This unique vanity was created with a matching top for the bathroom sinks shown in the background.
Solid surface projects (top) make up about 10 percent of the overall work in the shop. That’s alot of work when taking in to account the shop has annual sales of more than $2 million. The remaining work is in mostly high-end residential stone and quartz kitchens like the ones pictured above.
Park Industries has supplied Preferred Surfaces with the majority of its equipment that has allowed for a quick production schedule. Inventory of natural stone slabs is another way to save time in production.
The Park Odyssey CNC machine was added to the shop in 2006 and increased the shop’s output nearly 200 sq. ft. per week. At this time the shop went from six employees to five, saving even more money on labor.
A shifting market isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s something Noel Houze, owner of Preferred Surfaces in Morgantown, W.V., has learned over his past 25 years in the surfacing industry. In fact, the shifting markets of natural stone and quartz surfacing have proven to be key factors in making things easier.
Though he’s been making countertops for 25 years, Houze began his journey into the surface industry as a general contractor. It began when he was asked to build a Corian solid surface top; soon after, the requests starting coming in. In 1984, he completely shifted his construction business to focus on solid surface countertop fabrication, and Preferred Surfaces was born.
In time, the market led Houze on another path. “We fabricated exclusively solid surface until DuPont introduced a product called Zodiaq,” said Houze about his first interaction with the material. “In 1998 they asked us to start installing the quartz surfacing.”
The addition of Zodiaq proved successful for Preferred Surfaces, which subbed out the fabrication, only performing installations of the hard surface because they couldn’t fabricate it with their solid surface tooling. To be more profitable on the bottom line, Houze decided to invest in new hand tools to bring the fabrication of the quartz material in-house.
“We started out with hand tools, hand routers and hand saws,” explained Houze, whose business is now focused 65 percent on natural stone, 25 percent on quartz surfacing and 10 percent on solid surface. “When people found that I was actually doing the stone fabricating in-house, our demand grew so fast, we had to start automating the shop. Since then we went from $500,000 in sales in 1995 to $2.4 million last year. We’ve had some phenomenal growth.”
AN INVESTMENT IN THE FUTURE
Before granite and the other hard surfaces took off in 2000, Houze had been planning on automating the solid surface side of his business by investing in CNC technology. However, due to the market shifting yet again and the demand for granite dominating in the shop’s market area, Houze decided to put his resources into stone and hard surfaces rather than into solid surface fabrication.
The shop’s first order of business was to purchase a Park Bridgesaw and a Park Wizzard Radial machine for sink cutouts in 2005. Five months later Park’s ProEdge 111 straight edger was added, and by the end of that year the Park Odyssey CNC machine was added.
“I never thought the stone business would grow so rapidly,” said Houze. “I’ve been a Corian guy since the mid-’80s. When we did the stone, we thought we’d just buy some hand tools and start filling in some small jobs ourselves that we would need quickly, while still purchasing larger jobs from other fabricators. When word got out we were cutting stone, our business grew so fast that we were forced to go out and make those machine purchases.”
Prior to these purchases, Houze owned everything in his business outright— including the buildings — so concerns about overhead were new to him. Houze admits that making all these significant investments within a year was daunting; however, when it came down to the numbers, the purchases made perfect sense.
“When we were working with hand tools and working 30 hours overtime per week, we were averaging four kitchens per week,” explained Houze. “With all of our machines in place, we’re capable of putting out 10 kitchens per week on just a 40-hour work week. Instead of having three employees who I have to pay 30 hours of overtime for just one week, I can make a CNC payment for the whole month.”
Preferred Surfaces employees welcomed the new machines.
“We were working from 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. every day,” said Houze. “Before adding the machines, we only had five people who were doing stone. We had to make the top and, once it was finished, take it out and install it with that same crew. Once the new equipment was in place, those workers basically became dedicated installers, spending less time in the shop. Everyone was enthusiastic about that because they were no longer installing countertops at 4 p.m.”
The addition of the shop’s automated capabilities not only increased the quality of work in the shop, but also the quality of life in Preferred Surface’s employees, a big concern for Houze. Once he began to wear out, he knew his employees must have been wearing thin as well. Not a good business strategy because, as Houze explained, tired employees can unintentionally upset the customer. Employees now have a standard schedule — improving their work and their relationships with the customers.
WORKING WITH MACHINES
From template to installation, all fabrication is done in-house. Before the machines were added it took six employees, averaging 50 hours per week, to produce 200 sq. ft. of countertop. Today, five men work 40 hours per week to process three times the amount of countertop — 600 sq. ft.
How does the shop fabricate so much more countertop using the current system? It’s pretty simple. The shop utilizes both digital and stick templating. Any job that is stick templated has to be converted on the digitizer to an electronic file the machines can read.
Next, on a typical granite job, stone slabs will be matched for color, grain, pattern and movement. If the slab features a lot of grain to it, digital pictures are taken and laid out so the seams can be planned. Where the automation comes in handy is the shop is flexible on being able to turn the corners out or cut nonstandard-shaped seams to make the grains match.
Once it’s established how the slabs will be cut, the stone goes on the saw to rough out all the pieces. Then, the pieces are loosely preassembled to make sure everything is going to work on benches and the files are sent to the CNC machine. Before the CNC technology, the shop would have started to cut and grind again, but now the slabs can be sent straight to the CNC where the pieces are cut and edged to the final shapes.
“We also have a backsplash machine that runs backsplash at 15 to 18 in. per min. vs. hand polishing a backsplash which would take hours for one man,” added Houze. “If one of the employees breaks a backsplash at the last minute, with this machine we can make a new one while the truck is loaded, the crew waiting, and then put it on the truck.
“We’ve actually broken a granite countertop installing it, and other things can go wrong as well. Now, we have the capability to have the installer call back to the shop and say, ‘I need this piece made over.’ We can actually make it, send it out on a pickup truck and still get the installation completed that day.”
This process of working with the stone has the shop focused on a six-day turn around time. (For some dealers, the shop can preschedule a job and turn out a top in as little as three days.) Lead times can be attributed to both the machinery and the employees.
The shop currently has a dedicated operator for each machine and two more employees who are labeled as helpers and can go help any of the operators as well as do things like hand-polishes and touch-ups. The shop also boasts two employees focused on solid surface fabrication, as well as three installation teams — two for stone and one for solid surface — who can template other jobs if an installation is within close proximity to the new jobsite. Otherwise, Preferred Surfaces employs one dedicated templator.
All of the shop’s training and promotions come from within its team of employees. When a new helper comes on board the Preferred Surface team, they are trained directly by the machine operators in the way they are expected to fit into the operator’s work flow. If you’re a potential machine operator, though, Houze takes a more hands on approach.
“I took all of the training on all of our equipment, so I can run every piece of machinery in the shop and, in turn, instead of me having to send someone to Park to train, I can train them in house,” explained Houze. “This way we can do all of our training right here, with myself training the operators and my guys out in the shop training short-term employees.
“I also don’t hire specific operators for equipment,” he added. “We advance people in house. When I hire people I make them learn the work from the ground up. You can’t operate a CNC if you don’t know the basics of fabricating a top and what to look for because you don’t see the big picture. In turn, you can’t make decisions on how something is to be cut. In my experience, installers make the best operators because they know what they run into out in the field.”