Sweet 16: Just In Time
Finding this particular wood shop and furniture store was challenging, even with an iPhone GPS.
The journey also came with the lingering fear that my compact SUV was about to run out of gas after being on the road for two hours. That fear turned somewhat to embarrassment when a one-horse, single-man Mennonite buggy sauntered by while I inspected my smartphone searching for the best route forward.
The contrast in technologies was not lost on me, and neither was the quizzical expression on the man’s face in carriage as if to say, “brother, can I help you?”
Resisting the temptation to roll down my window, I re-established my bearings and was at the door of DJ’s Furniture in Wroxeter, Ont., 10 minutes later and still had enough fuel to get to nearest gas station.
After chatting with Dave Nichols in his furniture store, my host and owner of DJ’s, more technologies — of the woodworking variety — were on display in the shop wing of the low, sprawling building.
Nichols, along with his wife Susan, their three children, six retail employees, and five in the wood shop, keeps this manufacturing operation and store humming, along with a second showroom in Hanover, Ont.
The trajectory of DJ’s business since its inception in 1989 as a “basement” operation with a Makita skill saw and a belt sander is nothing short of remarkable.
Nichols recalls graduating from his initial location to a 20 x 40 shop in 1990 to “a seven acre farm five years later” outside Listowel, Ont. It was here that Nichols built a 40 x 100 shop, but this was just a prelude to the scale of the current operations. Twenty years ago the company purchased 50 acres in Wroxeter to build a house, shop and showroom.
The shop started at 60 x 120 before an additional 70 x 80 was added. “Five years ago we built the 55 x 145 retail outlet in Hanover,” says Nichols.
Furniture produced at the shop is made for bedrooms, dining rooms and the outdoors, and includes entertainment units, kids, and coffee, end and hall tables. DJ’s uses waterbased stains and conversion varnish on its products, says Nichols. Pieces typically are solid wood but can have half-inch plywood backs.
“We use soft-close door hardware. The rustic, rough-sawn look is very popular now,” says Nichols.
Solid wood furniture is offered in pine, wormy maple, oak, maple, quarter-sawn cut oak and cherry.
Customers can purchase in-store or work with DJ’s to provide custom furniture from hanging cabinets and bunk beds to rec room bars and bathroom vanity sets.
Besides selling through its own showrooms and custom orders, the company has developed its own separate sales channel.
“DJ’s has 40 dealers across Ontario that choose finished or unfinished furniture to sell,” says Nichols. “Some dealers prefer to use their own finish.” Design ideas also come from dealers.
“They might have an idea about something they’ve seen in a magazine or bring in a photo so we can work together.”
One year ago the company partnered with a dealer in Orangeville, Ont., that sells across the U.S. through its office in Buffalo, N.Y.
Two years ago DJ’s completely revamped its shop operations with new equipment and a just-in-time manufacturing philosophy. “We are shooting for paperless — we’re almost there — an order comes in and goes direct to the right machine,” says Nichols.
Staffing the wood shop hasn’t been problematic for DJ’s, according to Nichols. “I’ve been lucky so that once they’re in, they stay. Not too many wanderers over the years.
“I’ve taken some straight from Conestoga College and they’ve done their apprenticeships here and they’ve stayed. The foreman has been here for over 20 years and he’s an ex-pig farmer. We train them the way we like.
“Some shops have revolving doors — I don’t have that. I work with the schools back and forth doing co-ops to help the students. To see if they like doing this as a career.”
CNC programmer and Nichols’ son-in-law Chris Evangelho completed an apprenticeship with DJ’s and the wood course at Contestoga. He is in charge of the centrepiece of the shop, a new five-axis CNC machining centre from Weinig/Holz-Her.
The Pro-Master 7225 can produce complex curled or curved parts such as stair railing or furniture and can model shapes with complicated designs.
In exchange for proving out the machine’s capabilities, says Nichols, the company is getting free software updates.
The CNC machining centre replaces DJ’s traditional system of multiple, task-dedicated machines that required operators to work at the convenience of the respective machine which meant further staging of product and generated paperwork at numerous levels. Evangelho says he gets an order from the office, “then I create an Excel spreadsheet —
that’s the programming aspect whether it’s a custom or standard one. I then make variables to that unit so it’s easy to change once it is programmed parametrically.
“Once I create the spreadsheet it generates all the g-code programs for the CNC from the Weinig EnVision program which sends the optimized saw cut list, as well as all of the labels for all of the parts.”
These labels follow each wood component throughout the processing and assembly at DJ’s. Each type of wood is brought into the shop at the optimum level of dryness, says Nichols. The rough lumber is sized into selected lengths to match furniture specifications by a pneumatic undercut saw.
From here the lumber goes through quality control for defects, such as knots, cracks or other impurities within the width of the board, with the aid of a laser-guided saw. This saw leaves a cut edge clean enough to laminate the lumber to proper panel widths.
All panels are glued using an electric glue roller to insure full coverage of glue between each board. These panels, once glued are placed into a semi automatic hydraulic clamp carrier where constant and even pressure ensures quality joints.
After designated drying times are achieved, the rough panels are removed from the clamps to be planed and sanded by a 42-in. wide-belt sander. This machine in one pass per side uses a spiral cutter head, 80 and 120 grit sanding heads to leave each panel smooth.
From the wide belt sander, the panels move to the CNC machine. Here the panels are placed on a 48 x 96 in. table where they are vacuumed down, cut to finished size, profiled and drilled to specification. This means each part is consistent and exact each time, according to Nichols.
To insure complete smoothness, all the CNC machined parts are run through the wide belt sander another time. Now all the parts are assembled, with each finished product inspected and hand sanded with 180 grit paper.
Evangelho says that programming the CNC machine has increased his ability to make products on the fly.
“We create new things all the time — someone might send you a picture or they might want a standard line or something completely custom — it’s up to them.”
Creating a well-coordinated, high-tech JIT wood shop belies Nichols’ start in the working world as a summertime roofer when he was only 14. A reluctant student, once he turned 16 and had a couple of months in grade 10, “the high school principal said I should consider getting a job,” much to the chagrin of his mother.
But his drive was apparent, even then. For one year he worked building houses after responding to a Manpower job posting.
Two years later, Nichols was running his own business.
“I also met my wife when I was 16 — and we’ve done alright for ourselves.”