High end – High seas Market
A BC value-added company has moved into the specialized market of millwork and furniture for multi-million dollar boats.
By Paul MacDonald
Peter Ross is passionate about making full use of the timber resource that is still abundant in British Columbia and making sure that value-added is a part of the utilization equation. “The value-added segment has to grow,” says the owner of Guildmaster Furniture and Cabinets of Lumby, a small community in the southern interior of BC. “We (the forest industry) are not a sunset industry,” he says. “But we are in an incredible stage of transformation and it isn’t going to be an easy transformation.”
Ross knows all about transformation. He had a tough decision to make several years ago if his added-value company was going to continue operating. Guildmaster had been producing high-end millwork and cabinets for local and regional homeowners and businesses. The market niche had been what Ross describes as “dream-type” kitchens and executive furnishings, and business had been good. But there was a shift in the market to more “commodity-type” kitchens and affordable furnishings, as compared with the custom work that Guildmaster was doing.
Moving to this type of production would not have worked for his company, with its high quality and high labour content. “This business would go down in that type of production setting,” he says. “I don’t know how to do it. I’ve never played in that end of the market. I would lose my butt in that type of business because I’d overwork the project.” Ross made the decision to get involved in a growing—but low profile—BC business sector: the supply of millwork and furniture for high-end boats and yachts.
In recent years, this industry, mostly centred around Vancouver, has grown in leaps and bounds and created opportunities for companies such as Guildmaster. For Ross, a true craftsman, putting together millwork and furniture for these floating projects is truly rewarding in a business sense, and personally. With boats that start at $3 million US—and with price tags that go up substantially from there—the quality of the work is high indeed.
The eight employees at the Guildmaster shop are currently doing a lot of work with Honduras mahogany. “It’s one of the traditional woods for boats,” explains Ross. “But it’s a difficult wood to get in the consistent colour and quality that we need. The wood itself is also full of pressures and tensions, and not that easy to work with.” An indication of the quality situation: of a recent mahogany shipment they received—which was already pre-selected for quality and colour—30 per cent of it was rejected. “And kicking back only 30 per cent would be considered a good shipment for us,” he says.
Ross is a strong advocate of using local wood and is working toward seeing larch, hemlock and other native BC woods becoming more accepted. His dream would be to finish the interior of one of these boats completely out of vertical grain larch (the shell of the boat would be fiberglass) and he already has some interest from his boat builder customer in such an initiative. Wood quality, and quantity, would no longer be an issue then.
“If we used BC vertical grained larch, we would almost pull it off the rack and use it as it comes.” There can be some complications in the use of local woods—it can be difficult, and expensive, to get quality plywood in corresponding materials, such as larch, hemlock or fir. A single 4x8 sheet of plywood can easily go for upwards of $115 to $150. “We can get them—you can get anything,” says Ross. “But you have to get them custom made.”
He has seen major growth in the use of indigenous woods such as Douglas fir, hemlock and larch. Even western birch has established a place in the market, though it has to be handled carefully. “It’s like maple, it’s not an easy wood to successfully process. You have to harvest it and get it quickly into boards and through the kiln.” Ross believes that if processed and marketed properly, value-added products made from local wood have a market in Canada, the United States and overseas.
He points to Weyerhaeuser and how it markets Douglas fir to Japan, where there is a full appreciation of the quality of that wood. There has been a good deal done already to raise the awareness of using BC wood for millwork and high quality furniture—notably by industry group BC Wood and the late Forest Renewal BC’s Value Added division. But Ross notes that in general the sawmill industry has to further recognize that the wood for the furniture and millwork industry has to be processed differently into dimension lumber.
At a high production dimension mill, a saw blade is set at two inches, but by the time the wood is dried it will be 1 7/8 inches or even smaller. The furniture builder, however, wants that piece to be a full two inches thick, dry. The end result is that a potential major source of material for the added-value producers just doesn’t work. “The big guys just go too fast,” says Ross, talking about the high production sawmills. “It’s the smaller to mid-sized operations that are going to make the change in the industry.”
While the quality of the local wood resource in BC may not be quite as high as it was in the past, it can certainly fit the bill compared to what else is in the market. The premium imported wood—a mahogany, for example—that Guildmaster uses can go for $5,000 to $7,500 per thousand board feet. As referred to previously, with some shipments Ross may only be able to use two-thirds of the wood for the high-end work, meaning the wood, in the end, carries a hefty net cost of $9 a board foot.
This makes local wood, even if it has to be custom selected and cut, a virtual bargain. “We just received some two-inch cherry for a handrail project that we are doing for the boat,” Ross explains. “We received six boards of 2”x 6”x15’ and not one of them was useable. I could go to the shop and pick up some larch, fir or hemlock out of our inventory and make the handrail out of any of that wood. We have the quality of lumber, we’re just missing the point. We have to process it properly and get it into the millwork and furniture supply systems with consistent availability.”
The woodwork done by Guildmaster, whether on these high-end boats or in a home or office, borders on art, with the focus on craftsmanship—and the Guildmaster shop reflects this. While it has all the standard cutting, sanding and finishing equipment, the shop and work is labour intensive, rather than equipment intensive. The employees give the pieces an individual feel. In the shop, one craftsman will work on a piece virtually from start to finish.
They complete their own cutting list, determining all the pieces they need. Once the pieces are cut and machined, they are assembled on an interim basis to check for fit. The disassembled individual components then go to the finishing department for a final sanding, staining and lacquering. Then it is back to the craftsman for the final assembly. Whenever possible, the same craftsman will also install the completed piece on the boat down in Vancouver, or in the house if it is a residential project.
Ross readily admits that shops like his could be considered obsolete compared to high production furniture or millwork facilities. “I have nothing but appreciation for the way these companies are able to turn out product with very reasonable price options. But they can only do it because of the high production repetitive approach they take—it’s produced fast and there are no changes.”
The value-added product Guildmaster produces is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of quality and price. It has high labour input—they are essentially one of a kind pieces. When you come down to it, Ross says, it’s the customized design and attention to detail that costs money. “It only takes so much wood to build a dining room table, give or take a few board feet. The cost, after that, is in the labour and craftsmanship.”
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Thursday, October 07, 2004