Back to the Future
An Illinois company uses modern technology to revisit a centuries-old style of stair building.
"What's old is new again" may be a cliche, but it still holds true for Jeff Steiger of Artistic Stairbuilders Inc. in Mokena, IL. High-tech software and equipment has enabled the company to manufacture staircases in a manner that has not been commonly done since the early 1900s. Furthermore, the company is now able to create extremely small radius handrails, which, prior to installation of the new software and equipment, seemed nearly impossible.
Steiger was previously featured in a November 2003 article of CWB, which discussed his high-tech shop equipment, such as the Routech Record 240 CNC router and the Intorex CNX 1600 CNC lathe. Since then, he has added a 5-axis CNC router, the SCM R200 Robot and an additional woodturning CNC lathe, the Intorex CNX 1300. In addition, Artistic Stairbuilders installed Compass Stair Design software from E & R Systems Inc.
These new upgrades have allowed Artistic Stairbuilders to fabricate staircases in a manner that few stair builders in the United States can duplicate, Steiger says. Mainly because few stair-building shops own a 5-axis CNC router and fewer still are linked with Compass Stair Design software, he adds.
"We have the third SCM 5-axis Robot in the states," he says. "And, we are the first in the states to link Compass Stair Design software with a 3-axis and a 5-axis."
According to Steiger, most European stair builders not only use Compass, but they are very automated and have multiple 3-axis and 5-axis machines. "There are hundreds of these installations in Europe," he says.
Steiger attributes most of the American reluctance for upgrading to cost and to a certain philosophy. "American stair builders, a lot of them, especially the second- or third-generation companies [have the theory that] 'my grandfather did not need it, and I do not need it either.' But when you look at what can be done - it is just outstanding. If you do not have an open mind to the different production methods, I do not see how you could ever advance, how you could ever grow and learn something new. I feel that we are eight to 10 years behind European stair builders."
Creativity Flourishes in a High-Tech Environment
The software and the capabilities of the 5-axis CNC have allowed Steiger to exceed far beyond his imagination, he says. "I would never design stairs like these in the past, because I knew we could not make the parts. But now we do things that really push the limits of the software and the machine. To me, it is like a whole new creative way of designing a custom staircase. The best part is knowing that whatever I design, I can manufacture all the parts I need."
This new technology has allowed Steiger to develop what he calls a new product line. "It is more of a European winded stair, so all of the treads wind throughout the staircase. The American way would be to have a square landing," he says. "What we like to do now is wind the treads throughout the landing and put a real tight radius handrail that will make that transitional turn."
Steiger says that this rail is a continual flowing turn, and it is something that without the software and the 5-axis CNC he would not even consider fabricating.
Revisiting the Roots of American Stair Building
In the past, to get the wreathed handrail parts, stair builders had to carve large blocks of wood. The process is called tangent handrailing, and it is a mathematically precise way of manufacturing curved handrails. That was the preferred method of handrailing in the early 1900s, Steiger says.
However, since the 1900s, Americans have developed a laminate handrailing system, which is more of an approximation of what the handrail should be. It is typically quicker and cheaper to manufacture. "Of course, everyone is looking to save money," Steiger says. "With us going to the 5-axis way of machining handrails, it is really going back to the old way of handrailing. Basically, the 5-axis goes back to the roots of stair building from more than 100 years ago, and it allows you to use solid blocks of wood. So when you look at the top of the handrail, you are looking at one solid block of wood and not a bunch of thin laminations."
Tangent handrailing can still be done using the old manual method, but Steiger says it can be very time consuming and extremely complicated.
For instance, to make a radiused handrail (shown bottom left), it could take a man in the neighborhood of three days just to fabricate two of the pieces, Steiger says.
"Once again, it would be an approximation of what should happen mathematically in that area," he notes.
According to Steiger, one problem that occurs with radiused handrails is that you start to lose detail because it is turning and climbing so fast, and it is being hand-profiled, he says. For example, the radius on the inside of the unfinished handrail, shown bottom left, was less than 4 inches.
"To bend something that tight is very difficult, not only to bend it flat but then to make it climb correctly is very complicated," Steiger says. The piece can be inaccurate mainly due to what he refers to as a tension in the wood or a springing action that occurs when the wood is released from the bending process.
Not only is the process complicated, but Steiger says it also can be dangerous to machine something so small by hand.
"On the old way of laminate bending handrail around the big drum, we would build a wall and rip small strips and laminate them around the wall. As soon as you take the handrail out it springs and it moves just because of the tension in the wood. Now [with our new technology], our rails are cut out of smaller solid blocks of wood, and there is [practically] no movement to them - very little. There is no springing. It is just whatever movement might be in the wood itself, but there is no tension and the rails follow our stairs nearly perfectly."
Because of the high degree of accuracy on the handrails, it makes installation at the job site a lot easier, Steiger adds.
Putting the Pieces Together
Installers for Artistic Stairbuilders assemble most staircases on site. "All of our circular stairs are 99 percent assembled at the job site to fit the job conditions," Steiger says. "I found in my time studies that it is more cost affordable for us, labor-wise, to assemble the stairs at the job site."
The savings can be attributed to the fact that only one journeyman and an apprentice are needed to assemble the pieces on site, as compared to "eight men and a truck driving for 45 minutes to struggle to get the stair in the house," he says.
Another factor for assembling the staircase on site is imperfect field conditions. "Unfortunately, no matter how good the framing carpenters are, the walls are not perfectly plumb, nothing is perfectly level and things are not square," Steiger says. "It is an imperfect world we work in with installations."
Which is all the more reason why the staircases must be machined accurately.
Steiger says his installers initially had trouble trusting that the pieces were correct even with the 5-axis CNC.
"Any time the guys would run into a problem, they would always think, 'The tread is not cut right or maybe the stringer is not cut right,' but they now know and accept the fact that if something is not right, it is nearly always a job site field condition that we do not have control over. The parts are 100 percent correct and they know that now," he says.
Part of the thrill for Steiger's installers is that nearly no adjustments are necessary on site. "We'll manufacture large 18-foot circular handrails that will be cut at the top and the bottom and when they get to the field they just assemble the railing and never have to do any cutting or fitting. It still amazes me. It is because of the software and the machine," Steiger says.
Sales have increased steadily for Artistic Stairbuilders, as evidenced by the company's inclusion in Wood & Wood Product's Wood 100 list for the past two years. For 2004, the company reported sales of $4.159 million, and it seems to be on course for another good year.
"Sales for us have been outstanding," Steiger says. "We have actually been turning down work since mid-July last year. But it has been awesome. I think a lot of what this is, is we build a different type of stair then our local competitors."
Steiger says radius work accounts for approximately 40 percent of sales. "Our manufacturing chain of events with the 5-axis has completely changed things," he adds.
Bringing in the Union
Besides Artistic Stairbuilders' recent technological advances, since CWB last spoke to the company, it also has become a union contractor. The company is part of Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, which branches out as far as Iowa and southern Wisconsin.
Steiger says being part of the union has affected the company in many ways, namely in giving it the freedom to work any where because most larger builder projects are union. Also, it has allowed the company to provide a more attractive work environment, as well as a competitive pay and retirement package.
Artistic Stairbuilders now has 36 full-time employees with 11 installers on the street. Steiger says the union contract has helped him attract some of the top stair building craftsmen in the area because workers now think of their positions as more of a career and not just a job, especially with the benefits the union offers.
Other modifications for the company in the past couple of years include the addition of 9,000 square feet of showroom/office space. Steiger says the size of the showroom was basically doubled, and he is planning to add three new displays that will feature winded staircases fabricated with the 5-axis CNC. The company is now up to a total of 25,800 square feet.
Perhaps the most notable of recent changes would be the company's name. At the beginning of last year, Steiger says he changed the name and logo to reflect the company's new union contractor image. Previously, the company was known as Artistic Stairs Inc.
Future Trends and Goals
Steiger states he is starting to see a trend of more custom wood balusters. "Four years ago we were doing relatively none of that. Now we are starting to get requests for custom [wood] styles. I hope that is a future trend, that in five to six years, we will be back to more wood than iron. I think [the customers] have seen the iron. They have had the iron and now are going back to [wood]."
Steiger also has been looking at other types of software, like Artcam. He is interested in how he might be able to apply it to carved newel posts. "I think that eventually, when I have time that I can dedicate to experimenting, we would like to purchase Artcam to use on the 5-axis machine, like on a round, cylinder type of post so we can get the carving detail into the post, which I think would be an excellent option. [Our capability now] blows my mind!"
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