Crafting a Life – Episode 12

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Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.
I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 12, “A New Beginning”

In June 2015, we moved into our new, purpose built workshop and showroom in Queanbeyan. This was a major effort, as we had to relocate all our machinery and equipment at the same time as creating a new showroom space and installing a new dust extraction system.
The move had been six years in the making, although it would be a re-write of history to suggest that we were consciously planning this trajectory all along.

Back in 2009, we moved the showroom out of our workshop for a couple of reasons. The first reason was pretty simple, we thought that we would sell more if we had a stand-alone showroom located in a popular furniture retail area in Canberra.  The second reason was that we were running out of room, and something had to give.

Moving a workshop is no fun. I had done it twice, and it hurt both times. By comparison, setting up a showroom is a walk in the park. All you need are some nice lights, a suitable space, some plinths, a lick of paint, some signage and you are up and running.

A workshop is a tool. Most workshops are a work in progress and grow organically as the business develops. When we moved the showroom out back in ‘09, we made a heap of changes to improve the work flow in the workshop, including knocking through one wall and installing swinging flap doors, as well as building a whole new office with mezzanines for storage and extra production area. It took 2 blokes about 10 days to set up the showroom from scratch, and nearly four weeks to re-organise the workshop with the whole team of five doing nothing else. We thought these modifications would last us a decade, but within 4 years we were tripping over ourselves again.

As time went by, the showroom became less and less important to us, but more and more expensive to run. Our online presence had grown, we were getting more and more work through visiting the Timber and Working With Wood Shows, our repeat clients were more numerous. We also kept getting feedback that people wanted to see where and how we made things.

After six years of having a separate showroom and workshop, we brought everything back under the one roof.  We were very lucky that a bigger space in the same building as the workshop, and hence the same landlord, had become available. We were able to keep half of the old space (which meant re-building the wall we had knocked down four years earlier) and take on the new space. Unfortunately, it also meant building an entire room for the showroom, which really hurt in every sense of the word.

Moving into a larger space gave us the luxury of designing the perfect production workshop. The big advantage we had was experience. All the reading and talking I had done told me that businesses tended to move into the workshop that they needed last year, rather than the workshop they would need going into the future. We had already seen how quickly you could outgrow a space. I was determined not to make this mistake. In the previous decade, I had made a point of buying “the best” piece of equipment available for the job at hand. By best, I guess I mean the equipment with the most capacity and build quality in it’s class. For example, in 2010 we replaced our old reciprocating air compressor with a modern screw compressor. Screw compressors are cheap to run, relatively quiet, long lasting and they have lots of capacity. They are also relatively expensive. We leased a new Champion compressor in the knowledge that one day we might need all that extra capacity.

Another example of buying the best was the Martin T45 thicknesser, which we also leased in 2010. Trying to make a machinery purchase is always complicated, because you must assess a myriad of factors. The T45 had a few features that made it stand out. For one thing, the electronic rise and fall, coupled with the Tersa knives, gives the machine great repeatable accuracy. Imagine this scenario; a maker is machining a big pile of chair components to exactly 31.5mm thick and he will be on the machine for the next half hour at least. A second maker is working on a cabinet and needs to machine a single piece of wood to 45.5mm in order to proceed. The Martin T45 can effortlessly switch from 31.5mm to 45.5mm, run one stick through, and move back to exactly 31.5mm again in less than a minute. Very few, if any, comparable machines can do this. Now consider the extended bed on the Martin T45. Chair parts are short, usually between 400mm and 500mm long and a traditional thicknesser can only process one length at a time, meaning that the maker is forever walking behind the machine to tailout, or else have another maker tailing out for them. The outfeed bed on the t45 is 1200mm long, meaning that it can hold perhaps three pieces in length before the maker needs to clear the outfeed bed. This means fewer trips behind the machine. I could go on, but I expect you get the idea.

The upshot of all these strategic purchases over the years was that I owned all the key equipment, I just didn’t have enough room or the right dust extraction to take proper advantage of it. That’s right, dust extraction. We make dust. Lots of wood dust. We make shavings, chips, swarth and sanding dust. The dust gets everywhere. Unfortunately, when you first set up a workshop, you tend to focus on the machines that actually process wood. For the first 15 years, we had just enough dust extractors with which to get by. They were hard to empty, they lacked the proper suction, they took up a lot of room and they were noisy. As we got better equipment, we cobbled together new extraction ducting and made more Heath Robinson alterations to make it all work. To get the right airflows, we were forever juggling ports and stops. With a new space came the opportunity to fix all that, but at some considerable effort. The new workshop is at the end of the building, so this meant we could finally put the extractor outside. We engaged Greg from Australian Dust Control to come up from Sydney and work out the plan for the extraction. Alex made a detailed plan of exactly where each machine was going to go and we marked it out on the concrete. Greg listened to how we operated and he took note of our specific situation. He came up with a plan that included the primary extractor, the reverse air fans to clean the filters, the load sensor and the variable speed unit that would control the airflow and all the ducting. When he presented me with the quote, I nearly passed out. My first reaction was to say “no way”! and to cobble together a system using the old combination of equipment. That would have cost me bugger all to do. It would also have nullified some of the long term advantages of the new space.

Manufacturing is a stupid thing to be involved with. The investment required and the risks that must be taken in order to be even viable is out of all proportion to the likely returns. I can assure you that nobody is getting rich making fine furniture in Australia, and yet we persist. I had two choices; do it properly and risk the short term cash flow implications or make do and loose the long term advantages of the move. We committed to the new system and held on for dear life.

The good news is that we now have a clean workshop. I have never had such a clean workshop. I didn’t even think it was possible to do what we do and keep the place so tidy. And yes, it has made us more efficient. Because we spend a lot less time fighting the dust extractor and cleaning up, we are productive for a greater percentage of the day. That is good for us and, ultimately, good for the client as well.

And then there was the showroom.  Here I have to tip my hat to Alex, my workshop manager. Alex is something of a contradiction. Fine furniture craftsmen tend to make lousy builders, and vice versa (incidentally, calling a fine furniture maker a carpenter is like calling a surgeon a butcher). We work to very fine tolerances and usually find the inaccuracy, or rather the different style of accuracy, of building very confronting. Alex somehow just changes gear or perhaps re-calibrates when he is doing carpentry and gets the job done.

The whole point of the showroom was to display our finished furniture, while providing a view of our workshop. The showroom is within the main workshop, with sight lines across all the equipment and work spaces. Thus a visiting client gets a “whole of cycle” experience and can see just about everything that is involved with producing a piece of fine furniture.

I always knew that the ideal scenario was to have the whole operation under the one roof, but it has taken a long time to do it properly. Everyone who has visited the new arrangement has commented on how wonderful it is to see the finished furniture and the process all in the one space. There is something almost magical about the transformation of a collection of rough sawn boards into a work of functional art. It catches me still, even after all these years.

Much of what we do and how we do it is missed by the average Joe. Even our most ardent collectors might not really understand some of the subtleties. That is why I got such a surprise when Stuart Lees, of Stu’s Shed fame (Stu runs a not-for-profit online blog on all things woodwork) visited our workshop and actually understood the logic of our equipment and methods. Stu wrote an in-depth review of our workshop that is by far the best article ever written on us. It was also his most visited article for 2015, with over 2600 readers on the day it was posted. Stu saw all the little modifications and workshop built devices that are often lost to the casual observer, but are at the heart of our operation. If you go to it won’t be hard to find the article.

Look, if you haven’t made it out to our new setup yet, and you live anywhere near by, or are visiting the Canberra area, do yourself a favour and swing past. I’m pretty sure you will like it.

You have been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.