Why work when you can workout instead? Anything around your shop can function as a dumbbell if you try hard enough. The same goes for your table saw fence. Not only can it rip wood, but it can serve as a treadmill. How frequently do you have to walk around your table saw fence to prep material, adjust the fence, pull out a tape measure, mark material, cut, and double-check for accuracy?
Well, if you’re a custom cabinet manufacturer, the answer is quite often, like hundreds of times per day. Many fitness/woodworking enthusiasts have avoided taking out gym memberships for years by simply using their table saws. It’s time the secret gets out!
For a small fraction of those who actually prefer to operate a table saw without getting in their daily allotted steps, look no further than Jeff Dopko of Dopko Cabinetry. Jeff has been woodworking for over 30 years, sharpening his tricks of the trade and perfecting his craft. Jeff’s table saw had him walking nearly ¾ of a mile per day, that is until 2004, when everything changed.
Jeff Dopko first took an interest in woodworking in 1989 while working for a manufacturer of trade show equipment in Rochester, NY. By day Jeff was an apprentice exhibit manufacturer and by night Jeff was moonlighting as a furniture maker. The trade show company would receive vast shipments of wood pallets, and as Jeff explains, “I’d take home the leftover pallet material and fabricate fairly crude pieces of furniture for my apartment. I found that I actually really enjoyed it.”
In addition to enjoying it, after some time, Jeff became really great at it.
“And thus, my woodworking career took off. Over the next couple of years, I purchased all of the necessary basic woodworking tools and started Dopko Furniture. In 1996, I relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina, working briefly for a cabinetry company before setting out on my own to start Dopko Cabinetry, a high-end custom cabinetry business.”
The transition from midnight furniture fabricator to becoming a full-fledged business owner had its difficulties. “As with all shops, it was a struggle in the beginning to survive. I would take on any and every job so that I could get my name out there, and you know, make money.”
The Year Everything Changed
But everything changed in 2002 when Jeff decided to join the Cabinet Makers Association, a peer group of custom cabinetmakers, millworkers, furniture makers, and industry contacts who aim to help one another grow profitably.
“2002 was the year I decided my occupation was no longer going to be just a job for me, that it was going to be my profession. Through talks with other cabinetmakers, I realized I was doing it all wrong and changes needed to be made. Instead of taking on ten jobs at $1,000 apiece, I would focus on getting one job for $10,000. I quickly realized that for me to be competitive, consistent, and profitable, an investment in quality machinery was going to be necessary. In addition, doing everything on my own was not going to be possible. I sought out the help of a finisher and installer, allowing me the time to concentrate on fabrication and running the business,” explains Jeff.
Jeff’s journey to invest in high-end machinery led him to many shops where he was able to view machinery in operation prior to committing to the purchase. Along the way, Jeff developed relationships that would prove to be far more valuable than he ever imagined. “I’m a firm believer in collaboration above competition. My shop door is always open to any cabinetmaker who wants to stop by. With all that said, back to the machinery!”
The Equipment That Makes the Shop Run
Once Jeff had his Altendorf table saw set up and in operation, it quickly became clear to him that adjusting the rip fence was going to be a full-time job in and of itself.
Take Jeff’s setup into consideration: “The slider on my table saw is ten feet long. When my fence is out of reach, I need to walk a total of 40 feet to adjust it, 10 feet to the back of my saw, 10 feet to my rip fence, 10 feet to the back of my saw once again, and then 10 feet to the cutting position. Multiply that by a complete kitchen cut list and things get exhausting quickly.”
Jeff couldn’t continue adjusting his fence 100 times a day for each custom cabinetry part. He did the math: 100 parts at 40 feet per part was over ¾ of a mile each day in walking and adjusting time alone!
In addition, Jeff’s part accuracy was suffering. “My accuracy depended completely on my eyes and how I looked at my fence measure guide. I build European-style cabinetry, so my tolerances are very tight. A one-millimeter discrepancy per cabinet can wreak havoc over a 12–15 foot run of cabinetry.”
Jeff turned to his peer group once again, and they suggested he visit TigerStop’s booth at the International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta, Georgia, for an automated table saw fence. “After seeing TigerStop at IWF, I was immediately sold. I purchased my TigerFence in 2004 and, to date, it’s still in daily operation.”
Forklifts Are Free
“My peer group taught me a valuable lesson, which is, forklifts are free. Stay with me here, I’ll explain. While a forklift may cost tens of thousands of dollars, you save time and money using it day in and day out. You save labor hours reaching and stacking items on high shelves, moving crates around your operation, and loading items. By the time you have done all of those activities, the forklift is free!”
That outlook on capital machinery was important for Jeff to grasp as a business owner. Having the right tools to get the job done is, well, priceless.
“The TigerFence was a huge game-changer for my business. I mean, I cannot feasibly walk around my saw 100 times a day … give me a break! If I am going to invest that kind of money in a business and equipment, it has to be about efficiency, period. Being productive, and consistent, and accurate is vital to my line of work. It’s a profession and you must be productive or else you won’t be profitable. The TigerFence was money well spent.”
The TigerFence also allowed Jeff to have repeatable accuracy with tolerances in the fractions of a millimeter. “In my line of work, European-style custom cabinetry, my tolerances are in millimeters. If I’m off one millimeter or two, forget it.
Using the TigerFence, Jeff and his team simply type in the desired length and press start. “I don’t have to question it, I’m on one side of my saw while my fence is adjusting and I can operate the entire saw standing in one spot,” says Jeff. “For those who say measure twice cut once, I tell them, your tape measure is only as good as your eyeballs.”
Seriously, though, when was the last time you had your eyes checked?
How To Make It in the Custom Cabinetry Business
Jeff’s success has been far-reaching. His custom cabinetry work has been featured in high-end homes across the country and has landed him coveted spots in Dwell Magazine, Design Milk, ArchDaily, Dezeen, and more. You can find Jeff busy in his shop on his Instagram account posting snapshots of his latest creations and collaborations.
Having the right-sized equipment for his operation has made Jeff miles more productive and efficient than ever before. But his biggest tip to those who are interested in taking on a career in fine cabinetmaking isn’t related to cabinetry, wood, machinery, or really anything tool-related. It’s about relationships.
“The best advice I can give is to network with other shops. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the business or how much you think you know—there are always opportunities to learn and grow. My business wouldn’t be half of what it is now if it weren’t for connecting with other shops in my area and globally,” explains Jeff.