Made In The USA Ramble

confessions of a chameleon consumer

Elite Industries engineers quality into competitively priced kit furniture.

Once in a while, a product comes along that solidly debunks the notion that we Americans have completely forgotten how to make things. By “things” we mean hard goods: the designing, engineering, manufacturing, packaging and marketing of goods, starting all the way back with raw materials extracted or harvested from the earth, which in turn have weight, heft and inherent permanent physical properties.

Let us only draw out our explanation of “things” to contrast with shifting ephemerals such as the amorphous, gaseous netherworld called “software” products — a world we innovative Americans pretty much invented, and at which we still pretty much excel.

Steel? Heck, forget steel; just import it. It’s too expensive to make; it’s just a “commodity”, subject to the iron hand of futures markets, where everybody knows exactly what the price should be. Where’s the fun in that?

When’s the last time you heard of someone rolling out a product lineup of “new, improved steels?” You can’t charge whatever you feel like, when there’s multiple sellers of a remarkably uniform product mix.

That should be my cue to roll us along into the subject of Furniture, which gets us out of commodities, out of invisible-hand “market forces”, and out of my own industry (software) — hence into something America still does well that you can really get your hands on.

A good ramble can still never be that easy. I’m over 50 now, so we all have to wade through the obligatory doddering reminiscence of “the way things used to be.” Then, the legal stuff: I have to issue a disclaimer that I don’t always buy American.

When I was a kid, engineering and manufacturing was all about trigonometry and slide rules, and logarithms in at least two different bases, and calculus, and applied antenna theory or Boyle’s law or the thermodynamics of flight … whatever specialty you thought you were entering, such as vacuum tubes, perhaps. And, you actually had to understand all that stuff, demonstrate an ability to do it yourself, and measure the results. Measurement was everything, and, back in the ’50’s, measurement and calculation were, believe it or not, comparatively big deals.

If you were a mechanical engineer, for example, you over-engineered everything. There was no GPS or laser inferometry or cesium clock to give you The Result to eight or nine decimals precision. There was no computer to which you could hook to a million and one piezoelectric strain gauges to actually measure and plot structural failure rates per unit of stress. If you screwed up, and one part (your part) became the inevitable weakest link in the system, the whole structure failed. And it was your fault, not the team’s fault.

OK, there are people who still actually make things today, and some of the things they make (like the Space Shuttle) are pretty big and pretty complex, because those advanced analysis systems today can give you more information in fifteen minutes than a lifetime of experience could have, two generations ago.

This generalized approach to “the problem” was handled like an intelligence-directed work ethic. I say “intelligence-directed” because it was planned and methodical, in contrast to the spasmodic knee-jerk self-sacrifice euphemistically called a “work ethic” today.

Then, if you worked overtime, chances are you were working on something pretty important. Chances are, you got paid for it. This ethic was professional, people took pride in participating in it, and this “smart ethic” was largely responsible for our economy progressing to the technological cutting edge we enjoy today. By way of contrast, most of the design and marketing decisions made by the big players in my own industry seem to be made for the worst of all possible reasons: “we needed to commit to a decision today”.

If the public often feels insulted by the movers and shakers in the software industry, this is probably a very good explanation why.

My point here is only that it wasn’t always like that … would you rather own a Mercedes or a Catera? Speaking of Catera, this brings us to the legal disclaimers.

All this is being written by a truly chameleon global consumer. I drive a Japanese car which burns petroleum products extracted anywhere else in the world, usually by the Saudis. I buy American computers, but we all know where the parts are made, except for those parts made in emerging economies we haven’t heard of yet. For cameras and electronics, I generally buy the best product I can afford, and that product is usually made overseas. All my clothing comes from wherever the tag says, or so, we’re told, the law says.

Sure, I would like to buy American. I researched Oldsmobile, Buick, Ford, Chrysler and Saturn before zeroing in on Toyota last year. I’ll often pay more for the best product I can afford, when I also get better quality, but I’ll be darned if I’ll pay more for domestic product if I also have to sacrifice quality to get it.

This leads us to a little product with the unpretentious name “EL-509 Storage Unit”. A company called Elite Industries, Inc. of Bayonne, N.J., makes it. You would have to call it an article of furniture, something we’re learning a little about since moving into our new, smaller apartment.

Readers of my article “Moving Day” are already familiar with our tortured efforts to get a TV/Stereo “Home Entertainment Center” from our local stereo chain. We finally canceled our order and obtained a different unit from a local furniture store, who in turn ordered it built-on-demand from a manufacturer down in LA. We liked it so much we ordered a matching bookcase, and I was impressed with the service and workmanship when both arrived unscratched, and on time.

After filling the wall unit with TV, stereo and such, there was still really no place to put all the CD’s and videotapes populating the living room carpet. Gosh. The wall unit has big openings which would hold about 3 feet of LP records, but we don’t have any of those up here any more, or a turntable on which to play them.

The EL-509 filled the CD and VCR tape storage need perfectly. It is a storage stand for CD’s, videotapes and DVD media. It’s solidly built, stands about 4 feet high and uses only 2 feet of wall space. It’s only a little deeper than the CD jewel case, so projects only 7 inches into the room or hallway. The base has a bigger footprint in front, giving it extra stability for those of us in earthquake country. It houses a generous 6 shelves of CD’s behind a smoked glass door with good hinges and a magnetic latch, and it’s stunningly handsome. It’s furniture, not some gussied-up orange crate, or one of those vertical plastic towers you see even here in California (again, think seismic).

For what it is, and from what we’ve seen, it was reasonably priced: $149.00. Sure, you could have made a serviceable stand for $10 worth of knotty pine, with $150 worth of hand tools or $1,500 worth of power tools, and a workshop and twenty hours of time. But we can’t conduct that kind of activity in an apartment, and you haven’t priced furniture-grade lumber lately, either. I brought Bob down to look at it too, and we bought it.

We got the last one in a box, and the box had been opened and re-packaged and taped shut, and one corner of the box had been crushed. But I held my breath and took it home anyway, took everything out of the box and inspected it, and all seemed fine.

It came disassembled, so I got to work following the assembly instructions.

First off, I noted that the instructions were easy to read, easy to follow, and that the illustrations actually matched up to the parts as I checked them.

Then, I noticed that the side panels and top and bottom caps were made of pressboard, which I generally shun, but these were carefully drilled with more holes than American Swiss Cheese.

If you already know what a cam lock is, please forgive me. It’s a cast metal cylinder with a slot in its circumference (about the diameter of a quarter dollar), just over 1/4 inch thick, into which a slotted steel pin will fit. When the cylinder is turned, the cam pulls the head of the steel pin in toward the center of the cylinder. This locks the two together (and securely binds the objects to which each are fastened).

Elite used SIX cam locks on each the vertical side pieces, and four more each for top and bottom caps. They also used hardwood dowels to align and hold the caps. Remember, this is an enclosure of less than six cubic feet in dimension, though all the structural strength has to come from the sides and caps since the front is a glass door, and the back is thin composition board.

In short, as I told Bob, “They over-engineered this sucker. This HAS to be made in America!” It was.

As luck would have it, the bottom corner of one of the sides WAS damaged. Luckily for me, Elite hadn’t engineered it down to save a couple of cam locks and dowels.  This could have been crushed in the carton, but more than likely it was cracked from being dropped by me, as it twice fell off the miserly workspace I’d allowed myself on the kitchen counter.

I surveyed the damage. The material was crushed at the corner where one of the steel pins seated for joining to its cam lock. Since the cam lock works by pulling the pin inward, tightening this one more than a little would probably pull the pin right out of the panel. But there were still two dowels and another cam lock in the same area. I put some white glue on the dowels and the damaged split in the pressboard, tightened all the parts together, and it’s solid. This is going to hold. It did.

In putting shelves into bookcases, you learn quickly to allow room for the atlases and tall books, because if you assemble a bookcase for paperbacks only, you will run out of shelving halfway up the unit. They never give you enough shelving. Following that same rule of thumb for the EL-509, I made the bottom two shelves tall enough to store videotapes vertically. When I got to the top, I had one unused shelf left over!

Score another one for Elite. They over-engineered it again!

I re-did the shelving, every shelf one CD high. I completed the assembly and loaded it with CD’s and tapes. Not only did I spend a long time admiring it, I couldn’t get over how easily I was able to work around the damage I probably did to it myself. I have seen other projects ruined because, when one fastener failed,  there was no other fastener nearby to assist in holding everything together sturdily.

This is not a paid endorsement, and neither Elite not I had any idea I would write this about their product. Pressboard is not my favorite construction material, but the CD rack market is already overcrowded with “cheap”: twenty-nine bucks for a six-foot tower with a six-inch square footprint and 100% injection molded snap-together plastic parts with a cardboard back. That’s the competition.

The other direction, which I researched also, is custom oak hardwood in your choice of finishes, starting around $500, and I’m pretty sure Ethan Allen offers something in a nice cherrywood, with inset cut glass panels and solid brass pulls, for somewhere near a grand.

To carve out a niche in the middle ground with a sensible design that should hold up for decades takes a little guts and a lot of thought, and you have to give up the cherrywood for something that can be reliably tooled and mass produced, so I can forgive the pressboard. The whole question of “how many cam locks can join a 4 foot corner?” gets ugly when you’re working with pressboard. I’m everlastingly grateful that Elite decided to go with an answer of “6”, instead of the expected answer of two to four, or the staple gun “solution”.

In the past decade or so, I’ve had pretty good experiences assembling “kit” furniture, such as bookcases, desk hutches, TV carts and the like. Most of these have been made in the USA (no doubt due to the expense of shipping wood products from abroad), but none have assembled as easily, or showed such generous logic in design, as this Elite product.

In the past I’ve written many articles laced with unappreciative, carping criticisms of various shabby products and ideas, and about their deplorable  merchandising propaganda. I don’t think I’ve ever written a product review before, even in a ramble. It’s somewhat surprising to me that my first “review” would be of a CD rack, but there you have it.

The folks at Elite, way back in the design stage, successfully anticipated my every move and error. My appreciation for that is what really prompted me to write this review. Also, I was grateful to whoever did the assembly illustrations and instructions. Once in a while we really do need to give credit where credit is due.

Ah, yes: you know, it made me feel good again about “buying American”, too.

Alex Forbes, October 4, 2000


1/29/2003: A.P. writes from Bayonne: “I agree that they make good products. They are easily assembled (Most models) and hold together good … Elite products are made in Slovena.”

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