North Carolina Shop Builds Stairway ‘Stars’

Staircases built by Masterpiece Woodworking often play a dramatic role in the foyers of million-dollar homes in the Charlotte area.

By Hannah Miller

     
 
This 22-foot stairway was installed at Park Meridian Bank in Charlotte, NC. For staircases this large, Masterpiece rents a tractor-trailer to get the stringers to the site in one piece. Photo by Leslie Wrightnow  
     

The dramatic, distinctive staircases built by Masterpiece Woodworking of Stallings, NC, are often the stars of the $1 million-plus homes they grace. They draw all eyes upward as they soar, twist and turn. Combined with balconies and landings, they can span much of a house or, in the case of one memorable job, climb five stories.

From homeowners visiting the job site with cameras to construction crews laying down their hammers to watch as trucks carrying the stringers arrive, the stairs draw audiences even before they are complete.

It’s just not the same as watching windows being installed, says president and co-owner Mike Smith. “It’s one of the things people really get excited about,” he says.

Projects can run from an $800 “carpet-grade” staircase to stairways worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and annual sales are around $1.8 million. About 75 percent of Masterpiece’s work is staircases. The company, co-owned by Smith and home builder Stan Elrod, also does mantels, millwork and some furniture, usually as add-ons to staircase jobs.

Most of the work is high-end, but Smith points out that “our $3,000 staircase is built with the same materials and by the same people as our $30,000 staircase.”

Masterpiece practices traditional stair-making, according to Smith — staircases stand alone without framing, depending on engineering for their strength. “We’re doing them the same way they’ve been done for 300 years,” he says. “I equate it to a period piece of furniture.”

“You can jump on it and it won’t bounce,” says Elrod, whose Elrod Construction Co. operates independently of Masterpiece. “It’s just as solid as jumping on a floor.”

Joinery is by screws and glue and, Elrod says, “You can’t get a razor blade between the joints.”

Smith says he developed his reverence for craftsmanship during 15 years working with one of the area’s best-known furniture-making families, the McSwains of McSwain’s Handmade Furniture in Charlotte. He started with them when he was 15 years old.

When he contemplated moving to Masterpiece as shop foreman a decade ago, he says he checked out the company’s production methods and was satisfied. “I felt this was something I would be happy doing,” he says.

“We literally manufacture every piece, every component, that goes in our staircases,” he adds. They range from decorative brackets to complicated parts of the handrail, like volutes and easings.

In some cases, Masterpiece’s machinist, Tom Greenway, carves profiles into custom components using scrapers he’s made with a Dayton bench grinder. “Not too many people hand-grind knives anymore,” Greenway says. “I guess my talents are going the way of the buggy whip.”

When radius and pitch are called for in an easing, Greenway cuts the blank, then makes the first cut with an SCMI T-110 spindle shaper or a hand-held Porter-Cable router. He sometimes uses his own custom-designed router bits and will often finish the profile with a custom scraper wielded by hand. “It will never be used on another stair,” he says.

Other shop equipment includes a DeWalt 15-inch cut-off saw, BMT shaper, Powermatic widebelt sander, six Hitachi 10-inch sliding compound miter saws, Crouch edge sander, two Hitachi 15-inch miter saws and an 8-inch jointer, RC-63D 24-inch planer, 20-inch bandsaw and two 10-inch Unisaws, all from Delta.

The 15 woodworkers and installers on the 18-person staff work off measurements taken by the sales manager and drawings produced using CAD/CAM software. The custom builders and homeowners they work for sometimes choose designs from Masterpiece’s photo album, but other times submit their own ideas.

     
 
Masterpiece’s Jon Newbury and Dwayne Forbis hand-carved this mantel.  
     

Once drawings are made, Masterpiece does an extra step that Elrod says “takes extra time, but pays a dividend.” Employees draw a full-size, two-dimensional layout of the stair on pieces of 1/4-inch plywood, which they haul to the job site and put together in order to show the builder, the homeowner (and themselves) the precise outline.

This is the time to iron out potential problems, like stairs that come too close to a door, Elrod says. “Problem prevention is cheaper than problem solving,” he says. The on-site demonstration also clarifies for Masterpiece’s shop personnel what they will be doing and gives the homeowner a feeling of ownership for the job.

Back in the 10,000-square-foot shop, the mockup is laid on the floor and a drum, or temporary lumber framework, is built on it. Within the drum, the stringers are made in the required shape and elevation, using a skin of solid 1/4-inch poplar to which three pieces of 1/4-inch plywood are laminated. Treads are cut and fitted. Self-supporting staircases are strengthened underneath each tread by a laminated arrangement of 16 pieces of 1/4-inch plywood.

Mahogany, cherry, Brazilian cherry and antique heart pine are woods most frequently used for stairways. The heart pine is used in treads to match heart-pine floors.

Even at the high end, some projects stand out more than others. Masterpiece had only a photo to go on when asked to build a replica of the famed circular “Miraculous Staircase” in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, NM. Its reproduction, used in a March of Dimes/Interior Design Society show house in Charlotte earlier this year, turns 360 degrees in 11 feet.

“It’s tight,” Smith says, so tight that the rail had to be hand-carved by Greenway. Sheetrock wouldn’t curve to fit the underside, so the homebuilder used plaster, faux-finished to look like wood.

Masterpiece does few commercial projects, but did take a job for a bank, an impressive, 22-foot, curving staircase. Elrod took one look and said, “You realize one day they’re going to put the whole board of directors and the staff on there to take a picture.” Smith added extra strength so the stair can hold close to 100 people, rather than just daily traffic.

The company depends on word-of-mouth for its advertising, which is the way it gets its employees as well. “They seek us out,” Smith says.

Employees are cross-trained in different tasks, but one person is designated to lead each project. Two people are responsible for mantels, built-ins and the rest of the non-staircase work.

Smith and Elrod don’t necessarily look for experience in their hires, they say. For example, the lead builder on circular stairs, Pete Mitchell, was driving a truck making deliveries for the company before being trained as a woodworker.

       
Inspired by the “Miraculous Staircase” of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, NM, which was built between 1877 and 1881, this tightly curving stair graced a March of Dimes/Interior Design Society show house in Charlotte, NC. Rail and balusters are mahogany, and treads and stringers are maple. The stair turns 360 degrees within 11 feet, and the turn was so tight that the interior rail had to be hand-carved by Masterpiece machinist Tom Greenway.  
 
       

It’s almost better to hire someone with the ambition and drive to want to learn, than to hire someone experienced in doing it someone else’s way, Smith believes. “So many people today are used to taking shortcuts, getting the job done regardless of the quality,” Elrod adds.

Shortcuts are anathema to both Smith and Elrod, but not experimentation. Smith says some of his woodworkers tend to take the job home with them, to worry in their off-hours about how they are going to get something put together. He encourages them to try different ways and says shop manager Jon Newbury, who has wide experience, has been a big help in adding to the collective knowledge.

Smith remembers his mentor Eulan McSwain telling him that all woodworkers will eventually bump into a problem, and that what really makes them woodworkers is finding ways to get around it.

Elrod, a businessman, makes no pretense of being a woodworker. “When I pick up a hammer, I’m worth 75 cents an hour,” he says.

“Stan has taken us from woodworking and is trying to teach us to be businessmen, a very difficult task,” Smith says.

The two men don’t commit to projects they can’t work into the schedule, and they prefer to run no more than six to eight weeks out.

They are positive about what they want, and don’t want, for Masterpiece. “We don’t want to be a $10 million business,” they say.

At $10 million, Elrod says, they would have to run Masterpiece on a production basis, using less-skilled workers, and the product would suffer.

What they do want is a little more of what they have right now, a word-of-mouth clientele seeking superior quality. “We have a strong following of local customers who want a better job,” Smith says.

“We’ve never turned down a job because we thought it was too challenging,” Elrod adds.

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