Working in the Shop
February 3, 2023
Good Morning, Y'all
One of the things we do in the shop every week is work on things that will help us make our instruments. Not actually "making instruments," but making fixtures and jigs. Fixing and adjusting tools. Changing out sandpaper and saw blades. The periodic maintenance items for sure, but also spending the time to make a tool or work-holder that will increase either our quality or our efficiency. Or our safety, even, depending on what we're working on.
Last week, we finished off, mostly, a couple of tables that hold our miter saws. This isn't fun, or exciting. But these two tables allow us to cut material (either huge planks of wood, or nearly-finished dulcimer parts) with a higher accuracy and quick repeatability.
This project took the two of us (I was working with Cheyenne) about 2 1/2 days to complete. I figure that we'll save 30 seconds per cut on the smaller saw, and a bit more than that on the big saw. Now you're thinking - 5 full days (2 1/2 days x 2 people), that's 40 hours of work. To save 30 seconds? Ridiculous!
But let's do the math.
We'll ignore the quality/repeatability improvements, or the increased safety from having the material fully supported on the non-cut end. Let's focus just on that 30 seconds vs 40 hours.
40 hours is 2,400 minutes. 30 seconds goes into 2,400 minutes 4,800 times. So the first thought in my mind is "when is the Return On Investment" (ROI, if you want to sound fancy and official). We'd have to make 4,800 cuts, which each save us 30 seconds, to break even. How long will that take us? How many dulcimers do we have to build to make 4,800 cuts?
Let's find out. I'll only count crosscut (across the grain, not with the grain) saw cuts on the ends of the various dulcimer pieces. (We use a table saw with a "rip" blade for cuts that go "with" the grain of the wood.) And only two cuts, even though there's often a "close cut" followed by some parts processing, then a more "accurate" cut.
Here we go. Two cuts for each dulcimer piece. How many pieces in a dulcimer?
Head blank, fretboard, top (two pieces), back (two pieces), inside brace, heel cap, sides (two pieces). That's 10 pieces, or 20 cuts (one cut on each end) on one of these two saws. Realistically, we're probably closer to 40 cuts, but 20 cuts is good for this analysis.
Twenty cuts to make parts for an instrument vs 4800 cuts to break even on the saw table building. That gets us 240 instruments to break even (4800/20). We currently make about 5 instruments a week, so 48 weeks to break even. If we have 40 cuts to make the parts in a dulcimer, we're at 24 weeks.
We do have several hundred dollars in materials (nice plywood, leveling feet, hinges, purchased fence), and a few dollars in screws and miscellaneous tool use. But for this demonstration, I'm going to apply those expenses to the increased parts quality, and the increased safety for the tool users. I could easily do the math of $500 in materials vs "$X" an hour that our shop staff get paid, but that's not necessary for this analysis.
But anyway, you can see why I get so excited about something so minor as a table that holds a miter saw. Some time in the next twelve months, we'll be on the plus side of this project. Folkcraft has had projects like this for over fifty years. We still use tools that Howard Rugg (FolkRoots founder) built in 1972. We still use tools that David Marks (Folkcraft founder) built in the early 1980s. We still use tools that Steve and I built in 2008. A few days of labor, to save a few seconds each day, over a period of decades? Absolutely a good investment of our time.
I've rounded a lot of numbers in this example. Some figures are high, others are low. But they're good enough for a quick analysis on the ROI.
Back to instrument-making (not business-running) for next week's "In The Shop." Thank you for reading!
Richard Ash, dulcimer-builder-who's-also-trying-to-pay-the-bills-every-month