Cost Cutting and Productivity Boost for Small Box Production

Outsourcing some lumber profiling for a small custom item could carry a big comparative advantage. April 15, 2012

I run a small, two man woodworking business. Both myself and my business partner have day jobs and put in the hours for the business on nights and weekends. Lately, we have picked up a lot of business doing production of small cedar boxes and trays. The boxes are about 7" square by 2-3/4" high. They have rabbeted and brad nailed corners, with a groove in the bottom that holds 5.2mm ply.

They also have a lid made by mitered corners that are glued and clamped with miter spring corner clamps. The lid is rabbeted after assembly to sit in the box. Before assembly, we also rout a groove in each lid piece that will accept fiberglass screen and spline, so the end product looks like a picture frame with screen instead of glass.

Our production method is to buy #3 rough sawn cedar 1x6ís, plane the rough side, re-saw, plane smooth to ~.335". Then we do a lot of routing grooves and chop-sawing. Then we assemble by hand with electric brad nailers.

A planed surface is acceptable to the customer. The only time we sand is if there are major defects, or any squeeze-out when we glue up the lids. The trays are about 8.5x11x1.25" tall. These just have a groove to accept 5.2mm ply, and no lid. We use the Ridgid 10" granite top table saw, a Craftsman Pro 13" planer, Grizzly 14" Bandsaw, homemade router table, and a 12" Makita SCMS to do most of this work. Our shop is about 500SF and has single phase power.

What I'm hoping for is some advice on processing or possible equipment upgrades to make box production go as smooth as possible. To give you an idea of our size, these two items are only grossing us about $1200/wk. Our main constraint right now is time, as if we get faster at these, we can easily pick up similar jobs and really increase cash flow.

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Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor U:
I would say the best place to start is the planing and re-sawing. A lot will depend on your supplier, but a lot of my dealers are dressing the lumber at no charge these days. This would eliminate one step. Even with a charge, it might be worth considering. This may depend on the quantity you are buying per order and may not be practical. Also you should look into the possibility of buying the wood already in a thinner material thickness. I have had suppliers offer to re-sawn sizable orders, usually this is done prior to drying. Again only certain size orders apply and could get pricy. Some sawing operations have thin stuff available due to the fact they cannot be sold through normal channels for their regular demand, again another if, but maybe worth consideration.

From the original questioner:

To contributor U: Thanks for the suggestion. Right now we are getting material from a local lumber yard/building supply store. They don't have the capability to do the milling since it is more of a retail shop.

I did see a stamp on the ends of our boards - Potlatch, and investigated that. I followed through and they said that a minimum lot size for them to cut to a custom thickness is 5,000BF. That's about a year's supply for us at current rate. It may be worth pursuing, though. I will see if there are any local mills willing to do just the re-sawing and planing if we supply the material.

Does anyone have leads on sourcing cedar in Central NY? I believe we are getting Western red from Washington and Idaho that is shipped to local retail stores.

From contributor M:
If all the boxes and trays are consistent, I would check into getting mouldings run for the parts - one profile for the box sides with all the grooves and rabbets, one for the lid's profile, and one for the tray profile. Then you pretty much cut up and assemble everything. Find someone with a moulder and pay the one time tooling charge and an ongoing setup and run charge. You will then have a lot more time to take extra work on or have more fun on the weekends.

From contributor U:
Contributor M is making an excellent suggestion and I would certainly look into that. We use to buy rough lumber, and saw and plane and mill, etc. We found a parts supplier that provides our components pre-shaped to size with profiles, primed and sanded for the same prices we use to pay for the rough lumber. We eliminated 1/2 of our shop work and much equipment. Itís a major time and expense saver. We now simply bring in the parts and start cutting on the actual orders. Of course our components are standard within the shutter industry, but if you can find a supplier who will mill these parts that would be a huge factor.