Something to A 'Door'

A Lake Tahoe area company preserves the past by fabricating solid wood doors reminiscent of 1930s-style craftsmanship.

By Michaelle Bradford
G.C. Construction and Woodworks Inc.

Truckee, CA

Year Founded: 1984

Employees (woodworking shop): 3

Shop Size: 3,200 square feet

FYI: G.C. Construction started in 1984 as a building contractor. Now the company not only builds homes and remodels, but also fabricates custom doors, windows, cabinetry and other specialty items.

The Lake Tahoe region, a timeless treasure of rustic beauty nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, is home to a number of nostalgic and charming cabins and lakefront estates. Many of these estates were built during the late 1920s and 1930s when newly paved mountain roads allowed Bay area residents greater access to higher mountain elevations.

These early homes were built in the "Old Tahoe Style" with wide open, high-beamed ceilings and wooden trusses, large stone fireplaces, visible joinery, and stone and wooden interiors and exteriors. Another prominent feature of the classic Tahoe style is the solid wood entry door.

For G.C. Construction and Woodworks Inc., located just north of Lake Tahoe in the historic mountain town of Truckee, CA, solid wood doors are a specialty.

According to Gary Collignon, president, G.C. Construction and Woodworks' doors are made of solid wood with no artificial products.

"We don't compete with the door manufacturers because we can't," he says. "They offer a broad range of nice manufactured doors to choose from for less then we can make them, but those [doors] are laminate products."

Collignon says that his clients like the idea of solid wood doors. "You order a cherry door, and it's a cherry door," he says. "That's what they want, plus it's a one-off."

Because G.C. Construction and Woodworks' doors are all custom designed and built, there is no "typical" door, Collignon says. "Our designs are all different."

Above, G.C. Construction and Woodworks Inc. fabricated the doors and windows on this new boathouse to match an "Old Tahoe Estate." It features v.g. douglas fir doors and sugar pine casement windows.

For most jobs, Collignon says the company does just the main entry doors and not the interior ones, but it really depends on the client's budget. A basic entry-level door can start at $2,800 and from there "the sky is the limit, based on design and material," he adds.

Collignon says he does most of the designs himself. Then he sits down with his shop manager, Kevin Sisto and shop foreman, Simon Thornton to determine how long it will take to fabricate the door. Most doors take a week to manufacture, but Collignon says the time frame can vary based on the difficulty of the door's design.

Preserving the Past

G.C. Construction started in 1984 as a general building contractor. Collignon says he built his own homes - several were specs that he designed. Soon the company began getting client work, which eventually led to remodeling and add-ons for older lakefront homes. His clients wanted the remodeling and additions to blend with the original construction.

"They wanted to add on and make their homes bigger, but they didn't want to change the look and charm of the place," he says. "So we started matching what was done in the past, and it was very hard to tell the new from the old."

A difficulty Collignon faced is that a lot of the components, like windows, doors and cabinetry, had been built on site by the original carpenters and were no longer built the same way. So jobs were hard to source out.

"[We couldn't] find people who would do it," he says. As a result, G.C. Construction's woodworking shop was developed to deal with that need.

A G.C. Construction and Woodworks- designed knotty alder door with red birch square peg accents.

Collignon says the company now does a high volume of subcontract work itself. Over the past year, it was nearly 50 percent of the company's business.

However, Collignon adds that he has had to convince other general contractors to use his company for subcontract work.

"Some of the contractors are a little bit afraid to use us because I'm [also] a building contractor," he says. "They don't want to lose their client. But I convince them that, 'We're here to be a part of what you're doing. We're not going to take any of your work or clients away. We just want to help you through the process.'"

Collignon believes that his experience as a building contractor gives him an advantage over normal cabinet, door and window subcontractors because he understands the challenges a contractor faces with delays. He also knows that if corrections need to be made during installation, his workers are able to handle it because of that experience.

It's All Material

To achieve the ambience for which many mountain homes are renowned, a variety of materials can be used, Collignon says. For older lakefront homes, pine and fir are the most requested woods.

"For some of the newer homes that are trying to look special or look like an older home, we use alder and cherry," he adds. "But we use a wide range of wood - pretty much anything the client wants and what might go with their house and design and the look they're after."

The Sierra Nevadas are known for their rapidly changing weather conditions, especially during the winter months. More than a foot of snow can fall overnight. Because of the extreme climate, special precautions have to be taken with the materials.

Shown above is a new addition to match an existing "Old Tahoe Estate" in 1930s style, featuring stonework, sugar pine casement windows and shutters, v.g. douglas fir beam wraps to conceal steel beam and v.g. douglas fir garage doors with shop milled siding.

"We have to make sure the wood we're using is as dry as we can get it here in our shop. We have an upper level where we lay it out for about two weeks and let it dry after we surface it," Collignon says.

G.C. Construction and Woodworks does not do any finishing on site, so "after [the doors] leave the shop, we make it clear to the contractor or finisher that we immediately have to get something on [them] to protect [them]," Collignon says.

Not only must the material be properly sealed to keep moisture from warping products such as doors, but proper consideration also must be given to ensure that material for use in the trusses and ceilings meet earthquake and snow-load requirements.

"We have the earthquake standards to deal with that everyone in the Bay area has to deal with, as well as the snow, which can get up to 20 feet deep." Snow loads vary depending on elevation, but can be anywhere from 190 pounds per square foot to 500 pounds per square foot.

Collignon says that he tries to make his remodeling of doors, cabinets and casework as authentic as possible, but it can be a tough task in the overall project because of the major engineering required to meet the seismic and snow standards.

"We have big pieces of steel and glue lam that we have to hide and make them look like wood, so what we also do here is beam wraps. We have a steel beam that's required in the structure of a building - we do a wrap out of wood and make it look like a beam," he says.

Having the Right 'Fit'

Collignon plans to grow G.C. Construction and Woodworks by increasing the volume of work in the shop. "We've been successful in moving that way," he says. "The word is getting out [about our subcontract capabilities]."

Sales for the woodworking shop last year were approximately $450,000, and construction sales were around $1 million, Collignon says. The past five years were good for the shop, and Collignon believes that sales for next year will be even stronger. "When the economy is up, we get a lot of work [for our custom doors]," he says. "When the economy is down, [people typically] go with door manufacturers."

Running a shop can be expensive and one of the challenges Collignon foresees deals with tooling.

"We can't have everything," he says. Over time he has determined what equipment is needed for the shop to maintain its "flow." "Before we make the move to the next tool, we have to decide if it's going to pay for itself."

Location, Location, Location

G.C. Construction and Woodworks Inc. is located in a very visible area. Not only is the company near the downtown area of historic Truckee, CA, but it also is tucked alongside the bubbling Truckee River at the base of a tree-lined slope.

From the glistening mountain-top snow in the winter to the gurgling, clear water flowing over rocks lodged in the bottom of the river, Gary Collignon, president, could not ask for a better view or location for his company.

Truckee has a rich history as being the gateway through the Sierra Nevadas to the gold mines of California. A local museum pays homage to the Donner Party, infamously remembered for being trapped in the mountains during a snowstorm in 1846. The town also is well known for its ties to railroad construction in the region.

That rich history and the rustic beauty of its surroundings give the town its present-day appeal. Collignon says that Truckee is now growing "by leaps and bounds" because of the new high-end subdivisions in the area, bringing more business for the company as well.

"Truckee is a booming growth town. As for visibility - I couldn't get more visible than this spot. Also, it's kind of central, so when we work over at the lake [Tahoe], it's not that far away."

Collignon moved his company to its current spot in 2000. He fixed up the building, an old warehouse, to match the scenic beauty of the surrounding area. "Just because it's industrial doesn't mean it has to look ugly," he says.

Current shop machinery includes an SCMI widebelt sander, jointer, shaper/tenoner, as well as table saws, Porter-Cable routers, jigs and the usual small shop tools.

For the construction of its doors, Collignon says, "We use mortise and tenon on shop jigs for stable joints."

The router is used to cut "nice, clean holes," says Thornton, shop foreman, as he describes the manufacturing process. "From there, we undo the clamps and slide the stile in after everything is sized down. Once the hole is established, we [use] the tenoner to cut tenons to match the hole. The mortise is cut first and then the tenon is cut to the appropriate width."

Because the doors the company fabricates are one-off products and are usually based on replications from the 1930s, the shop has to develop its own jigs to match as closely as possible "what was done in the past," Collignon says.

"Sometimes what we've done is to take the pattern of what was built or design around what was built and make it look like that type of door.

"We will figure out the shape [of the jig], and we will design it here in the shop to fit our equipment. We sometimes have to design cutters for our shapers," he says.

The designs are drawn up and then sent out so tooling can be made to match what is needed. It can cost as much as $1,500 for a set of cutters just to make one door, Collignon notes.

It is that painstaking attention to detail and the ability to preserve the original look of a home while adding modern updates that have helped G.C. Construction and Woodworks continue to grow over the past 22 years.

"We build the way it was, the way it is...the way you want," Collignon says.


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