World of Wood Ltd. Makes Custom Woodwork an Art Form

Employees of this Milwaukee-area millwork company think of themselves as artists working with wood.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Not every business takes the time to articulate its mission, but World of Wood Ltd. in Oconomowoc, WI, is one that does. “We want to make woodwork the most prominent feature in every home,” says project manager Michael Mutza.

    World of Wood’s award-winning work on a Wisconsin mansion included this dining room in American black walnut. The panels on the walls, doors and mantel are plain sliced veneer. Walnut crotch veneer was used as an accent on the panels of the lower sections of wall paneling and as accent panels above the fireplace. Several hand-carved elements of solid walnut over the mantelpiece match the acanthus leaves and fruits on the ceiling plasterwork.

World of Wood Ltd., the recipient of numerous industry awards, designs and manufactures residential and commercial architectural woodwork, cabinets and furniture. “Our work is custom and as such varies from job to job. But I would describe a ‘typical’ client as someone who wants a phenomenal piece of woodwork,” says Mutza. “A commission might be for a single piece of furniture or an entry door that becomes the focal point of a home. Or we may produce woodwork for every room in a house. We like to think of ourselves as artists working with wood. Ours is all premium woodwork for a very discriminating clientele.”

While its client list contains some well-known names, Mutza won’t “name drop.” “It’s company policy to protect the privacy of our clients,” he says. World of Wood’s market is primarily in Wisconsin and Illinois, but the company occasionally takes on large projects in other states.

The company was founded in Milwaukee, WI, in 1975 by Richard and Lois Erdmann. “We like to think of Richard as our founding father because this is very much a family business,” Mutza says.

All of Erdmann’s children — six sons and three daughters — have worked in the family business at one time. Second-generation family members involved in the business today include company president and owner Robert Erdmann, who is one of two in-house designers and the person Mutza credits for the direction of the firm.

“Robert has a graphic arts background. He worked first as foreman and then moved into design,” Mutza says. “Robert created the design team at World of Wood, (Diane B. Cramer is the other staff designer), and made it what it is today.”

Brothers Peter and John are also owners. Peter is plant foreman, while John oversees the finishing department. Mary Mutza, daughter of the founder and Michael’s wife, is the company bookkeeper. She also is taking on added responsibility for semi-retired co-founder Lois Erdmann.

Richard Erdmann founded his first company, R.E. Woodwork, in the 1960s in Milwaukee. The company’s focus was store fixtures and commercial interiors along with some residential work. In the mid-1970s the company changed its name, and in 1982 it moved to its present location in Oconomowoc. Semi-retired, Richard is still at the plant every day, but has “stepped back from daily production,” says Mutza.

“We value his expertise and we turn to him for advice on projects and help with training,” he says. “Whenever we do grand staircases, he oversees the job to see that it’s being coordinated and laid out properly.”

One of Richard’s real passions is woodturning, and he has become active with the Wisconsin Woodturners Club. Mutza says, “With 25 grandchildren, we have great potential to have third-generation involvement.”

World of Wood Ltd. maintains a showroom with business and design offices on Oconomowoc’s main thoroughfare and has a 16,000-square-foot production facility at a nearby site. The company employs 16 people at the two locations. Mutza says the showroom, which displays a variety of work, offers an ideal introduction to the company.

“People are encouraged to drop by during business hours,” he says. “We think of the showroom as an expression of the artistry of our designers and our craftsmen. We have selected a diverse combination of cabinetry, furniture and millwork to represent what we do.”

World of Wood’s millwork includes straight and curved mouldings, wainscoting, wall paneling, columns, turnings and mantels. The showroom includes a fireplace mantel of solid cherry with madrone burl accents to showcase its millwork capabilities.

Another sales tool of the company is its Web site, Mutza built the site and says that at first he had misgivings about the need for one, but it has proven useful. “We opened the site about a year ago. Already it has led to some excellent contacts with people who might not otherwise have heard of us, but found us by looking for woodworkers on the Internet,” he says.

Asked what seems popular with clients today, Mutza says, “The majority of the work we do is with domestic woods. When we do individual pieces of furniture and wall paneling, we see more use of the exotic woods. Right now, surprisingly, we are seeing a trend toward painted or glazed finishes. Recently, at least 50 percent of our work has involved painted finishes. Woods that seem to be especially popular with clients are cherry and, to a lesser degree, maple. Another trend is to duplicate the woodworking and styles of a historic nature.”

  Project manager Michael Mutza says that World of Wood recently expanded its production facility and believes in investing in new machinery. Equipment includes a DMC Polisand widebelt sander from SCM Group USA and a Hofer case clamp.  

World of Wood has won numerous awards for its work over the years, including three from the Architectural Woodwork Institute. In 1998 it won recognition for its work on a historic private residence on Lake Michigan, which included restoration of a three- story Italian Renaissance-style mansion.

The project included all of the interior millwork and cabinetry, including the impressive design and reconstruction of the dining room, completely done in walnut paneling. Woods used in the home included walnut, rift oak, bird’s-eye maple and mahogany.

The primary design consideration and objectives were to take a very large, cold, museum-like house, which had definitely seen better days, and bring it back to life with a warm, inviting interior befitting a home of its stature and history. The dining room was one of the more challenging aspects of the job.

Originally it was adapted from a fabulous banquet room in Europe. But the room’s paneling and fireplace were removed when the home was sold. The designers researched print and media coverage of the famous residence and worked from photographs and partial drawings of the room that were taken when the home was first built. They also interviewed family and friends who had visited the home in its original state.

Once the design aspects were finished, the woodworkers were faced with another challenge. Two layers of plaster added during previous remodeling jobs had changed the room’s dimensions. The designers had to redesign the wall paneling so that the paneling and its many details would look like the original but still fit into the existing space.

Other changes included structural and traffic adaptations and the addition of drapery pockets. American black walnut was used for the wall paneling, with walnut crotch veneer used as an accent on the lower panels and over the fireplace. The home’s original game room, which features an octagonal dome, was completely redone in quarter-sawn oak paneling, trim and crown.

The library, one of the least damaged rooms of the original home, still needed work. An entire wall of paneling was rebuilt to match the existing paneling in quarter-sawn white oak. A large section of the paneling was built to house alcoves that hide a humidor and vault. These items are accessible with the touch of a button.

Other interesting elements of the job included the building of a rathskeller and a lower level game and play area, including a billiard room and theater that seats 27. The wood used in this area includes mahogany. Built-in benches, a wet-bar featuring a mahogany top and a wine tasting/registry table, built in the style of an old monk’s table, are some of the special features of this part of the home.

A new feature of the renovation was a special suite of rooms designed especially for visitors. Woods used in this area include satinwood veneer doors with inlays of wenge and walnut center panels. The butler’s pantry and kitchen greatly expanded the area used for preparing meals. Hand-turned 12-inch-diameter barley twist-style columns were faux finished to match the countertop’s Brazilian blue bahia granite. A center island features arched end cabinet niches and cabinets designed to hold a microwave and television.

In 1994 the company won an AWI award for its work on a private residence located north of Milwaukee. The job, which spanned two years, involved the complete restoration of a 10,000-square-foot home designed by Milwaukee architect Thomas Stevens van Alyea in 1929. The owners were looking to create reproductions of the past with modern functionality. At one point, they were interested in using antiques in the baths and fitting them with sinks and faucets. But they scrapped the idea when they realized it would be costly and damaging to the pieces.

Instead, World of Wood created pieces to house a generous-sized whirlpool, an elegant lavatory and matching dressing table. Pieces in the master bath suite were made from figured avodire lumber and veneer to give the clients “an opulent yet toned-down regency look of the pre-Biedermeier era.”

Mutza says that one of the more unusual requests ever made by a client came with this job. The client asked the woodworkers to design a master closet/dressing area that resembled the interior of a jewel box.

“So that’s what we did,” Mutza says. “The area’s many built-ins are made from bird’s-eye maple finished with a custom color stain that gives the wood a beautiful golden glow. It is offset by black pilasters and gold leaf, which was applied on site. The space we were working with was actually pretty small, and we needed to make the most of every inch. It turned out beautifully and really does have the feel of the inside of a jewel box.”

World of Wood not only has won numerous awards from AWI, it also is an active member. Through its local chapter, it has also become involved with the WoodLINKS program for industry education and recruitment.

“WoodLINKS is a program we have contributed to.” Mutza says. “It provides an introduction to woodworking to high school students and gives them exposure to possible careers in the field. Programs like WoodLINKS and AWI’s Partners In Progress are especially important, because we face shortages of qualified workers in our industry. We also support the work of local technical schools, such as Fox Valley Tech in Oshkosh. We think it is important to find good, quality people and do what’s necessary to retain them once you do. We feel fortunate to have the quality group of craftsmen that we do.”

    This entryway features a painted mahogany door surrounded by beveled glass and bolection moulding around the door panels, with fluted pilasters and dentil moulding trim.

Since its founding in 1975, Mutza says the company has enjoyed steady growth. “Much of our work is from word-of-mouth and repeat business. We constantly look at new machinery and ways of doing things that could enhance productivity, while keeping the tradition of quality in the forefront. It is an ongoing effort and needs to continue for a business to grow and improve itself.

“We recently added 4,500 square feet of space to our production area,” he adds. “and we believe in investing in new machinery. We have the usual table saws, bandsaws and other equipment normally found in a woodworking plant. But we also have a group of machines that we consider especially important, among them a DMC widebelt sander, which we bought from SCM Group USA. Everyone uses it, and every piece of hardwood we use goes through that machine for sanding.”

An Altendorf F45 sliding table saw is used to cut panels, and Mutza says, “The saw is in such demand that we are considering the purchase of a second one with all of today’s available upgrades.”

Two machines used jointly are a Gannomat line drill from Tritec Associates and a Hofer case clamp. One of the company’s most recent purchases is a U.S. Concepts moulder that can do curves. “We purchased it specifically for a project that featured numerous curved casings and backbands for arches. We also bought a Pistorius double miter saw for the multitude of mouldings used within doors and wall paneling. It speeds the production by allowing us to make two miter cuts at one time.”

Other machinery includes a Wadkin knife grinder, a Northfield 36-inch resaw bandsaw, a CTD miter saw and an Olimpic edgebander, also from SCM.

Although the company has a lot of new equipment, it remains “old-fashioned” in one sense — drawings are always done by hand, not computer-generated. “We prefer to draw by hand, because it gives our elevations a depth and artistry you can’t achieve with a computer program,” says Mutza.

He adds that while some companies choose to work in niche markets, specializing for example in mouldings or kitchens, World of Wood Ltd. prides itself on welcoming a variety of woodworking tasks.

“I think we are unique in that we are specialists at all sorts of interior millwork, cabinetry and furniture for homes, offices and churches,” he says. “We can take a woodworking project from an idea to installation, and we do so with an emphasis on fabulous design, excellent customer service and outstanding quality.”

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