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A new hope in Ohio

Put two guys together with a CNC router and you have everything you need to create a robust business. At least that’s the way it happened at Chmura Custom Woodworks in the Cleveland suburb of Independence, Ohio. Well, that’s almost the way it happened.

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It was 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession, when Rick Chmura and his son, Bryan, were laid off from their good-paying jobs. It was probably not the best time to launch a business, but they decided to give it a try anyway.

“For a long time we’d thought about doing something together and this seemed like the perfect time except for the bad economy,” Rick says. “All our lives we’ve both been hobbyist woodworkers. We get along great and we complement each other in our individual areas of expertise. I’m the management guy and Bryan’s the artistic one with this thing in his head that’s always churning out creative design ideas.”

So they moved their garage workshops into a leased 3,000-sq.-ft. building. Success didn’t come right away, but they plowed on using their savings, Rick’s salary from his new job at Crane Aerospace (manufacturer of aircraft engine components), their can-do attitude and supportive wives.

Even though times were lean, there were still pockets of opportunity. They bid cabinet jobs when and where they could and connected with an interior designer who sent work their way. They hit their stride, but soon ran into trouble.

“In the beginning, our whole idea was to stick to cabinetry, but we found out we couldn’t build fast enough. I was worn out from working full-time while also trying to help in the shop and, on top of all that, there was so much competition,” Rick says. “Then Bryan suggested we head in another direction and get into CNC work. I wasn’t crazy about making the expensive investment, but I went along with the idea.”

Rick and Bryan Chmura.

They bought a ShopBot CNC router and almost immediately got a call from a toy company to supply puzzle parts. The shop suddenly had a special niche that continues to this day.

“We don’t know of any other business in the area that does exactly what we do,” Rick says. “We’re unique and unusual. We still have competition from standard woodworkers and cabinetmakers, but nothing comes close to our one-of-a-kind custom work.”

“At least 75 percent of everything we produce is done on our 5’ x 8’, 3-axis ShopBot PRS Alpha. Now we’ll do almost anything anyone asks us to do except kitchen cabinets,” Bryan adds.

Staying busy

The scope of the shop’s portfolio unfolds with samples of its first big contract, making puzzle pieces for Geared for Imagination in Akron, Ohio.

“We’ve cut over 50,000 pieces in all shapes and sizes, which fit together interchangeably, kind of like Legos,” Bryan says. “That was our first big CNC job and it was our bread and butter for about five years.”

Another important client has been Bad Axe Tool Works, a high-end hand saw company with distribution all over the world, including China. Chmura makes its saw handles.

“We turn out about 80 handles a month and more during the Christmas season,” Rick says. “We added a second spindle to the ShopBot so we can effectively double our production rate.

Time spent making each handle is a big factor. There’s an intensive 20-step finishing process — belt and spindle sanding and multiple rounds of hand sanding. They get a Danish oil treatment and a final buffing.

Sign making is another component of the business.

“Pricing is probably the hardest thing we have to do. Of course, materials and machine depreciation are fairly set, but time is really hard to assign a number to. Depending on the job, we normally discount our time. In the case of Bad Axe, they provide the wood and we manufacture, so we have to price only time,” Rick explains.

Another big customer is Stoddard, a seller of aftermarket Porsche parts. Chmura supplies it with floorboards, battery trays, seat frames and the top bows for convertible models.

Slot-car racing remains a popular hobby and Chmura manufacturers track accessories. Rick creates scale models of NASCAR service stations and other track structures on the shop’s 50-watt Epilog laser. The laser cutter is so precise all parts fit together without a drop of glue.

Other customers have included the three Cleveland professional sports teams. The Cavaliers recently commissioned display boxes for their 2016 NBA championship rings.

Prepping their way

Four generations of Chmuras have been working with wood in some way or other.

“We like to say it’s in our genes,” Rick says. “My grandfather built houses in Cleveland during the ’20s and ’30s. Some are still standing and can be identified by his signature wood tie at the roofline. We still have his old Craftsman sander in the shop.”

Rick’s father was a machinist and had a home workshop, where his son was always building something from scrap wood. Rick was hired as an apprentice at the Warner & Swasey Co. out of high school and learned the basics of production manufacturing. He graduated from Cleveland State University with a master’s degree in business administration. Then it was back to Warner & Swasey for a four-month Six Sigma course on lean manufacturing.

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He started a business (Qualitec) and worked for other companies, while Bryan graduated from the Pittsburgh Art Institute and logged 10 years as a model maker, engraver and prototype creator for Royal Appliance.

Designing the future

While Chmura Custom Woodworks has always tried to stay a step ahead, there are some operational tweaks in the works.

“For the most part we’re satisfied with our CNC model,” Rick says. “It converts to a lathe, which is nice, but we’d like to have a tool changer. It’s about seven years old now and so far it’s been almost maintenance-free and a great workhorse.

“The biggest problem I see with our company is that we’re too dependent on others for livelihood. We make everything for others and there’s nothing we can call our own. We want a product line that fills a need both locally and online.”

“We’re probably always going to do the stray cabinet job,” Bryan says. “In fact, someone just came in and wanted us to build an add-on kitchen cabinet to match the scheme they already have. We’ll do things like that, cutout work, but we’re more interested in creative, challenging, out-of-the-box type things.”

Ring box for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Rick and Bryan see more potential from their Epilog laser and Bryan’s been experimenting with a 3-D printer. So this two-man shop might very expand without ever adding another employee.

That’s something to think about.

Contact: Chmura Custom Woodworks, 5534 Brecksville Road, Independence, OH 44131. Tel: 216-533-3760.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue.

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