When Custom Work is Standard
How One Wisconsin Manufacturer
Keeps Its Customers Satisfied
by Alan B. Goldberg
Nestled in Wisconsin’s “North Woods,” three miles from downtown Wausau and 145 miles from the state capital of Madison, is a window and door manufacturer whose 57-year history and growth are as fascinating as the products it manufactures and the way it makes them. Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. Inc. is more than a large manufacturer of windows and doors. The quaint style of its office buildings and the warm and inviting showroom and conference center set the tone for a culture that is atypical of a company of this size … a culture that management believes breeds pride in workmanship, a sense of family, mutual respect and an acceptance of the high standards of quality that date back to its founding.
Like most, this business had humble beginnings. In 1946, two brothers—Herb and Ervin Kolbe—started building window and door frames and storm and screen doors while repairing window sashes. Their shop was their mother’s wash house, with nothing more than a Sears table saw. For 17 years, the business grew modestly. But that changed in 1964 with its first surge of growth. The company became an employer of 48 and five sales representatives who covered the Midwest. The first product line was double-hung and slider windows, followed by casement and awning windows and patio doors. Aluminum-clad windows were next in the early 1980s.
The Midwest market expanded in all directions at a rapid rate. By the mid-1980s, Kolbe & Kolbe windows and doors were being sold nationwide. There were 11 product lines and a fleet of more than 100 tractor-trailers. The impact on its manufacturing was significant and in a matter of years, the plant doubled in size from 171,000 square feet to 376,000 square feet.
In the early 1990s, a design center was opened to show homeowners and builders the latest innovative window designs. Many more changes took place during this decade that would perpetuate the company’s growth. The acquisition of Kolbe of Oregon in Bend, Ore., gave Kolbe & Kolbe the patent rights to a unique garden window. In 1994, a line of windows and doors designed to complement log, cedar and rustic homes was introduced and marketed as the Sundance Series. Two years later, the Decorative Series, combining geometric shapes with decorative glass, and the commercial-grade Magnum Series were introduced. And two years after that, a line of vinyl windows, KVW, was created. In 1999, the company began a national distribution of its Craftsmen doors, a unique selection of woods in distinctive rustic styles. This product line was supplemented with a family of steel doors through the acquisition of Quincy, Mich.-based Acore Door Co.
Expansion continued in 2000. In the fall of that year, the Ultra Series, with grooves integrated for the easy addition of accessories and a 70-percent fluoropolymer finish for protection against fading was added.
Quality Begins Before
the First Board is Ripped
Today, the Kolbes continue to lead the company. It is said that “no detail escapes their attention.” Their family of employees has grown to more than 1,700 and the combined square footage of its three manufacturing plants exceeds 1.4 million square feet.
Inside the massive 1,000,000-square-foot Wausau facility, which operates three shifts, five days a week and Saturdays during the peak periods, craftsmanship and automation come together. For wood windows and doors, the operation begins at the receiving dock where 20 truckloads of wood—cherry, hickory, ponderosa pine and poplar—are delivered every week.
According to Jeff Pawlowski, tooling purchaser, “quality begins before the first board is ripped (cut). The moisture content is checked on every board before it is processed using a Compu-Rip unit that also determines the yield of the wood and rips it lengthwise. A dye is used to indicate rejects—those with a moisture content above 11 percent.”
Moving along an endless line of conveyors, the wood is checked carefully for bowing, knots, cross-grains and other defects, some of which can be machined out. It is sorted by grade and rip, according to the specifications for each order. The path each piece of wood follows is based on how and where it will be used, in what size and type of window or door.
Craftsmanship Makes The Difference
It is the skills of the craftspeople that make the difference. “At Kolbe & Kolbe, we employ craftspeople who care about the windows and doors they build,” commented marketing manager Lori Stevenson. “Walk through our manufacturing facility and you’ll find proof … half rounds with doweled joints, turnbuckles at critical stress points for more durability, windows sealed on both sides of the glass and glazed to the interior with wood glazing beads, pine inside stops and wood mull casings, jambs on most products at 4 9/16 inches.”
“Entrance doors are built with laminated veneer lumber because it offers the greatest strength; stiles and rails are joined with a dowel-and-glue method for maximum strength; weatherstripping is strategically placed on each window and door to further enhance insulating properties,” she added.
Many machining operations—making use of moulders, planers, routers, shapers, tenoners, wide-belt sanders, band saws, chop saws, miter saws, table saws, trim saws—will take place before any assembly begins.
The Hydromat 23 by Weining, for example, is a profiler designed for quick set-ups and short runs of custom parts. The unit has 99,999 cutting positions, 9,999 profiles and set-up time is only about 20 minutes.
A profiler by Unique, which is based in Phoenix, has 18 tool stations with tool changes that make it possible to do raised panels and arched rails. It is being used in place of six different machines.
The KVAL system, comprised of three machines, routes multi-point lock mortises, face-plate holes and hinges on stiles and jambs and it bores holes for cylinder lock and dead bolts.
“There are two pieces of equipment that have really impacted our operation.” Pawlowski added. “I needed to find a tool that could cut soft and hard woods, extruded aluminum and PVCs. For years, we used carbide tools, but with the introduction of new materials, I needed a tool that could hold up and give me the quality cuts I needed. Since we started using our first polycrystalline diamond (PDC) tool two years ago as a replacement for carbide tools, we have eliminated the weekly servicing that was required. The PDC can be used for six months, sometimes as long as nine months, before it needs to be serviced. When you factor in the improved quality and the cost of frequent servicing and downtime, the payback is about eight weeks.”
“The Komo VR 1005TT (CNC router), our newest CNC, has a five-tool head with a 12-tool changer and two 5- by 6-foot tables that can be used individually or locked together for larger requirements. Parts are held in place with a pod system and vacuum. Because of our custom products, we needed to manufacture our own pods to match our needs. This CNC helped us reduce lead time, maintain tight tolerances and it gave us the versatility we needed for producing custom products.”
Pretreatment … A Critical Step
Before assembly begins at any one of a number of workstations, pretreatment is critical to assure the durability of the wood.
“The secret to keeping Kolbe & Kolbe wood windows and doors beautiful is in the preservative,” added Ann Mayer, marketing communications coordinator.
“We use PILT (Preservative In-Line Treatment) by PPG, a patented liquid pretreatment formulated to make wood water-repellent and with the help of a fungicide, to help resist decay. Wood pieces that will be exposed to the exterior are immersed completely prior to assembly. PILT also works to improve the performance of any coatings that are subsequently applied to it. So, whether windows or doors are factory-finished, painted or stained by the homeowner or a contractor, those topcoats may perform better as a result of the PILT treatment.”
Where an exterior finish is desired, Kolbe & Kolbe offers two options: a high-performance finishing system or a heavy-gauge, 5052 alloy aluminum cladding, which is roll-formed to the wood.
The high level of energy efficiency from Kolbe & Kolbe windows and doors can be attributed largely to its H°K (pronounced“high-kay“) glass, which makes use of low-E “smart coatings” to reduce energy transfer through the insulating unit. The clarity and performance of low-E are achieved through a sputter coating process. The coatings are applied in multiple layers using a vacuum chamber to give the glass high visible light transmission, neutral color, coating uniformity and low emissitivity.
In other words, the coating is virtually invisible while achieving the highest level of energy performance. And because there are no emissions or residues, the process is environmentally sound. For added energy efficiency, insulating glass units are filled with argon gas, which is colorless, odorless, non-toxic, non-corrosive and non-flammable.
Most units use a stainless-steel bar system called Thermo-Edge. Compressed polyisobutylene acts as the primary seal in a dual-seal construction and silicone as the secondary seal. The spacer corners are bent so they are air-tight, which improves the overall U-value of the unit and reduces the potential for condensation.
Kolbe & Kolbe offers many options in order to suit a climate or meet specific requirements, from single-lite glass to tempered or laminated glass, patterned, bronze or gray-tinted glass, color glass or finely crafted glass within a triple insulating glass unit. Also available are four types of divided lites on most of its windows and doors: grilles-in-the-airspace for achieving easy cleaning and no maintenance; removable wood grilles with a unique clip system for easy removal; Cutlite for homes where historical authenticity or adherence to a traditional style is desired or required; and Simulite K-bar glazing which gives the appearance of true divided lites without sacrificing energy efficiency.
Styles of windows include: awning, casement, double-hung and slider windows, radius windows (quarter circles, half circles, ellipticals, full-circles, ovals), geometric windows (an infinite variety of shapes and sizes) and utility windows (octagon, garage, basement). Doors are made as sliding and in-swing patio doors and entrance systems.
There is also a range of “extras” … corner blocks and rosettes in pine or oak; interior casings; exterior brickmould; pine keystones and pediment heads; metal blinds; copper roofs; bow & bay cable support systems; and motorized window systems.
The Final Quality Check
After passing through many quality checks, completed windows and doors move on trolleys to the company’s in-house distribution center where they are scheduled for shipping on Kolbe & Kolbe trailers. A final check is made of each order, identified by a color-coded form that includes specifications, other pertinent information and two key markings: the signature of the builder who, like all employees, takes ownership for the quality of the product; and the “Proud To Build Kolbe” logo, the symbol of workmanship.
But there is something more that is characteristic of the company name, though not as tangible as the logo, or as visible as the “Proud To Build Kolbe” banners that hang throughout the plant or as audible as the sound of machinery. It is, nonetheless, just as distinctive:
“See these windows in our employee cafeteria. They were designed and built by our employees. All of this furniture in our new training rooms was made by Kolbe people. They also made the floors from scrap. In fact, everything you see here that is wood was made by Kolbe, with the same care and dedication that goes into every window and door,” said Mayer.
“We are truly an architect’s dream come true. We assist the architect or homeowner and take his design and create that one-of-kind window or door,” said Pawlowski.
It is the sound of employee pride where “custom” is no tall order. It is a way of life at a 57-year-old window and door manufacturer in the “North Woods” of Wisconsin.
Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM. He has more than 30 years of experience in the insulating glass market.
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