Marvin Windows Factory Tour

Before they show up on your jobsite, Marvin windows components wind their way through a 2 million-square-foot facility. Take the tour.

Located in the tiny town of Warroad, Minn., situated on Lake of the Woods, and just 6 miles from the Canadian border, the Marvin Windows factory comprises 2 million square feet of floor space, but its enormity extends beyond the factory floor. Over the last several decades, the Marvin family has funded construction of the town's public library (designed by Sarah Susanka), the senior living center, and several other local establishments. Meanwhile, back at the plant, the company employs 2,300 workers. To put things in perspective, Warroad only has just over 1,700 residents, so many crewmembers come in from neighboring towns or from across the border in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Though the town is small, the Marvin family has called Warroad home since 1904. Initially in operation as the Marvin Lumber & Cedar Co., the company grew and changed over time, adding windows to its business in 1945. Though larger metropolitan areas encouraged the company to rebuild in their towns after a devastating fire in 1961, the family remained firmly entrenched in Warroad and dedicated to giving its employees a good living. Learn more about the history of the Marvin family and company.

Well-versed in Marvin history, policies, and procedures, tour instructor Tim Slukynsky gives Hanley Wood editors a behind-the-scenes look at where Marvin windows come from.

At Marvin, every window starts with a good piece of wood, carefully inspected by trained staff members. The company uses all SFI or FSC-certified lumber. When new boards arrive at the factory, their moisture content is tested by this machine. Passing over a set of sensors, boards that meet moisture-level criteria move down the belt; those that don't are released through a trap door and go through further kiln drying before being retested.

Boards that pass the moisture test get additional analysis. This crewmember uses lasers to identify the cuts that will yield the most useable wood from each board. Though many lumber companies have computers run this step, this remains a manual process at Marvin and is performed by highly skilled workers.

Depending on their window destinties, boards that measure up to Marvin standards can be finger-jointed and cut to standard sash lengths (top and bottom photos), or stacked, laminated, and sliced into veneers for later use in forming curved window cases (right).

After finger-jointing, a computer analyzes lengths of wood to identify any imperfections and determines the number of cuts that would yield the best use of the wood. A chop saw makes the cuts, and workers sort the pieces onto carts according to their size. As recently as five years ago, the scan-cut-sort process was entirely manual and required as many as a dozen factory workers. After the equipment was upgraded to incorporate computerized scanning, only about four people were needed to run the line. Under those circumstances, many factories would have laid-off the workers whose jobs were eliminated, however Marvin has maintained a no-layoff policy even through the economic downturn. The displaced workers were reallocated to other lines. Regarding its no-layoffs commitment, Company president Susan Marvin says, "layoffs are not an option. If employees are your most important asset, why would they be the first things cut when times are tough?"

Despite precision cuts, not every piece of wood passes inspection. Workers inspect each piece that comes off the line for knots, pitch, warping, and other imperfections that would threaten the window's structural integrity, and add them to the "rework" pile. Many imperfections can be fixed with buscuits, cut out, or reshaped. Pieces that ultimately end up as scrap can be burned to heat various areas of the plant and the drying kilns. (Fun fact: All the sawdust collected through the wood production process at Marvin is sold to turkey farmers as animal bedding. The company sells 9,000 tons, or 600 truckloads, of sawdust for this purpose each year.)

From the wood production floor, window components move into assembly lines. Particularly for casements, double-hungs, and other standard windows, a number of workers will touch each piece to confirm their quality and ultimately decide if they're good enough to become part of a Marvin window. The same holds true for glass, which the company purchases from Cardinal. Here, glazed sashes have made it through assembly and wait for their frame counterparts.

Simulated divided lites (SDLs) are a popular option on many Marvin windows, and are applied by hand. Crewmembers note that the adhesive on the backs of the SDL grilles are a "one-shot deal - once they're on, they're on," Slukynsky says.

For casements and double-hungs, sashes and frames for the same order move down separate lines for assembly. As the orders come together and are wrapped for shipping, most will head out to eager Marvin customers. About three times a week, however, Slukynsky says the company places orders under fake names (unbeknownst to line workers), and will pull those orders for "product autopsies." These windows undergo a 100-point inspection, and missing the boat on even one element yields a failure of that window. The factory process is so precise that mistakes can be tracked back to individual crewmembers for discussions about appropriate retraining.

In addition to product autopsies, Marvin also orders (again, under assumed names) windows that will ultimately be pulled from the line for use in the R&D testing area. Windows that pass the test are sent to the Marvin Home Center, a local building supply center in Warroad, where homeowners can buy the windows off the shelf at reduced prices. Slukynsky says a number of homes, sheds, and even deer stands in the area, have well-insulated Marvin windows thanks to this program.

In a separate area of the factory, Marvin workers produce specialty windows and round-tops. Slukynsky says this department tends to run more slowly than the other production lines becasue the orders are more complicated and much of the work is done by hand. Here, the crewmember on the left runs blocks of wood cut to precies angles through a machine that cuts finger joints in the wood. His partner on the other side of the equipment glues and clamps the joints together and sets them aside to cure.

Finger-jointed roundtop components are set aside to cure and wait for the next step in their process.

Once cured, finger-jointed roundtop blocks make their way to the router table. The block is suctioned to the table to keep it from moving while the router winds around it to cut the appropriate shape. The table is deeply etched with the paths of previous router patterns. Once the grooves get too deep, the table is planed or replaced.

Not all rounded windows are cut from blocks. In many cases, thin strips of wood (see slide 5) are laminated together and shaped by hand with the help of heavy equipment, heat blankets, and lots of clamps. Unlike assembly workers, crewmembers like this gentlman are carpenters and woodwokers, and are among the most highly skilled (and highly paid) factory employees.

Cozy heat blankets warm the glue between laminated sheets of veneer, allowing the wood to bend around heavy-duty metal forms for long curves. Other equipment, not shown here, presses veneers into perfect half-rounds.

Specialty windows and round-tops often include artistic details like simultated or true divided lites. Here, a crewmember expertly places divided lite strips on the glass according to a template placed beneath the window. Along with a series of levels, vertically oriented rulers are a clever tool to help ensure proper placement of the muntin strips. The glass reflects each ruler's image, giving the illusion that it extends through the glass to the template below, and allowing workers to properly align each strip.

When his window company was first getting off the ground, Bill Marvin looked out his window, saw a yellow truck that stood out from the rest, and adopted yellow as the company's signature color - or so the story goes. While the factory churns out custom-crafted windows a few hundred yards away, this yellow rose window adorns the Marvin Training & Visitors Center. Anyone is welcome to visit the Marvin facility. Learn more about the Marvin Training & Visitors Center.

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