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Architectural woodworking industry in state of flux

Peter Caulfield
Architectural woodworking industry in state of flux

Canadian architectural woodworking is living in interesting times, according to industry insiders. On the one hand, it faces a series of challenges, some old and some new.

But on the other hand, the industry is making use of a wave of new technology that enables it to construct products for its customers more quickly and efficiently.

"We’re facing a big shortage of skilled workers," said Martin Berryman, president of the B.C. chapter of the Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Association of Canada (AWMAC).

Berryman said there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in woodworking by young people who for years had avoided the trade.

"They saw woodworking as low in social status compared to going to university and getting a white-collar job behind a desk," Berryman said.

"Today, if I walk around a shop floor I’ll see a lot of grey heads and young kids, but few people in between."

A chronic problem in the industry is a lack of standards verification, said Berryman.

"Some woodworking products are, unfortunately, not up to the highest standards," he said.

"We need a way to support architects to achieve project plans and specifications and also to help contractors avoid such problems as cost overruns, delays and loss of reputation."

To that end AWMAC has introduced third-party verification standards with its Guarantee and Inspection Service (GIS), which monitors projects to ensure that the woodwork supplied or installed is in accordance with the AWMAC Quality Standards manual.

A new standards manual developed jointly by AWMAC and the Woodwork Institute will be available later in 2017.

Berryman said another challenge faced by the Canadian woodworking industry is that too many manufacturers are competing for the same jobs.

"Often a contractor will send out an email soliciting bids to 1,000 woodworking companies," Berryman said.

"Bidding on a job costs time and money and what are the chances of being the successful bidder if you’re competing against so many others?"

Finally, Berryman echoes a complaint that is familiar to the rest of the construction industry.

"There’s too much schedule pressure," he said. "General contractors want jobs finished in record time. It’s tough to do good work when you have that kind of weight hanging over your head all the time."

The B.C. chapter of AWMAC has 80 members, one of which is Wanes Custom Woodworks Inc. in Burnaby.

Wanes manufactures and installs custom architectural wood products for a wide variety of ICI customers across the Lower Mainland.

Production manager Brian Stoddart says Wanes employs 10 wood workers, who use about 30 machines.

They include, for a start, a spray booth, jointer planer, punch press, sliding table saw, beam saw, CNC (computer numerical control) machine, nesting table, edge bander and a wide belt sander.

"We’re careful about replacing the machines we already have and investing in innovative technology," said Stoddart.

"New machinery can be very expensive. Some pieces cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, before we buy it, we need to determine if it will help us operate more efficiently, because once we have it, it will be with us for years."

A recent prudent purchase by Wanes was a Biesse Rover 30 CNC machining centre, which was brought in to replace an older Rover 24.

Another is Microvellum software that connects machining centre, flat-table routers and through-feed machines to CNC controlled beam saws, vertical and horizontal drilling machines and CNC-controlled chop saws.

"As you create the design for a product, the software creates a file of cut-lists that can be exported to the machinery that produces the product," said Stoddart.

The biggest changes that new technology has brought about is to the people who operate the machinery, says Russ Giddings, president of Titan Equipment and Tooling Sales Limited in Surrey, B.C.

Giddings has been selling woodworking machinery for 24 years, 13 years as the owner of Titan Equipment.

"The idea of woodworking has changed," said Giddings.

"Twenty years ago, there were just a few machines in a typical woodworking shop and everybody had all the knowledge they needed in their head to create a cabinet or a counter."

Today, however, woodworking machinery is not only everywhere, it is far more advanced than it used to be.

"A modern piece of machinery, such as a router, can be used effectively and efficiently by an individual who has been trained to operate that machine and that machine alone," Giddings said.

"He doesn’t need to be an artisan or an all-round generalist."

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