From Lumberyard to Millwork Shop — Woodworking Metamorphoses
For the past 56 years, a family-owned West Palm Beach shop has continually changed itself to keep on top of the industry.
By Lisa Whitcomb
Originally a lumberyard, Blumer & Stanton Inc. was founded in 1946 by the current owners’ familial predecessors. However, the lumber business was not as lucrative after WWII as the owners at the time would have liked, so they decided to broaden their prospective client base by “putting a sign out front” to do millwork. The decision proved to be wise, and the West Palm Beach, FL, company has been growing ever since.
In 1947, the shop began fabricating doors and windows. By 1949, after purchasing the necessary equipment, it began to manufacture custom millwork and mouldings as well. “Demand established a customer base here, because the shop could do work that no one else was doing for the high-end residences around here. This was important because the clientele of Palm Beach and Jupiter Island wanted to have something very specialized and very customized for their homes,” Roger Stanton says. He adds that this still is the case. “We are grateful for that, too. It keeps businesses like ours going and wood from being replaced by plastic and polyurethane types of products that can be purchased [for the home].”
Today, after buying the business from their father (who purchased it from his father, uncle and grandfather before him), the shop’s owners, Roger Stanton, his brother, Bill and their sister Marcille, still cater to high-end architectural millwork clients. Roger is the company’s comptroller, while Bill is the shop foreman and Marcille is the chief estimator.
Shop Grows with Machinery & New Services
“Palm Beach and Jupiter Island projects are always interesting to work on, because they are older and larger residences that are historical landmarks,” says Roger Stanton. “[Jobs like these] give us a chance to stretch our legs with our ability to match existing moulding profiles. It is a real asset to us to be able to offer that service.”
The owners decided last year to purchase a Northwood CNC router from Stiles Machinery with a special moulding head and AlphaCam software to increase the production capabilities in these specialty areas. This is in addition to numerous machines already in use at the shop. “Most of them are quite old, but they are heavy-duty and still quite sturdy,” says Bill Stanton. “All they need is to be oiled and have bearings replaced on occasion. You just can’t buy heavy-duty equipment like that anymore.” Among the many pieces are two Wadkin moulders – an XJ and a custom-built high-speed model, two Ogam gang ripsaws, a Joe Hill dust collection system, and a new E-Line three-head, 54-inch sander from BÃÂ¼tfering.
“Owning the Northwood has opened a lot of doors for us. It has also reduced the amount of time that we need to run our shapers, which is safer for the [men in the shop],” Roger Stanton says. “Because of the risk of injury involved while running a shaper, we could only have the highly-skilled tradesmen run them. But with the new CNC, we can train someone who has a basic understanding of wood properties to run it,” he adds.
Blumer & Stanton grinds all of its own knives for the CNC. This allows the shop to produce interior and exterior millwork for radiused casings and mouldings for curved walls faster, in addition to other custom moulding profiles, baseboards, arches, circlehead and elliptical openings.
“Radius work used to be cyclical, but it has come back strong and stayed now. We are grateful for this, because we are well equipped to deal with radiused work,” Stanton says. While this type of manufacturing is the shop’s mainstay, the owners also are taking on some work for other shops in order to promote value-added growth for the business. Stanton says the shop has been able to add these outsourcing functions without interrupting or interfering with its normal production schedule. It can manufacture pre-machined doors and jambs for hinges on the CNC with the aggregate head, handle outsource millwork for other cabinet shops in the area, and cut profiles for “walk-ins.”
“We have noticed an increasing trend in the walk-in business,” says Roger Stanton. He believes that the increase is due in part to lack of selection in the popular home hardware centers. “The offerings [at these stores] are somewhat limited. They are the mostly basic profiles made from fingerjointed pine. We stock over 200 different mouldings and more than a dozen different hand rails.”
“I think that what has happened is the do-it-yourselfer has begun to mature somewhat and now wants something that is going to set his project apart from his neighbor’s. So he comes to a specialty yard like ours where we run other woods like cypress and offer different profiles, “ Roger Stanton adds.
Most exterior millwork is fabricated from mahogany because of its natural longevity. On the interior, prestigious clients like Rusty Wallace, and Ronald and Leonard Lauder, choose to use hardy wood species, such as red and white oak, cherry, soft maple, select white hard maple, select cypress or other exotic species like ebony and pecky cypress. The latter was popular in the fifties and has recently made a comeback in Floridian home fashions. Stanton says that it is commonly used for ceiling panels. “While there has been a return to that look, there are some people who really like it and others who just don’t appreciate its character,” he says.
Residential Projects Include Unusual Jobs
Installation, finishing and glass placement are all things that the shop chooses to outsource, says Roger Stanton. “We think of each as separate businesses and they really are. We figure that our craft is woodworking and we do it well, so we leave the finishing and installation to finishers and installers.”
Occasionally the shop has a call for some unusual projects, like a pair of red oak radiused planters, which were built for a commercial building. The planters encircled glass and stainless steel round elevator shafts. Stanton says that this project required extensive field measuring for each planter in order to match each perfectly to its own elevator shaft.
Another interesting project was a ceiling for a home that was designed by a designer to look like the hull of a sailboat. The intricate radiused ceiling was made from mahogany slats and ribs. Once the pieces were fabricated, Stanton says the modular parts were delivered to the home and assembled on site.
Most millwork fashioned in the shop is machined, but there is also quite a bit of hand work applied. “We still do a lot of things the ‘old-fashioned’ way. Our skilled craftsmen remain our greatest asset,” Stanton says.
Running a Shop in Today’s Economy
“Like most mills, we are not as busy as we were last year,” he says. “I think, though, that we are staying busier than most mills in the area because we had a lot of big projects already going. Once a project is started, the client has to finish it. What we have noticed is that they are scaling back on some of the more luxurious items. They might, for example, put off doing the beach house for another year. “
Millwork in Florida tends to be seasonally cyclical, which is another reason why Stanton says the company decided to outsource its CNC capabilities during off-peak times. With this financial addition, Stanton says he hopes that the winter business will not drop off too much, even though he does expect the walk-in business to decrease in light of the current recession. “People will not get involved in home projects as much, although so far, our walk-in sales have not dropped,” he adds.
Another reason why the shop is trying to diversify itself is because even before September 11, high-end restoration work was declining in Southern Florida. “It really peaked the last couple of years, then it dropped off quite a bit,” Stanton says. “We don’t have new projects starting right now in the quantity that we would like to see them, which [is a ripple effect] from what happened on that day. At the time we had a couple of projects that were in the bidding phase. But following September 11, they were pulled completely, because the owners decided it would be too financially risky right now.”
Business Goals Hearken Back to the Past
“With the low turnover in employees, we are able to work with people who have a high understanding for wood and its characteristics. This really helps us to problem-solve when we are taking on a project,” Stanton says.
Stanton says that his family tries to “extend the family side of the business beyond the ownership of it. So many people have worked here for so long that they are like family. It might seem like a cliche, but it’s true. There is a closeness here.”
During the next 5 to 10 years, Stanton says the shop’s number one priority will be to continue providing high-end custom architectural millwork to its clients, just as his forefathers successfully did in the previous decades before him. “The central themes guiding us day to day are the preservation of that entrepreneurial attitude and keeping the business thriving under our ownership as it did during our father’s time and the founding partners before him.” The shop will also continue to develop and foster its new value-added outsourcing business plan.
The idea that the shop began as a lumberyard and was nimble enough to recreate itself as a millwork company reminds Stanton that he and his siblings must remain ready for change, too, he says. “For our generation, I think that means making smart decisions regarding technology that exists for our industry.” He adds, “It is not enough to just buy a new piece of equipment. It is knowing if that machine will do what you want it to do today. Will it lend itself to the plans you have for your shop in the next few years – can it adapt?”
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