Sandblasted Signs Only Part of Stalter’s Exterior Niche
August 14, 2011 | 9:37 pm CDT

By Mike Wilson

Gridley, IL — based Stalter Wood Products serves a variety of exterior product markets ranging from routed posts to historical rebuilds.

Stalter Wood Products' niche extends to a variety of outdoor wood products, including sandblasted cedar signs.

Stalter Wood Products specializes in sandblasted cedar signs, but the company’s niche extends to all high-end outdoor products.

The shop takes on a variety of jobs, from heavy-duty arbors for subdivision landscaping to panels for a replica of a famous wooden tower in St. Charles, IL, and often performs its own installations. This openness to any custom job has helped build relationships with customers and salespeople, says Randy Stalter, co-owner of the company.

“We’re willing to go above and beyond what a trim carpenter or another shop will do,” Stalter says. “We’ll provide a unique design, and it really makes salesmen look like miracle-workers in a sense. Customers will ask them ‘Can you do this?’ And they can say 'yes, we’ll figure that out.'”

Stalter Wood Products is a two-man shop based in Gridley, IL, that primarily serves the suburbs around Chicagoland, but ships the occasional product to customers across the country. It has multiple sources of revenue that include wood signs and outdoor products for housing developments such as mailbox holders, routed sign posts, benches and arbors.

One of the company's proudest projects was manufacturing the decorative wood panels for the rebuild of a famous tower in St. Charles, IL.

Most business is brought in through relationships with builders and municipalities, or affiliations with suppliers and distributers that contract Stalter for jobs, says Craig Harland, the shop’s other co-owner. An affiliation with a salesman from the company’s cedar supplier brought about one shop’s proudest and most complex projects; fabricating intricate cedar panels for the rebuild of a famous tower that burnt down at a park adjacent to the Fox River in St. Charles, IL.

“(Our supplier) put in a bid to sell the wood for the project, and decided to also put in a bid to make the panels and parts,” Harland says.

After winning the bid, it was straight to the workshop to layout full-size patterns of the panels. During the manufacturing process, Stalter and Harland would often go to the second floor of the shop to look down on the progress because the products were too big to judge on the shop floor, Harland says.

They received detailed blueprints and plans for each panel from the architect in charge of the project, but ended up having to change some of the joinery and panel layouts to make them fit correctly.

“We used the same techniques; the same glue, bonds and cutting, but it was on a bigger scale,” Stalter says. He added that one of the most challenging parts of the project was fitting the triangle-shaped decorative pieces (shown below) into the arches within the panel. Tongue and grove joints were used to fit each piece snugly into place before the panel was shipped.

One of the most challenging parts of the tower project was fitting the triangle-shaped decorative pieces into the arches within the panel.

Both owners agreed another project that showed the company’s capabilities were exterior wood products crafted for the Missouri Botanical Garden. The project included a large decorative wood dome that sits atop a building in the garden. Curving the base of the dome, which was 6 feet in diameter, was one of the biggest challenges of the project, Stalter says.

“We used thin strips of wood that were less than 1/8 inches thick… and just stacked layer after layer until it was about 2 ½ inches wide,” Stalter says. “We used lots of glue and clamps to figure things out and had to prefab everything as much as possible before starting.”

Exterior woodwork at the Missouri Botanical Garden is another project the company was contracted to do by its lumber supplier.

Other projects aside, Stalter Wood’s consistent sellers are its cedar signs, Harland says. To make the signs, they draw the artwork in either a design program such as Adobe Illustrator or the CAD program used in conjunction with the company’s vinyl cutter.

Harland says he creates a design overlay with the vinyl cutter that covers areas that are part of the sign’s design, such as lettering and logos. He then sandblasts the sign, and the areas left uncovered are worn away to draw the design from the wood. Grit for the sandblaster includes crushed corncobs of varying grain size and occasionally coal slag for an even rougher texture, he adds.

“From time to time, we also mix old methods with the new,” he adds. “We’ll print a transparency (with the design) and put it up on an overhead projector, then trace it and cut it out with a razorblade (to create the overlay).”

A big chunk of the company’s business became outdoor products for subdivision landscaping during the height of the housing boom. Stalter Wood Products kept builders coming back because of a willingness to perform installations and a reputation for delivering on time and as promised, Stalter says.

Stalter Wood Products builds and installs a variety of wood products for subdivisions, including the arbor and bench above.

“Our motto with homebuilders during the boom years around 2005 and 2006 was that we would be in and out with no complaints,” Harland says. “They remembered our name and associated it with stress-free service.

“If they called us, we’d deliver, and they knew they didn’t have to worry about it,” Stalter adds.

That part of the company’s revenue stream has since come to a standstill, Harland says. Both owners say they saw orders from major homebuilders begin drying up in 2006.

“They started cutting budgets when they started seeing slowdowns, and our products are purely cosmetic, so they got cut,” Harland says. “They need mailboxes, but they don’t need the decorative woodworking around the mailboxes.”

The shop’s low overhead, location and willingness to seek out new work have allowed them to weather the slowdown. When orders overwhelmed the owners during the housing boom, the company recruited farmers with woodworking experience to help out around the shop instead of hiring full-time help, which has kept overhead low, Stalter says.

The company is also exploring new revenue streams to supplement its sign business, including the possibility of bidding on government contracts to take advantage of the large infrastructure investments outlined in the Economic Stimulus Act, Harland says.

“We’re looking into getting certified as a government contractor to get government jobs, which would be another good source of revenue in addition to signs,” he says. “I’m not sure what kind of jobs are out there, but we’ll make anything from posts to ammunition boxes if they need them.”

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