Recipe for a Sucessful Business #2

Last month we explored how to figure out what products would work best for starting your own small business.  We talked about identifying your interests, and trying to come up with an item with broad appeal and a low price point.  We discussed briefly the idea of using scraps, or lesser in demand material to keep costs down.  In this installment we’re going to talk about sourcing materials for your projects, as well as fixturing to a ShopBot, or any kind of CNC.  We will share with you some of our experience using cutting boards as an example.  We’ll also talk about the possibility of the need for other tools in your shop that go beyond the basic capabilities of your CNC equipment. Finally we will talk shortly on shipping, and strategies for creating a product that is easily shippable.

One of the easiest ways to find sources for material is to look, read, and ask questions on the ShopBot Forum.  There are many posts easily found with the search feature, where people have asked how to find various materials.  Distributors vary widely across the United States,  but here in Central Virginia, we are fortunate to have companies such as Atlantic Plywood, Central Wholesale, Mayer, etc. that provide material such as plywood, Baltic Birch, solid wood lumber and several brands of solid surface material.  If your product requires plywood, then don’t overlook Lowe’s or Home Depot for a few sheets to get your idea off the ground, and the first prototype or two manufactured.  Be sure to visit Cabinet Shops in your area and inquire about solid surface drops, and sink cut-outs. Many times these bits of material are a hindrance to those shops and their owners are happy to see them leave for free!  If you have a lumber yard equipped with a kiln close to you, be sure to ask if you would be allowed to purchase test stacks or over-runs from their drying operation which you may get at a substantially reduced price.  Odd length lumber is always cheaper than standard lengths, and you may find that you end up with less waste if you design your product to be cut from odd lengths.  Using Google, or other search engines, can make it very easy to find local distributers for any kind of material you’re looking for.  Let’s say we wanted to find a supplier for 3mm Baltic Birch in the San Diego California area.   All I did was type in “Baltic Birch Distributor San Diego CA” and wouldn’t you know it, the first result took me directly to the ShopBot Forum!  Down from that there is a plethora of places just dying to get on the phone and give me a great price and truck the material right to my shop door.  This works for anywhere in the US.

So now there is material in your shop and you want to cut!  You need to consider how you’re going to hold this material on your CNC.  Fixtures don’t have to be complicated or permanent to be effective.  We use vacuum whenever it is practical due to its reliability and speed when it comes time to reload the machine.  Pictured below is an example of a vacuum mask that we install on our ShopBot to hold glue-ups in order to produce cutting boards.  This mask allows us to hold solid surface as well as wooden blanks.Cutting-Board-Vac-Fixtures


Some items, however, seem to work very well with mechanical hold downs.  Also shown below is a simple method in which we hold a cutting board that gets a 3D carving cut into it.  This fixture does not use vacuum, but rather T-Slots and mechanical hold downs.Mechanical-Hold-for-3DMechanical-Hold-for-3d-with-Board1

Fixtures don’t need to be complex but should be well thought out to ensure that you can quickly position and secure new material with the confidence that it will hold tight throughout machining. Also, in designing your fixtures, they should be easy to install on your machine and easily swapped.  Pictured below is a two zone vacuum table that has 24”x32” zones and ¼” location pins in each corner to allow multiple dedicated vacuum masks to be switched out quickly and accurately.



In addition to the dedicated fixtures, you can use MDF or Trupan to create more generalized vacuum fixtures that will also fit nicely and work with the ¼” location pins.  Just as your Spoil Board may already be used, this type of fixture can be resurfaced and reused for a variety of purposes.  If you plan on fixturing this way, you might want to consider using the 2D offset capability of the ShopBot and many other CNC machines.  This will allow you to save, or set, a location instead of being tied to one spot as an origin point.


Give thought to what additional tools and equipment will be needed to complete your product.  With our cutting boards a nice rounded over edge is quicker to achieve with a hand router or router table equipped with a bearing guided round over cutter.  While it is entirely possible to program your machine to prompt you for a tool change, or for those with automatic tool changers, to change to a round-over bit and have the machine do one more profile pass, we find that having the machine do the more time consuming tasks keeps us from standing around, and keeps work flow moving.  One thing none of us can escape is hand sanding.  Many people try to take short cuts by thinking a machine can do a better job of sanding your product than a good old fashioned palm sander, but it is not so.  Palm sanding allows you to run your hand across the material as you are sanding it, and doesn’t skip over slightly thinner areas.  Another common process that could require extra equipment is drilling.  If you have a part that needs a horizontal bore, then it is probably more worthwhile for you to invest, or build, a horizontal boring machine instead of trying to set up the CNC to hold the part on its end. We are not saying that you cannot make horizontal holes with a CNC router because machinists do this all day.  We are saying that in our case, drilling horizontal holes with a separate machine is more efficient for us.

Now that the product is assembled you need to be able to finish it in such a way that it doesn’t break the bank, and you get consistent quality results.  The finish that we use on all our cutting boards is simply pharmaceutical grade mineral oil.  The quickest and best method that we have found to apply the Mineral Oil is by submerging the boards.  So, in this case, the addition of a tank the size of our largest cutting board was a necessity.  This can be obtained as easy as a trip to your local Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart and purchasing a plastic storage container.  Even the lid is useful for not getting Oil all over everything else and creating a safety hazard, and for keeping contaminants out of your finish.  A homemade drying rack will allow the cutting boards to drip into a pan which will collect the excess and allow you reuse it at a later time.  Any time you can reduce costs that will go a long way to making you “recession proof” and ensuring that you have the money available to expand when needed.  We believe that you are better served by saving a dollar than making a dollar.  If you do not agree, think about it this way:  In order to make one dollar go into your pocket, you have to not only make that dollar, but you have to make the expenses that are paid before you get that earned dollar.  Simply saving one dollar does not require any additional effort other than what it takes to think through a situation and make it more efficient.

If your project requires hardware, or additional specialty items, remember to take your time in research and use your favorite search engine exhaustedly to locate not only the hardware you would like to use, but a place that sells it at a reasonable price.  Everyone needs to understand that if you go to Lowe’s to buy a hinge at $15 each for the prototype, that’s OK, because if the product becomes successful, you’ll be buying that same hinge elsewhere for $4 or less a piece by purchasing them in quantity.  Your prototypes are there to show you the initial procedure needed to create a product, after you decide you like what you have made, it’s time to make the process more efficient and productive.  You should ALWAYS be on the lookout for an easier, better method.  This search never ceases.  New methods, and new products are being conceived every day, and it is helpful to stay in touch with others in your field through forums and workshops, to ensure your method is the proper one for your business.  Being flexible with your methods will keep you from becoming stagnant, or locked into one way of thinking. Once your product is made, finished and your methods finalized, you’ll start needing to ship outside of your local area.  Attractive packaging raises the perceived value of your product.  Small items placed in clear plastic zipper bags with integrated hangers work well for a hook or peg display system, while specialty cardboard boxes may be more appropriate for larger items.  There are many distributors all over the country who specialize in Boxes and Bags.  They can create a custom look for you that will help to sell your product.  In the case of cutting boards with 3D carvings, a box with a window to showcase the carving is preferred so the customer can have a good look at the carving before the purchase is made.  Plus, let’s face it, people who buy wooden or hand crafted products love to run their hands on them.  Something about the warm feel of wood or the slick texture of a polished solid surface cutting board gets customers excited. Remember the “wow factor”?  If you can hook them with a snappy looking product, then reel them in with attractive marketing and packaging, then you will certainly ensure a sale with a beautiful quality product.

We certainly hope that our insights will be helpful to anyone who is aspiring to become a successful business owner in this day and age.  Handmade quality is slowly becoming something of the history books.  With the saturation of cheaply made products being imported from everywhere but here, Americans are becoming used to a disposable lifestyle, which is neither good for our wallets nor our planet.  By becoming a responsible business owner, you can, in your own way, contribute to the rebirth of production excellence that existed in our country.  There are very few American companies who can say that everything they sell is 100% made in the USA, and that is a drain on our economy and our pride.  We urge everyone who reads this to take a step back and view your lifestyle, and determine how much you do that contributes to the rampant flow of merchandise into our country.  Try to support local businesses, and pay the few cents extra to get things that were packaged in an American factory, because you’re paying to keep our fellow Americans employed.  Check back next month for our next installment in this series on The Recipe for a Successful Business.

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