Millworker Builds a Reputation for Creative Solutions

Bill Lutes finds answers to unusual design problems for customers in the Portland, OR, area.

By Renee Stern

People turn to Lutes Custom Woodworking and Design Consultants to handle out-of-the-ordinary architectural projects and design problems.

Staircases are a hallmark of the Canby, OR, architectural woodworking business, and owner Bill Lutes points with pride to pictures of one of his most challenging jobs: a curved staircase in American cherry built with a single stair jack.

It started with a homeowner’s simple drawing of what he wanted the staircase to look like and a request for Lutes to engineer it, if possible. Apparently everyone else who had seen the drawing said it couldn’t be built, though Lutes didn’t learn that until later.

“That’s how I got the job,” he says. “Because I found a way.”

In order to support the weight of the staircase with one stair jack, he cantilevered it, running the stringer into the floor an additional eight feet. He has used the technique to build similar staircases since then.

Lutes not only builds creations from his own designs, he also works as a design consultant for others. And although he doesn’t have the certification to put an engineering stamp on his designs, architects who know of his specialty frequently come to him to engineer a difficult staircase. Lutes says that the marriage of engineering know-how, an artistic eye and in-depth craftsmanship is what sets his work apart.

     
 
This curved staircase is topped off by a suspended box-beam grid in a 16-foot-diameter turret on the ceiling. Both are in vertical grain natural cherry. The project was designed in collaboration with RCI, an interior design firm in Seattle, WA, and engineered and produced by Lutes Custom Woodworking. Photos by Diana Welch.  
     

Lutes grew up around woodworkers. His grandfather was a boat builder and his uncle a general contractor; Lutes worked for both of them, drawing a summer paycheck from his uncle from the time he was nine years old.

But his original career plans focused on wildlife management, with a degree in biology. Jobs in that field were scarce when he graduated, so he returned to woodworking, intending it to be a temporary measure. He started out as a finish carpenter in California’s Napa Valley, then moved to the Portland area in 1979 to open his own business.

The courses he took in engineering, math and physics proved valuable in unanticipated ways in his new career. He says they give him an edge when it comes to designing and building projects like staircases or an octagonal floating box-beam grid that supports a 700-pound chandelier, which he built in a turret above one of his staircases.

The engineering principles behind that hand-carved teak structure are similar to a geodesic dome, he says. The 16-foot-diameter grid creates a dome that floats under the turret, with high beams reaching up to the peak of the structure. Lutes created several elements for that house, from exterior mouldings and a carved door to the staircase beneath the chandelier grid, in what turned into a $1 million project.

Most of his work is for clients in the Pacific Northwest, but he “dips down” into the San Francisco Bay area to take advantage of contacts he made while he was there. Several Hawaiian homes incorporate his staircases, while other jobs have taken him to Phoenix, Boston and Tennessee.

A Web site (www.lutescw.com) that includes portfolio photos has brought in some of the more distant jobs. In one case, the homeowner was seeking something beyond the local builder’s baluster options and liked the look of one of Lutes’ examples.

“Probably 50 percent of my clients are homeowners who come to me for extras,” he says. An initial contact for one item, typically a staircase, often snowballs into a bigger project, which can include paneling, doors, fireplace mantels, mouldings and other architectural features.

     
 
While Lutes Custom Woodworking is well known for its staircases, it often builds other architectural millwork as well. This carved mantle is in the master bedroom of a private home. It features white oak and walnut with a fruitwood stain. Photo by Diana Welch.  
     

“It can be touchy,” Lutes says. “You have to be careful in how you step in to work with the builder. I try to be understanding. I try to stay balanced in the middle.”

That balancing act seems to work, since his bread-and-butter customers are area builders who bring him into high-end projects. He produces work for both residential and commercial clients; the commercial jobs have included wood railings for a new building at the University of Oregon in Eugene, handrails at Multnomah Falls Lodge in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, and work on an historical restoration for Widmer Brothers Brewing Company headquarters in Portland.

The Widmer project included hand-turned balusters to match the original profile and required minute attention to detail. Bringing an old building back to life is absorbing, he says, especially compared to working on a neoclassical reproduction, where labor costs frequently trump much of the extra detail work.

“So much of design work is driven by price,” Lutes says. Average jobs run around $40,000, although he has billed single-ticket items as high as $1 million. He advertises through his Web site and the phone book, as well as occasional mailings to previous clients, mainly builders. But repeat business tends to keep him busy with a four- or five-month backlog.

Currently he has three employees, though he has staffed his shop with as many as 12 in the past. “All it did was add headaches, and I ended up with the same net profit,” he says.

At least five new companies have come out of his shop, as former employees started their own businesses. Lutes uses their expertise to bolster his own resources, networking with them and other shops. For instance, he may craft a single door in-house, but if a client wants to furnish a whole house with his custom door design, he prefers to turn the job over to a door manufacturer.

He also does not consider Lutes Custom Woodworking to be a cabinet shop. Instead, he sends his designs for box work to one of two different companies, based on their specialties. Likewise, he owns a Williams & Hussey moulder that can handle up to 200 feet of mouldings, but for big jobs he turns to a company that specializes in the work.

“That’s the secret to longevity — to network and create lasting connections with people in the field,” he says.

     
 
This single stair jack freestanding circular staircase is in natural cherry. Engineering of the stairway required that the stair jack continue through the floor an additional eight feet. Photo by Dave Rowland.  
     

In another sense, longevity means refining your style and settling into a comfortable niche, rather than creating a brand-new design for every job, he says, comparing it to the way a musician builds a repertoire with experience. However, that doesn’t preclude his taking on customers who seek something new and different.

“But not every client is that way,” Lutes says. “There are a few who are willing to stick their necks out and say ‘design anything.’ Most people need samples or at least photos to help visualize a design.”

The security of having an established business allows Lutes to gravitate toward projects he wants to do, rather than projects that simply pay the bills. “I find that I’m doing more and more of the work I love to do,” he says.

What he loves is designing and focusing on the artistry of the work. Roughly a quarter of his time is spent at the computer, working on designs for his own production or as a consultant.

When it comes to his own production, he insists on doing his own measurements on-site. For staircases, that is best done during the house’s framing stage, so the staircase can be built and be ready to ship when it’s needed, rather than holding up everyone else.

“It also helps to diminish a poor framing job,” he says. He can create smoother and more even arcs in the shop than are possible in the field, he adds.

The most common wood he works with these days is natural American cherry, followed by maple and red and white oak. Walnut is regaining popularity, Lutes says, thanks to the rising cost of cherry.

Mahogany is one of the exotic woods he uses regularly. He works with a Portland-area hardwood importer, who primarily sources from Chile and other parts of South America. He also uses woods such as coigue, a close match for natural cherry, along with rauli, lenga and tepa.

Although he says he is not a veneer specialist, Lutes says that he produces enough marquetry to earn repeat business. Among his marquetry projects are full ceilings and inlaid furniture. Hand-carved details also are popular in Lutes’ creations.

He also gets creative with his own shop equipment, much of which comes from Grizzly Industrial, and has customized many machines. He says the Williams & Hussey moulder, an object of frequent modifications, is one of his more versatile tools. An open side allows him to create custom, curved and large crown mouldings, the latter by running them through at a 45-degree angle.

Lutes’ tinkering has produced helpful tools of his own design as well. He also developed his own method to simplify building forms for staircase parts — it sets a series of reusable studs against a plywood platform that raises and lowers from the shop ceiling on an electric hoist. Before developing the platform, building forms that bend in a spiral rather than horizontally was a challenge, he says.

The studs are custom-laminated so they stay true and don’t warp, he adds. He says he experimented with steel studs, but found them too heavy and hard to manipulate in the necessary straights and curves.

Another homemade tool is an infeed/outfeed table with adjustable legs to support wood running through a saw and eliminate any bounce that might affect the cut. “This helps it slide off gently,” Lutes says.

Once again, Lutes finds a solution.

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