North Carolina Door Maker Focuses on the Personal Touch

Dennis Woolard likes to stay involved in every aspect of his shop’s work, which is building custom doors for top-dollar homes along the East Coast.

By Hannah Miller

Dennis Woolard and his wife, Kim, own Appalachian Woodwrights and specialize in high-end, hand-made solid wood doors. Located in Morganton, NC, their shop is some 50 miles from the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, one of the country’s best-known examples of 19th century construction and beautiful woodwork.

Woolard is inspired by the craftsmanship that went into the 250-room mansion built for George Vanderbilt in the 1890s. But he admires only the woodworkers’ methods, not the tools they used. When other woodworkers fantasize about a return to the simple tools used in those early times, he tells them, “If those guys had our joiner out there, they would have loved every second of it. They were trying to make money, too.

“And if those woodworkers could make 10 tenons a day, we can do 100,” he adds.

The knots and “beautiful grain” of alder lend themselves to a distressed look, says Dennis Woolard of Appalachian Woodwrights. This six-panel reproduction of a 19th century French door, done in alder, is 90 inches tall and features Tarvin raised panels and moulding. Distressed bronze hardware by Baldwin adds to the antique look.  

However, high volume is definitely not the goal at Appalachian, Woolard is quick to note. While he aims for efficiency, Woolard says the company heads in the opposite direction from mass production. Instead, it focuses on one-of-a-kind, handmade doors using traditional methods, mostly for the high-end residential market on the East Coast.

Appalachian builds doors for houses — often vacation or retirement homes — that start at $750,000 and go into the multi-million-dollar range. They are custom-built, Woolard says, for “people who consciously want to spend more...they want to make a statement.”

When inviting their friends to such a home, he adds, “They want the front door to show.”

Woolard says Appalachian has made entranceways costing $13,000 and has quoted them up to $25,000. It is currently making all 120 doors for the main house, plus other doors for a gardener’s cottage, on a Caribbean island estate. Another job required 26 handmade cherry doors for a Virginia mansion.

“We paid an arm and a leg for the lumber for that job,” Woolard says. Hardwoods of Morganton, where Appalachian buys most of its lumber, went through 40,000 feet to get the 2,000 the customer specified, he adds. The doors all had to be from the heart of the tree, cherry face on both sides, with no sapwood.

Appalachian sells some $350,000 worth of doors a year, most to homeowners who have learned about the company through word-of-mouth. About 40 percent is sold through a high-end millwork supplier, The Hardwood Co., which has showrooms in several cities in western North Carolina.

“Since the advent of ‘This Old House’ and similar TV shows, customers are a lot more educated,” Woolard says. “They will ask for a certain species of wood. I find that really neat. The customer we look for is a really involved customer.”

Just such a customer walked in as the Woolards were being interviewed, carrying two stained glass panels taken from 100-year-old doors. He was ordering an entranceway for a mountain home, to include the glass. “I’d like a beat-up looking door,” he said.

Working from a rough sketch the customer drew in pencil, Kim, who has a degree in architecture from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, conferred with him and later drew a detailed design using AutoCAD.

Kim runs the office as well as designing. Woolard says, “I don’t even know how to turn the computer on,” but adds that he advises her about the shop’s mechanical capabilities. Between them, they come up with workable plans that don’t compromise the original design.

While Kim does most of the design work, Dennis takes the field measurements if the job is within eight hours’ driving distance. “I’m a control freak,” he says, adding that he likes to do everything himself, including installation.

The measurements, as well as Kim’s final design, are sent to the customer, who signs them as part of the contract. Although Appalachian has never made a door that hasn’t fit, Dennis says that having a customer sign off on the measurements gives both the company and the customer some protection. “It lets you see what’s happening,” he says.

Dennis Woolard calls mahogany “king of the woods” and uses that species in a lot of his doors. This arched entranceway, made of 21&Mac218;4-inch-thick Honduras mahogany, has beveled glass and is shielded by two exterior bronze-screen doors. Lamb’s-tongue chamfering is used on the curved jamb. The solid brass hardware is by Baldwin.  

Woolard watches jobs closely in the shop as well. Projects are identified by the customer’s name rather than a number. When a customer calls to check progress, Woolard can say, “Mark is sanding your door today.”

Though the shop has grown in six years from being a one-man operation to a seven-person one, “We still want to keep that intimacy as much as possible. I love the personal touch,” Woolard says.

That “old-fashioned” customer contact, Kim adds, “is what our clients are looking for.”

In the shop, production equipment includes a Delta sliding table shaper, SCMI stroke sanders and shapers, Bridgewood single-spindle shaper, Northfield shaper, Northtech planer, Original Saw radial arm saw, SCMI joiner, JLT door clamp machine, Tannewitz bandsaw and hand tools from Porter-Cable and DeWalt.

Joinery is by mortise and tenon and glue, and nearly all moulding is made in the shop. “All our styles are one piece of wood,” says Kim. “It is all solid wood, no veneer.”

Nails are used only for tacking interior moulding around glass, to make removal of glass easier if repair is needed in the future.

A lot of the shop’s work is done in mahogany. “Mahogany is the king of woods, in my opinion,” Woolard says, citing the availability and reasonable price of Honduras pattern mahogany. “It gives you a lot of vertical sawn lumber, very stable.” Other woods he likes to use for entryways are quarter-sawn white oak, cherry, walnut and alder.

The Woolards moved to their 6,000-square-foot shop last year and already are planning to expand it. They moved there because of its location — just across the street from Unlimited Finishing, run by 45-year furniture finishing veteran Harry Silvers. Dennis and Silvers confer on finishes and have come up with 15 that are exclusive to Appalachian, using stains, sealers, glazes and catalyzed marine lacquer topcoats from Piedmont Coatings. Unfinished doors from Appalachian are carried across the street, where finishes are applied by Silvers and his employees.

Silvers’ expertise is invaluable, particularly his knowledge of when to bleach, when to sand and how to bring out the grain of the wood, the Woolards say. “It’s him using his eye, looking at that door to bring out all those striations, that really makes a difference,” Woolard says.

Silvers finishes the doors and mouldings that will surround glass before Appalachian installs the glass and hardware. Woolard says that doors and mouldings are stained and sealed on all sides before the glass is put in to protect the door from moisture as much as possible. “It is much more expensive to do it this way,” he says, “but we are prolonging the life of the finish.”

Sun is also harmful to finishes, some more than others, he adds. Appalachian gives each customer a container of Guardsman furniture polish, which contains no silicones, and asks that they clean and polish the door monthly for its protection.

For durability, much of the hardware used is bronze. “They make boat propellers out of it,” Woolard says. “It will last forever.”

Glass used in Appalachian doors is true divided glass and can be the insulated variety or old-fashioned single-glaze glass, used plain, beveled and stained. Non-insulated glass can let some heat escape, but, “If you are buying our doors, you are not worried about that extra $20,” Woolard says.

Woolard came to the door business from timber framing, a craft he calls “as high-end as you can get.” His use of mortise and tenon and pegs in framing residences across the Northeast carried over to the kind of woodworking he likes to do now, he adds. Self-employed as a framer, he saw a need for custom doors, and in 1996, he started supplying them from a one-man shop in Morganton.

Except for an apprenticeship at the Heartwood School in Washington, MA, he is a self-taught woodworker. “I learned just doing it, spending a lot of nights reading and figuring it out,” he says.

A former Army paratrooper and an admittedly intense man, he says he turns to woodworking books for his leisure reading as well. He will sometimes get up at 4 a.m. to go to the shop, Kim Woolard says, adding that he has been known to stay on the phone with another woodworker for hours when he gets a new piece of machinery, discussing what it can do.

“I want to know how to do things the best way,” Woolard notes, and says that he looks for the same kind of interest in his employees. “You have to think in my shop.”

After all, when someone wants you to make the front door for their $14 million home, “You can’t get much more flattering that that,” he says.

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