How the switch to computer-aided design and manufacturing assisted the vision of one UK-based joinery company

Woodbase Joiners is a traditional joinery business, which has successfully blended craft knowledge with modern technology to gain business benefits and drive its growth.

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anaging Director, Simon Bartlett, and Co-Founder, Richard Blackman, invested for the future a decade ago. After much deliberation and significant research, they chose a Maka PE70 five-axis CNC router and Staircon software from Elecosoft. Today, this combination keeps the company busy constantly, delivering top-quality, bespoke staircases for customers including architects, interior designers, developers and private clients.

Smart choices from the start

Woodbase Joiners invested in digital before the last recession and has never regretted it. Choosing the right machine was important, but selecting the right software was essential. Simon chose Staircon from an array of potential choices: “The huge benefit of a CNC machine is its ability to do most of the work you do traditionally by hand, or with less sophisticated machines – but software to drive the process is key. We found a handful of different software packages, some connected to a machine manufacturer, others, like Staircon, which are available to the whole market. We investigated four in depth. Staircon stood out as having more advantages, and fewer of the disadvantages, compared to other systems.”

Designing success

The benefits of the software became apparent early in the design process: “With Staircon, we can design something on-screen directly from a set of dimensions provided by an architect or builders, or those taken on site. You can draw the staircase out quickly, and work out exactly how it will fit in the space – but, the brilliant bit is that, if you think it won’t quite work, you can easily take a tread out of the bottom part of a flight and add to the top end, add a winder, and do all the things you used to do longhand with a calculator and sketchpad, or on the drawing board, until everything works out. It used to be a time-consuming process, requiring a significant depth of embedded skills.”

Turning vision into reality

Staircases are hard for customers to envisage. Simon explained: “The one thing people struggle with more than anything else is the concept of the staircase. It’s a large three-dimensional thing, which you can’t live without, which will be used all the time, so it’s vital to get it right – but people simply can’t visualise them. I used to do my best when we worked in two dimensions with flat paper drawings – I would show sketches and photos to try and show people what their staircase was going to look like, and the implications of their design choices – but often it was a real struggle for them to understand.

“For most private customers who are building a high-end bespoke house, it’s the first staircase they’ve ever ordered – so they need a lot of help and guidance. The benefit of being able to use Staircon to show meaningful images on a screen is incalculable. You can show what you have designed as a 3D representation, manipulate it to view it from different angles, put walls in or take them out, change the timber or paint colour, and swap balustrade styles – it makes life so easy. You can inform and guide people, help them to understand the options, and to make decisions that they will be happy with, even if all they came in with were some Pinterest ideas and cuttings from a glossy magazine. With the aid of the software, they feel they have designed the staircase themselves.”

Difficulty in comprehending the intricacies of staircase design and engineering is not limited to first-build private customers. Even architects turn to the experts to turn their concepts into a workable reality. Simon related a recent challenge: “In one Central London project, involving some complex dog-leg flights, the staircase design, as proposed by the architect, need to be supported on steel. The details of this element were undecided when we received the original design, so it opened a can of worms...we must have redrawn it three times to help the architect, designer and structural engineer agree on a scheme. We designed the staircase, then the steel support components, to enable the steel fabricators to manufacture the components off-site, ready to fit into the building.”

Design changes made easier

Managing the inevitable design alterations has become easier. Simon said: “On most jobs, there will be several changes to manage. With Staircon, we can often make amendments simply and quickly, instead of going back to the drawing board…but the beauty with Staircon is how specific it is. You have all the right staircase elements to hand, such as handrails, tread styles, balustrades and to alter the overall rise just takes the click of a button.”

Accuracy beyond measure

Joinery is precise: every element must fit perfectly. Skilled craftsmen have done this for centuries – now Woodbase can go further.

“The precision of today’s manufacturing is accurate to beyond any woodworkers’ wildest dreams. Now, if you want to work to tenths of a millimetre you can. If you want a riser to measure exactly 174.8mm rather than 175mm, that’s what it will be. A skilled craftsman using conventional methods can get close, but now everything is exact and fits first time. There are endless benefits to producing components on the CNC machine, all enhanced by the support of Staircon. For instance, when working with timber like oak, you might machine a stair string up, sand it, leave it overnight only to find a big split has appeared in the middle. In days gone by, you had to set it all out again, set up the router jig again, and router all the housings out a second time. Today, you can take a new piece of wood, and the programme is there. You just press a button to re-run the string, and in 10 minutes you’re back to where you need to be. How did we ever manage without it?”.

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