The Art & Technology of Stair Building

A Mokena, IL, stair builder produces custom staircases using state-of-the-art machinery.

By Lisa Whitcomb

     
Artistic Stairs Inc.

Mokena, IL

www.artisticstairsinc.com

Year Founded: 1998

Employees: 34 full time

Shop Size: 16,800 square feet. and an additional 2,400 square feet of showroom and office space.

FYI: Owner Jeff Steiger credits the company’s strong growth in part to his reinvesting profits to purchase new equipment.

 
   
     

 After working 11 years as a finish carpenter, mainly on staircases, Jeff Steiger decided to open his own custom stair building business, Artistic Stairs Inc. of Mokena, IL, in October of 1998.

“My brother and I had been doing a lot of staircase and rail work on the houses where the company also installed the trim work. After the stair work was completed, we would move on to another job while our trim carpenters would install the cabinets, doors and baseboards,” Steiger says. Stair building and installation eventually became the only type of work that he and his brother were doing and that is when Steiger decided to make it his own business.

In the beginning he hired his brother Mike, who still works for him, and current shop foreman Martin Ksiazek, an acquaintance from another stair shop to work with them. “My brother Mike has always worked with me. He is like my right arm,” adds Steiger. The three men worked out of a five-car garage for a couple of months before moving into a 2,400-square-foot facility that the company still occupies today.

However, during the last five years, Steiger has amassed more industrial space in the building he rents from, has taken down the walls and now works in a 16,800-square-foot shop, with an additional 2,400 square feet of office and showroom space. Steiger says that this facility is really just half the space that he needs.

His staff has grown to 34 full-time employees. Steiger’s wife Karen joined the team last August after leaving her employer of 23 years to do the accounting for Artistic Stairs full time. “She had been working full time for someone else and doing the payroll for me in her spare time at home. Eventually it just got to be too much and became a full-time job, so I coaxed her into leaving her other job. It was not easy for her to leave the other company at first. But after a year she is glad to be here and we are thrilled to have her,” he notes.

     
 
Brazilian and American cherry are often selected for use in high-end staircases. The shop will also fabricate the wainscoting and mouldings around the staircase if the homeowner requests it.  
     

 Steiger says the shop’s bottom line has just about doubled every year since its inception. In 2002, the company grossed $2.9 million and he is expecting to break $3.9 million this year. The shop works in a 50-mile radius and never needs to advertise. All work is procured through word-of-mouth transactions between homeowners, builders, architects and designers. Ninety-eight percent of the stairs the shop builds are for new homes and 2 percent are remodels.

Styling Custom Staircases to Fit the Space

Staircases are an integral part of any home. They can be functional as well as beautiful, and they can be delightfully unique. A stairway’s style can be influenced by the homeowners’ taste, the home’s architectural design or a photograph that inspires Steiger when he is designing. Steiger says his initial drawings are made in AlphaCAM,where tool paths are applied and then output to the appropriate machines. AutoCAD is used for “blueprint” drawings that the shop installers use to complete each staircase.

“On the really high-end staircases, I like to bow the treads, or put two or three different radiuses into a design to make the treads curl around quicker and be wider at the bottom,” Steiger says. While the straight staircase is the most popular in the mid-level ($400,000 to $600,000) home, the sweeping or circular staircase is the most in demand for high-level ($600,000 and up) custom homes. That trend is changing somewhat today, as mid-level homes also upgrade to sweeping staircases.

Spiral staircases are not as common, because they cannot be a home’s primary means of aggress due to square footage considerations and also when moving items to another floor. “Our most difficult stair to build is the elliptical stair. This is because every tread on the staircase is different, there are no repeating measurements,” he adds.

Red oak is most popular in the mid-level homes while maple, walnut, white oak and Brazilian cherry woods are preferred by the high-level homeowners. However, Steiger says the shop will use whatever is specified to build a staircase and railing system.

“We are also getting a lot of requests for Lyptus which is distributed through Weyerhaeuser. It is a cost-affordable substitute for genuine Honduras mahogany. It is a genetically altered wood species that is harder than mahogany and custom homeowners love it,” he says.

“Homeowners are better educated and are always trying to be trend setters, especially in the high-end homes,” he adds. “Builders want to meet their demands and offer their clients something more than the average homeowner is getting. So the pressure falls on us, and we are constantly being pushed to come up with something different, something new.”

       
 
The decorative, non-traditional iron railing is complemented by the design on the stringers and accentuated by the thick, spiraled newel post and sweeping lower steps.  
       

 Steiger says he likes the drive his clients place on him for new, innovative designs because he is a forward thinker. One special design feature that Steiger offers his clients is wood patterns inlaid on the stair treads. “It is something that I came up with shortly after I purchased our CNC router,” he says. “No one else was offering it.”

High-Tech in the Shop

All stair parts, rails, balusters and newel posts are milled and machined in the shop. Iron balusters are purchased from outside sources.

The company purchases all of its baluster blanks and turns them in the shop. “We used to outsource our turnings, but in April of this year we invested in the equipment to bring the task in-house,” Steiger says. Steiger owns his own delivery truck and currently has nine installers to assemble staircases.

In addition to the Routech Record 240 CNC router, the shop has accumulated several pieces of high-tech equipment that help it run more efficiently, Steiger says, including an Intorex CNX 1600 CNC lathe and 8-spindle turning sander and a Raimann KMV gang/rip saw with a computer-controlled moving blade.

     
 
Decorative staircases like this one are designed to fit an interior’s space and reflect a homeowner’s taste. This staircase is made dramatic by a lower landing which breaks up the path of the treads, adding visual interest to the room. The box newel posts are hard maple with walnut inlays.  
     

 The shop also has a Costa & Grissom KAW 52-inch planer sander, two Omga FP5000 stops, a Taylor 10-section, 16-foot automated clamp carrier, an SCMI Superset 23 XL moulder, a Hapfo AP 7000 hydraulic lathe, a Weima horizontal grinder and several Omga radial arm saws and chop saws.

A Northtech fingerjointing line was recently purchased so waste wood can be turned into handrails, Steiger says. The shop has several planers, joiners and table saws in operation and recently installed a new Omga T520NC optimizing defect saw in October. Steiger says that the new machine will defect out knots and yield the highest output possible for a board.

“The first machine we bought was to replace an employee that we transferred out to do installation work. We have been adding equipment ever since. I have found that using automated machinery gives me more quality control over the final product,” he says.

Steiger has his shop laid out into three work cell areas — a formation that he says is beneficial to teaching employees how to run the high-tech equipment. In the first cell, lumber is turned into treads or hand rails through basic mill ripping, crosscutting, gluing and moulding. In the second cell, workers are busy with sanding and assembly of stairs and handrails. In the last cell, balusters, newel posts and support columns are manufactured, as well as other custom turnings.

Deciding to stock the shop with a little over $1 million worth of technology was a twofold decision, Steiger says. “Since finding skilled woodworkers who are also stair builders is almost impossible, I decided to go with machine-oriented production because the quality of the different parts produced can be controlled. Also, investing in the equipment has led to a tremendous increase in output. The accuracy of the machines cannot be matched by a man,” he says, adding, “The best part is whatever I draw and design can be machined. I know that it will be engineered correctly, and the geometries of the staircase will be accurate. And I can take that responsibility out of someone else’s hands, making me ultimately responsible for the project.”

Eventually Steiger says that he would like to develop an intranet in the shop and network all of the office computers to the computer-controlled machines. ”Better, faster, stronger — the technology is already here and the future is limitless,” he adds.

Business has been strong. “We can hardly keep up with the orders that have been coming in, and when the economy turns around we won’t be able to,” Steiger says. That is why he is looking into building his own facility on the far south side of Chicago. “It is not our main focus right now, but in two to three years we want to move out of this facility. My intention is to double our current shop size and put up a 40,000-square-foot building,” he says. “With the amount of work that is out there, we could be three times the size of company we are now if we have the shop space and employee base to support it.”

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