Components--Not Cabinets

A longtime adherent of the system process of cabinet manufacturing makes his case for componentizing. 1998.

by Jon S. Elvrum

Who am I? That question makes us examine ourselves, and we are often surprised by the answers. We have grown into our woodworking businesses from very diverse backgrounds, but almost never through a traditional apprenticeship or academic program designed to train us for full participation in industry. Few of us have had formal training in the wide variety of skills needed to prosper in today's marketplace.

Along the way most of us have never seriously examined the parts and pieces we manufacture with an eye toward standardization of parts and the knowledge that everything we build is assembled from components.

We build components -- not cabinets. From these components we can create the variety of products we market. Hence we are panel producers, both as an industry and individually.

A serious study reveals that 60 to 70 percent of the product we handle, even in the most resolute face-frame cabinet mills, is actually panel stock -- plywood, particleboard, MDF and others. But the compelling truth is that 60 to 70 percent of the machinery in most plants is still dedicated to the production of sticks (face-frame members), and decisions influencing cutting and milling operations are based on the industry's history with hardwoods and their behavior patterns, rather than recognizing the newer technical capabilities of modern machinery and current materials which are readily available.

Dado vs. Dowel
Surely the tenacity with which we cling to dado and rabbet joinery methods is such a case. Particleboard is generally (and technically) described as three-ply panel. The pressing procedure produces three visually definable plys or layers -- the outside two being closer, more densely compressed "fines" and the interior layer of coarser, less finely grated chips or "fines."

In historical applications, solid stock shelvings, tops and side panels would, in time, cup or bow with aging and atmospheric changes. To control this problem, traditional builders learned to dado and rabbet casework, literally capturing component members in a groove of hardwood, whereby aggressive toe-nailing and gluing, such post-construction movement of material could be controlled. A major flaw in the thinking of U.S. woodworkers today is that these methods are necessary, or even effective, when panels made of substrate materials such as particleboard, plywood, fiberboard, etc., are concerned. They are not!

Indeed. cutting a dado groove in a plywood or particleboard panel really breaks down the panel at its strongest point, and requires gluing directly into its weakest part, where glue is applied edge grain to the most porous part of the panel (see diagram below). What we get, at best, is a two-axis connection which allows considerable sliding while trying to clamp casework together. A secondary securing of some type -- stapling, pinch dogs or right-angle clamps -- is almost certainly required to effectively secure the cases. This is especially labor-intensive when compared to 32mm system thinking, and the use of dowel construction methods.

In dowel construction, we see certain advantages for the production values and certain aesthetic considerations, as well. The dowel is a "blind" fastening; one that replaces the part of the panel that has been cut away with a solid, swelled-to-fit plug in a precisely placed hole. Connections are positive in three directions, and following compression, do not allow parts to slip on any axis. Exteriors can be any product -- veneers, melamine or whatever you decide. With dowel construction a misaligned staple gun won't turn a case into a "second," wasting labor and material. In dowel construction we use the machinery for its most compelling qualities -- speed, accuracy and precision -- and we use our creative skills to adjust the machine's output into desirable, marketable goods for sale, whereby our customers are satisfied.

These advantages have, over the past few years, led to a significant use of dowel insertion machinery as well as feeding interest in the system boring process which has come to be called the 32mm system. Certainly, enthusiasm for KD or RTA construction is enhanced through such machine thinking. The key elements under attack remain high labor and hard-to-control quality.

Panel Processing

In the face of what we've been discussing, it should be safe to say that we, as an industry, process mostly panels. It should be safe to declare that if our mills and flow lines fail to reflect that truth -- if for example, we store our particleboard on the rack above the shaper so that each piece must be handled twice before it is ever cut, and other like problems -- we are in a state of potentially terminal difficulty which I call bleeding.

We se this all the time in shops in all parts of the country. We bleed, and bleed, and bleed some more; and what we bleed is profit dollars. We find stacks of pieces in shops, up against walls, gathering dust; pieces typically measure 37" x 26" and have been preserved because we consider them to be free parts left over from another job. So we set them aside for future use. The only problem is, we only remember them after we've cut up a fresh new piece, and when we do remember its presence, its actual size, or color or thickness seem to make it not usable.

So it stays against the wall as part of an ever-enlarging stack of cast-aside parts, mute testimony to our lack of self-knowledge; our inability to standardize anything. This is bleeding. Shuffling through these pieces again and again only adds to the loss. Indeed, by the time we actually use a piece we may have handled it 50 times, and at $22 (1987 dollars) per hour shop time, it would be cheaper to inlay mother-of pearl rosewood panels. That's bleeding.

Some people resist any attempt to think of themselves in terms of standards or norms. They forget that counter heights and depths remain rigidly the same, job after job, day after day. They forget that display cases in like industries display the same products. Standards do exist!

I encounter true terror in manufacturers over the word custom, as if somehow, there is no way to ever have two cuts alike. But the finished cabinets do have like heights and depths. The real aspect of custom is a lateral dimension to fit into a space. As the saying goes, "Custom means what we are accustomed to doing." It is true that what an end-user means by custom and what the custom builder thinks about himself are widely divided in comparison. The most custom-oriented builder still honors "standards of the industry" and seeks the production values those naturally afford.

I'll repeat a discussion I actually had with a mill supervisor of a substantial store-fixture builder. He told me, "Listen, every job we do is totally different. I just don't see a way for us to standardize anything, although I'd love to do it."

I suggested that he analyze his last three months' cutting lists, and put all the sizes into families of the same width and stock dimension, particularly the panel sizes.

He did that, and two weeks later I heard from him.

"You know," he said, "over 80 percent of the pieces we cut fell into 12 width families. We only use 3/4-inch particleboard. I was amazed. But what was even more interesting was that 75 percent of the rest of the sizes were within an inch of one of the 12 now-standard families. What we exposed was a sales-design problem of coordination, and building to standards made natural selection over arbitrary choice economically more practical for our customer base. Have you any idea how much special setup we've needed to do for less than 1 inch of panel depth?"

Standardize Sizes
The problem with my student was not at all uncommon. We continue, as an industry and as individuals, to ignore the truth that most of what we are called upon to produce will ultimately fall into very predictable size groups. It is from this knowledge, however, that we can begin to bring about positive changes. We can begin to see panels as component sides, recognize certain standard qualities they possess and precut, band and bore based on certainties of use; cutting at our convenience when saws are setup and running and the material is delivered; band and bore when we are ready, not under job pressure. We will learn to see all stretchers and backs as like members, band and groove them for use wherever needed. We can design our toe-kicks to match size with stretchers and back nailers, reducing the number of different parts.

With this new understanding of "Who we are," when we are confronted with leftover material from Job A, we know to cut, bore and even band that product as reserve components we will inventory for use at a later time. Downstream we can see jobs taken and turned out of stock components. Components are stored flat, manageable and neither labor or space intensive. This is the first level of 32mm system thinking at work.

Editors Note: John Elvrum, one of the woodworking industry's earliest system manufacturing adherents, has more than 30 years experience, and is well known for lectures and articles on the 32mm system.