serving residential clients in Westchester County, N.Y., and Fairfield County, Conn. It will design, fabricate, deliver and install products made in-house, or work in conjunction with a client’s architect, interior designer or general contractor.

"The biggest thing I learned about going from a hobbyist to a professional woodworker was that you don't have all of the time in the world to complete a project. You have to get something done on a regular basis on a timely manner."

Falk was a natural. He started out doing high-end laminate work and was soon offered specialty custom jobs such as building corporate furniture and case goods with premium hardwoods. After two years, he decided it was time to start his own business and opened a shop in Yonkers, N.Y. After a slow start relying on family members and friends to commission furniture jobs, a client he met while building a deck gave him the connection for a substantial whole-home interior job. Others followed, and he was able to concentrate solely on cabinetmaking.

Walker grew up in upstate New York and was in the building trades since he was a teenager. He met Falk while working for the same cabinetmaker and stayed at the shop after Falk left and became experienced at preparing project cut lists. He is a proficient design expert skilled in using AutoCAD and SmartLister.

Fastidious with fabrication

Even though a substantial portion of PWW's work is in the realm of design and detailing, the two associates still do some fabrication of more specialized products.

"We just finished a tiger maple great room featuring all sequence-matched veneers. Whatever people would like us to design for them and build for them, we do."

35_falk1PWW originally focused on producing contemporary laminated cabinetry, but Falk soon realized that, in the high-end Northeast residential market, the traditional look of beaded face frames with inset doors on butt hinges was desired. From the mid-1980s on, the company began distinguishing its products from other cabinetmakers by using traditional and ornate aesthetics.

Falk started designing software after not being able to find a flexible software specific to the cabinet industry. Falk had been using AutoCAD for a long time, including the 2-D and 3-D products, which was helpful for designing, but fell short of his fabrication needs.

"I did some research on the Internet and found a company called MillLister, which has a product called SmartLister that measures AutoCAD 3-D solids and puts them into a spreadsheet. This lets me draw something and design it and find out how big the parts are afterwards. This is a very powerful production tool."

Falk took it one step further by taking SmartLister, which is suitable for any industry, and making it specific to the woodworking industry.

"In woodworking, we've got line drilling holes, pilot holes, tongue and grove joinery ... so I designed a software suite that works in conjunction with AutoCAD that will, in fact, put all that machinery into the AutoCAD solids."

Now Falk can design, send a fabrication program to a CNC shop and get the parts in a day or two. Thus, a side business was born.

"Small shops want these services," says Falk. "They can't hire a dedicated detailer because they only need them a couple of times a month. They hire us instead of having someone do it full-time."

35_falk2PWW currently serves about 12 design clients a year. Since most of the communication is done by e-mail, geographic boundaries really don't exist.

"We work in conjunction with a local CNC fabricator who has clients all over the U.S. This is especially advantageous because people from rural areas don't always have access to a local fabricator. Completed parts can be shipped anywhere.

Design work is charged on an hourly basis and the price depends on what the client is providing and what's needed in return. A sketch on a napkin will require much more than a drawing from architect, for example.

So far, PWW hasn't had to invest much in the marketing of its design services. As a frequent participator on the WoodWeb and AutoCAD forums, and active member of the Cabinet Makers Association, Falk's "name recognition" within the industry is rather high.

No CNC?

PWW's 4,000-sq.-ft. shop is in an out-of-the way industrial setting to discourage walk-ins. At one time, the business had as many as four employees. But, for now, Falk and Walker are enough. Because the design business is taking over the fabrication side, Falk is leasing the shop space to other woodworkers.

37_falk1"As we began doing more design work, the shop was not being used for a month at a time so I rented out my shop to two other cabinetmakers, both of whom have their own business and use the facility for their production."

Despite pushing the limits of CNC technology and production techniques, PWW does not own a CNC machine, preferring to let other shops fabricate the parts and bring its designs to fruition.

"The reason for this is based both on time and money. Being a small specialty shop and not a volume or production shop, utilizing others' CNC for two or three days a month is far more economical than owning a machine. By elimination, the learning curve along with the commitments associated with maintenance and obsolescence, our business is left the freedom to concentrate on those aspects of the work it does best: design and engineering."

Still, Falk has about $250,000 invested in shop equipment, including AutoCAD 2010, SmartLister and SmartMachining software; five Windows-based computers; and an HP Designjet 500 large format printer.

The machinery inventory includes a Robland 10' sliding table saw; Holz-Her edgebander; Jet 37" sander; Hoffmann beaded face frame system; Ayen Expert boring machine; Ritter, Sunhill and Lobo shapers; SAC 12" jointer; and Delta 10" Unisaw, 24" planer and 16" drill press.

Clients are offered limited finishing services because the products are usually painted on-site by subcontractors. PWW does supply the cabinetry primed and also will recommend a finisher if asked to do so. The shop does about 75 percent of its own installation.

Future plans

Falk sees the company becoming much more of a design firm. He envisions building a few prototypes a year, but mostly doing the designing and engineering for other small shops. He says he might let go of the fabrication end, but it all depends on what kind of work comes through the door.

"I'm not going to let go until we have more design work than we can handle," says Falk. "Business has slowed down. When business slows down, people tend to more of their design work in-house, then we'll do production. At the moment, it's nice to have both avenues available. However, I do anticipate when things start picking up again that we will be doing a lot of design work for a lot of shops. Eventually I do see not having the shop and just having the computers and an office."

Contact: Progressive Wood Works Inc., 80 Fox Island Road, Bldg. No. 3, Port Chester, NY 10573. Tel: 914-935-9026. www.progressivewoodworks.com

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.