Volume 13, Issue 1 - January/February 2012


First-Place Finishes
When it Comes to Doors, a Strong Finish is Crucial

by Todd Burud

The exploding demand for prefinished millwork now challenges most millwork shops and distribution companies to make a two-part decision:

• Should we sell prefinished millwork or let jobsite finishers and competitors fill the pipeline?

• If we sell it, should we prefinish in-house, or should we outsource it?

Market demand and competition will motivate the decision to enter prefinishing. The choice between in-house or outsourcing is more complicated. Both choices offer strong benefits.

We’ll weigh these benefits through the examples of three prefinishers: Badger Corrugating (2-step distributor), Midwest Prefinishing (prefinisher) and DeLeers Millwork (architectural millwork, OEM). You’ll appreciate and learn from their quality principles.the standard.

Windows Open the Door
In the 1930s, pre-fabricated window units replaced the former knocked-down window frames. Andersen Windows introduced its master casement window, the first pre-assembled window unit, in 1932. Soon, the idea of prefabrication spread to pre-hung doors.

Prefabrication also helped to introduce prefinishing to the jobsite. Millwork Principles and Practices (Association of Millwork Distributors, 2004) links the two together: “Not only are millwork components more readily installed on the site, they are, in many cases, prefinished. This eliminates on-site finishing or painting.”

Many contractors depend upon their jobsite finisher for special skills and techniques. Nevertheless, factory finishing typically is more environmentally controlled, and more consistent, economical and efficient.

Prefinishing’s efficiency also saves money for the contractor. By adding value to the millwork sale, it also makes money for the distributor. Chuck Mierau, vice president of millwork for Badger Corrugating, estimates the value-added benefit of prefinishing at 35 percent of a typical pre-hung door order. Badger enjoys this benefit through its own in-house system. Other millwork companies enjoy the same benefit by outsourcing to a prefinisher like Midwest Prefinishing.

Badger Corrugating
Founded in 1903 and located in LaCrosse, Wis., Badger Corrugating distributes building materials to lumber dealers in the upper Midwest. Chuck Mierau helped form its millwork and prefinishing departments in 1996. Paul Seiler manages the prefinishing shop.

Early on, Badger worked through prefinishing’s growing pains. Mierau recalls, “Initially, we stocked standard colors but found it difficult to maintain color consistency, and the SKU’s inflated inventory. So, we shifted to a made-to-order program while striving to maintain a 12-day lead time. It resonated with our dealers. The bottom line was the profit they enjoyed from the value-added sale. Although problems confronted us in those early years, we believed in the ideas and persevered.”

Seiler also notes how the prefinishing industry has changed.

“The jobs themselves are more difficult, for example, requests for multiple species and colors, and a more demanding end-user. We’ve just exceeded 19,000 interior stain matches.

Two Badger statistics reflect the importance of prefinishing and regional tastes. Badger ships more prefinished doors than raw: 60- to 40 percent. Also, although paint dominates most of the country, the Midwest holds a special love for stained wood. Badger’s prefinishing is 95 percent stain, versus 5 percent paint.

Midwest Prefinishing
Prefinisher, Midwest Prefinishing is based in Madison, Wis. It expands beyond Badger’s project approach (custom colors, booth application) to include high-production.

In 1994 owner Mark Larson converted his family’s millwork business into high-tech prefinishing. Like Badger, he prefinishes various sized projects and applies custom colors.

But unlike Badger, he is a pure prefinisher and maintains no millwork inventory. Through the use of robotics and an automated production line, his capacity reaches 240,000 feet of moulding and 800 doors a day. Because finishing is “all we do,” Midwest offers expertise in all mediums and markets.

Larson is passionate about quality. When asked what makes a quality finish, he quickly listed five essential elements:

1. Quality substrate;

2. Prep-sanding;

3. Quality coatings;

4. Newest technology; and

5. Multi-coat application.

“When you skip, or even scrimp on, an application coat (stain, seal“When you skip, or even scrimp on, an application coat (stain, sealer, topcoat), the finish suffers. You’ll notice obscured grain, low resistance to moisture and household chemicals, fading and scratching. I won’t apply an inferior finish. Some finishers take shortcuts in order to lower pricing. But in the end, bad finishers help our business.”

Although his system is replete with technology, personal inspection assures quality. The stain is hand-wiped, each door is visually inspected, and when necessary, a repair is attempted by hand (e.g., air-brushing, spot re-stain).

Quality and performance are also environmentally-friendly.

Environmental requirements and overhead often discourage potential millwork companies from installing their own prefinishing systems. Larson presents them with an alternative.

“A time study including equipment, maintenance, taxes, utilities, workman’s comp, unproductive time and benefits reveals the advantages of outsourcing,” he says.

DeLeers Millwork
DeLeers Millwork focuses primarily on commercial, architectural and specialties, and here the company makes the products it finishes.

Founded in 1979, the company, based in Green Bay, Wis., is now owned and managed by Phil DeLeers and Greg Marx. It earned the Architectural Wood-working Institute’s (AWI) Quality Certification credentials, demonstrating its “ability to fabricate, finish, and/or install … custom interior, architectural woodwork.”

Matt Van Buren has managed DeLeers finishing department since 2001, and trained at the American Wood Finishing Institute. His finishing coordinator, Patrick Pozarski, performs custom color matching and maintains the match and sample archives.

How important is prefinishing to DeLeers? Van Buren estimates that “90 percent of DeLeers wood projects are finished in some way: primed, sealed, or completely finished.” His department tones and coordinates individual parts into a blended design for foyers, reception areas and conference rooms. But craftsmen also work on specialty casework and store fixture projects at a series of work stations. The facility is clean, spacious and busy. Two spray booths and a low-temperature oven apply the finishing touches.

Every prefinisher develops a standard then adjusts it to the specific application. Van Buren’s standard is conversion varnish. He likens its durability, quality and compatibility with his production process. But he also adjusts “formulations to achieve the desired build, durability and other attributes in the specifications.

It’s my job to interpret what the customer and samples are saying,” says Van Buren. “But, for example, if LEED requires water-based, we apply it.”

Van Buren also applies the value-engineering principle (specifying a finish to meet the needs of the application without adding unnecessary costs).

“Value engineering works for the customer,” he says. “My challenge is to help keep costs down without reducing the finish quality.”

What can we draw from these three prefinishers? They stress quality; they follow firm principles and avoid shortcuts. Experience and equipment help to develop their processes, yet they remain open to new innovations. They also appreciate prefinishing’s value, the profit it brings to their companies and to their dealers. But their unique markets shape how they approach this practice.

Todd Burud, Millwork Marketing Services, serves as a consultant for companies including Badger Corrugating and Midwest Prefinishing.


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