Nathan Wilton, centre, and his crew discuss a project.
Nathan Wilton is a computer scientist/technologist by trade and works as a delivery director overseeing projects in the automotive industry. But Wilton has also been a woodworker for most of his life.
“Not professionally, but I learned from my father and worked with him. It wasn’t his occupation either, but he built our house and cedar-strip canoes and from a young age I would help him and work with him on various projects in the garage,” he says.
“So I learned all my skills from him, being the little helper as I was growing up.
“After high school I went to university to study technology, I have a degree in computer science from the University of Windsor, but in the summers I would work at my uncle’s cabinet shop in Markham, Ontario.”
After he finished university, Wilton started his career in technology and over the years he’s worked for banks, Manulife and Sun Life, and for the past 10 years for a well-known company in the automotive industry.
“But throughout it all, he never stopped working with wood in his spare time.
“I did the woodworking because I like it and it used to be kind of a side gig for me, but then a few years ago I decided that I wanted to do more of it and so I did.”
However, about five years ago, he realized that woodworking out of the garage was kind of getting out of hand.
“My family also didn’t really appreciate that I took up all that space, so I started looking for a commercial location and found one that’s about a five-minute walk from my house. It was perfect, just a little 1,600 sq. ft. shop and then I hired a couple of guys to help me with the work because we were getting busier.
Wilton says his company, Wye Creek Woodworks, located in Thorndale just outside London, Ontario, “is a very small woodworking company that specializes in crafting solid wood table and bench bases for use in rustic and French farmhouse-style dining table and bench projects.”
“As I said, I started the company five years ago in the garage to build some solid wood furniture for friends and family.
“My day job is as a delivery director/technologist overseeing projects in the automotive industry. But on evenings and weekends I work in the shop building tables and cabinets.
“Needless to say, between the two jobs I was extremely busy, but it is more manageable now that I have a couple of guys in the shop. I used to do all of it by myself, but no more.
“That was part of the reason to get the shop, to be able to hire employees to help me produce the work because I was getting too busy to do it by myself. But I will go over to the shop and finish up work, get orders out and manage customer service, design and product development.
“I can do some of it from my home office, but I also do some of the physical production in the shop if we are a bit behind. And like I said, I love doing the work, which is why I started the business in the first place.”
Wilton says he initially focused on table legs. He had designed a trestle table, which was shaped out of one large piece of solid wood. And then he put those legs up for sale on Etsy and Shopify and to his surprise they sold. And they sold a lot.
“Initially I was doing those legs on the band saw in my garage, but then I was getting so many orders I had to start looking for ways to produce more of them and faster. So then in about 2019, my search led me to a CNC machine.
“The machine was custom made for the shop and our production needs. Most importantly, it had to fit in the small shop.
“Usually a CNC is 4x8 or 5x10, mine is about 5x6 and it is industrial grade that works perfectly for what we need to do.
“I was also learning CAD design at that time, so I taught myself and started to produce with it once I mastered it.” He added a CNC lathe a couple of years after that.
“Our CNC is a 4-axis machine so that allows you to do square-turn legs, but you can’t do round turn on a CNC router. So when my customers started asking for round-turn legs I started to look for something that would do that. We bought the lathe in 2021 so now we can do both round and square-turn legs.
“We can take pretty much any design and turn it into a CAD object and cut it out on the machines.”
And perhaps surprisingly to some, there are a lot of customers for his products. There are of course woodworkers who will build everything themselves, but Wilton says there are also many shops that produce items from parts and those are their customers.
“Just last week I had a woodworker reach out from Indiana who told me he thought we would never do this, but he saw our legs and decided to give us a try, because he doesn’t have the capability to make his own.
“We offer choices and we are also constantly trying out new products and seeing if there is a market for them.”
Wilton says as the result of the company’s growth manufacturing table legs, they no longer focus on furniture, but instead specialize in parts.
“We still get the occasional order for, lets say a custom table, but generally we specialize in parts.Need to automate
As the company kept growing, Wilton realized he needed to automate some of his processes. However, given the small size of the shop, automation would not come in the form of automated production machinery, but rather in the form of MRP/ERP software to help him manage everything.
“What we found with the orders is that you have to be involved in everything and it gets pretty time consuming. And if you are small like we are and you get busier, those spreadsheets you are sending back and forth through email are difficult to track and it gets complicated. So you may have an older version of that spreadsheet, one without the latest updates, and it’s just not good trying to manage all of that,” he says.
“We needed a software solution to help us with that. We also wanted to track orders and production and complete dates. It was a lot of paper shuffling and you lose visibility of what’s going on the shop floor.
“That’s when I started to look for something to help us. I figured someone must have a solution for this.”
Wilton says he did a lot of web searches and talked to people and then came across the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario, WMCO.
“I had heard about them and realizing that I wanted to learn more, I was looking for a community I could join and learn from. At the time, they were still called the Bluewater Wood Alliance, and I joined them because they seemed like the perfect organization for me and they had a lot of resources to offer. They are also really good at targeting the right people for the cluster.”
There are of course a lot of forums out there, but Wilton says “where else do you get a chance to communicate with colleagues in the same industry who are not trying to sell you something. WMCO seemed fairly neutral and that attracted me to them. And once I joined, I started to learn and found out just how much they have to offer and about the many programs they have that are specifically designed to help their members.
“I really can’t say enough about WMCO, for bringing a lot of awareness for small guys like me and bringing attention to a lot of programs available to us and connecting me with organizations and people I wouldn’t have otherwise known about.
“For example last year, I applied for and received some funding for digital advertising, which I wouldn’t have known about if it hadn’t been for WMCO. So they are just great.”
Wilton says he had looked at a number of software programs to help him manage his company more effectively and efficiently – remember he also has a “real” job – and eventually, and with the help from WMCO, he discovered Katana MRP.
Katana focuses on small-scale manufacturers who need an MRP solution.
“At one time I had actually built my own custom ordering tool, but it became a job onto itself to deploy, to keep secure and to keep the log ins accurate, but just managing it took way too much effort,” Wilton says.
“So I kept looking, and doing my research, and that’s how I decided on Katana.
“They offered a 14-day free trial, which I did and it turns out it offers everything I need. From order prioritization to make-to-order, and make-to-stock, material management, process management for the shop floor, and so much more.”
He says the guys on the floor can call it up on their phones and see where they are at and what they have to do next.
“It’s perfect as it shows the current status and progress. It then goes right through to delivery and it even integrates Shopify and Etsy, “which is where I sell. “It also tracks the orders for us.
“So if a customer clicks the order button on my website or Shopify or Etsy, Katana will drop it right into my order cue and then tracks it through production to delivery. And let’s say someone orders legs in white oak, but we are out of white oak, the program will move it to the top and tell us that we need to order more white oak.
“So it really has everything I was looking for.”
And what’s even better, the software is expandable and Wilton could connect it to his accounting software and many others.
There is of course better and more capable software out there, but this is a solution that works for him.
“We are such a small shop, I really don’t need or want a complete software suite that does everything. I needed something to track orders and material and be fairly easy to implement,” Wilton says.
“And Katana has an open API so you can connect to other systems. That means it is open to future expansion.
So my plan is to connect it to QuickBooks in the future.”
Wilton says adopting this software has been a huge benefit. It’s added a lot of transparency to everything they do and knowing what is happening on the shop floor and with my orders has made a huge difference.
“I can now spend my time so much more efficiently. I don’t have to go to the spreadsheet and look for information, I don’t have to look for people or figure out what material I need to replenish. It tells me everything, instantly at a glance in the dashboard that’s right there and easy to read.
“Right now it’s about $200 month for me and it takes care of standardizing my order management prices, creates purchase orders, manages our production capacity and tells us if we have too much work and need to lengthen our lead times so we can change it on the website and more.
“So for me I find there is a lot of value in that and I promise I am not being paid by them.”
And Wilton says a background in computer technology is not required to set up the software. There are lots of tutorials how to do it and it guides users through the installation and set-up. “You can start with orders and build on that. Or with your products or whatever you want. There is a lot of flexibility, so essentially if you don’t want to jump completely it allows you to just dip your toe in and expand from where you feel comfortable,” he says.
“It’s a good solution for a small company and I swear by it. You can chose big solutions, but for me that would have been overkill. I didn’t want to spend months getting it going or even require a project manager to do it. This seems to work for me.”
Wilton says he had it up and running, initially with just my products, within a week, and then implementing raw materials and subassemblies was another week each. But even that was no problem and certainly quick compared to some other solutions. Less than a month, all in.
“So given all this, I would certainly recommend it. It may not serve large shops, although I think you could make it work, but as I said for us it is the perfect solution and easily implemented.
Wilton says his plans for the future are for a bit more growth, perhaps add one or two more guys, but he doesn’t want the company to get much bigger than it is.
“It would be more to accomplish seasonal growth and handle some of the ups and downs and to have a bit more product in stock to be ahead of the orders so we can ship in a day or two rather than just made-to-order. I would be happy with that.”
Wye Creek Woodworks primarily uses pine, poplar and white oak, but they do offer walnut, red oak, cherry and even did an African mahogany last year.
“If someone needs a specific wood, we will make that for them. So we do fulfill custom orders.”
Wilton says he works in a high-stress industry with demanding clients and finds woodworking therapeutic.
“It is nice going over to the shop evenings and weekends to work with wood. And this company, to be honest, is also my retirement plan. But most importantly, I just love doing it, I love working with wood.