Horse Tracks and Hobbyists

Louisville Lumber & Millwork applies its dedication to quality and service to projects of all sizes, from large millwork jobs to 10 feet of moulding.

By Sam Gazdziak

When a family business is passed along to a new generation, the company’s success can depend on whether or not the new owner actually wants the job, or is being forced into the family business. Fortunately for Kentucky’s Louisville Lumber & Millwork, Ed Brewer says he has sawdust in his blood.

“I’m in the business because, being in the family, you get drawn in,” says Brewer, who is the third generation of Brewers to run the company. “But if I didn’t do this, what else would I do? I really like to work in this industry. If I wasn’t working here, I’d probably be working for somebody else in the industry.”

Louisville Lumber & Millwork has had several projects for Churchill Downs race track in Louisville, KY, from the dining room overlooking the track to the jockeys’ locker rooms.  

Louisville Lumber & Millwork was co-founded by Henry Brewer in 1935. His sons, Eugene and Gerald, took over operations in the 1950s and remain semi-active in the business. Ed Brewer has been president for two years and was vice president/CEO before that, but he has worked in the company since high school.

“In a family business, titles don’t necessarily mean anything,” he adds. “I don’t sit behind my desk very often. I’m still drawing or putting material in the shop or going out to jobs and measuring.”

Through its 66 years, Louisville Lumber has had and continues to have a wide variety of custom architectural millwork projects. Clients include the two main horse racing tracks in Kentucky, Churchill Downs in Louisville and Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, along with the KFC headquarters, the General Jackson Showboat in Nashville and the Aegon Center office building in downtown Louisville.

Along with its production capabilities, Brewer emphasizes the service-oriented nature of the company. “If we’re on a job, we’re out there trying to be a partner in the project and not just a supplier,” he says. Louisville Lumber’s engineers can work through projects with architects to make the best engineered products. The company also will work with material requested by the client, even if it creates occasional headaches.

While doing some work for a renovation of Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville for example, the company was asked to make wainscot from some 100-year-old church pews. Not only were the pews stained and made of various sizes, they were full of tacks and nails. “Nails and machinery don’t go well together,” Brewer says, “and it took us a long time and several processes to get the product the customer desired without injuring anyone or tearing down my machinery.” The company bought a metal detector and ran it over the boards to find the parts that were the most infested. The remaining boards had to be worked on by hand with planers and shapers, instead of just being run through a moulder.

Most of Louisville Lumber’s work is in commercial buildings. This is the lobby of First Federal Savings Bank in Elizabethtown, KY.  

The “Lumber” in Louisville Lumber & Millwork does not mean that the company is a lumber yard. It does have a large lumber shed though, with some 20 different species in stock. “We try to keep it on hand so we can service quick orders,” Brewer explains.

Louisville Lumber does sell lumber to do-it-yourselfers. Brewer says that some species, like mahogany and cherry, can be difficult to find for part-time woodworkers. Plus, he adds that the wood Louisville Lumber offers is first-quality, kiln-dried wood. He adds that the do-it-yourself market is only about five percent of Louisville Lumber’s overall sales, but it will continue to offer it as a service.

The company also runs mouldings for others. “For historic renovations, you may need 10 feet of moulding to match some old moulding that was in the house,” Brewer says. “We’ll set up and run 10 feet of moulding. It may be pricey per foot, because I’m only running 10 feet, but I’ll do it.” There are two Weinig moulders on the shop floor. One four-year-old Hydromat 23 has a fast set-up time, and a 20-year-old model has a universal head and can run intricate patterns.

The large majority of the work remains custom architectural millwork for commercial buildings, including schools, courthouses, hospitals and office buildings. Work can vary from office boardrooms and stile-and-rail wall paneling to elevator interiors and staircase rails and trim. The company also frequently works on renovations of historic buildings in Kentucky.

This two-story lobby for the Aegon Center in Louisville was made with cherry and walnut burl-clad curved panels. Louisville Lumber also made millwork for several floors in the building, along with the elevator interiors.  

Louisville Lumber has been very active in Kentucky’s two race tracks, building jockey locker rooms, restaurant millwork, office cabinets and foodservice counters. The company also made the millwork for the Derby Museum at Churchill Downs and the old library at Keeneland. Brewer says the company is currently manufacturing walnut cabinetry for Keeneland’s new library.

Brewer calls the architectural millwork field erratic, so to create a consistent client base, Louisville Lumber has also taken on what he calls industrial accounts, “where we can provide a piece or a part to somebody, and we know that so many parts are needed every month.”

For example, Louisville Lumber makes the pool rails for Steepleton pool tables, also manufactured in Louisville. “All we’re doing is gluing up poplar and red oak to run a pool rail,” Brewer says. “The customer’s craftsmen do all the machining. We’re just running blanks.” The rails can be all solid poplar, to which Steepleton applies a laminate. They also make two-part rails, where oak, maple or cherry is glued to the poplar base.

Louisville Lumber’s headquarters has had a varied history. The original building was destroyed in a fire in 1949 and had to be rebuilt. Then in 1969 it had to move from its original location because of urban renewal. A highway expansion in 1981 forced the company to move its offices to the opposite side of the building. As it stands now, Louisville Lumber has 37,000 square feet of space, including a two-story office, and 33 employees. Last year, the company had $3 million in sales.

Brewer has plans to make production more efficient by adding some much-needed CNC equipment in the near future. Except for the Weinig moulder and a two-year-old Holzma panel saw, employees work with older machinery. “We use AutoCAD, and we’re computer-driven in the office, but I don’t have any computer-driven equipment in the shop,” Brewer says. “I think that’s important, and it’s on our corporate plan to upgrade.”

Brewer is a member of the Architectural Woodwork Institute Board of Directors and is a believer in AWI’s quality standards. While he plans to modernize the production capabilities, he says he wants to continue to run the business by the traditional concepts of a family atmosphere, quality and service.

“Today, we’re in a world where everything’s fast-paced,” Brewer says. “We try to go out and work with the clients and give a personal side to anything we do. I believe eventually, things will go back to people looking for a service-oriented company.”

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