Custom Work is ‘Golden’ for Miters Touch

This North Carolina shop wants its customers to understand how far custom work can go.

By Hannah Miller

For one recent job, Miters Touch Woodworking of Boone, NC, turned out to have a “Midas” touch of gold — or at least orange.

Hired to make the front entrance for a nearby artist’s home, Miters Touch invited her to its 4,000-square-foot shop to sketch a rising sun on a panel for the door. It’s the view the artist sees out her back window every morning — the sun rising over Grandfather Mountain, says company founder and President Denise Groh, and she wanted it reproduced on her door. The shop applied aniline dye to the sun to produce its orange-gold color.

Through 19 years of operation, Miters Touch has tried to enrich the lives of clients with just such custom touches, Groh says. With kitchen cabinets accounting for about 50 percent of the shop’s work, Groh adds that she often designs projects to make life easier and more convenient for the owner.

“I like the challenge of designing for function, for how a family works in a kitchen,” she says.

For the same artist client, she designed and Miters Touch built cabinets for the kitchen, studio, master bath and powder room, as well as the front door. The job included a 42-inch-high kitchen cabinet, built as a cutting board for the artist’s 6-foot 8-inch husband.

     
 
Is it an armoire? No, it’s an 8-foot-tall stand-alone pantry with elaborate moulding that complements the traditional walnut and white oak kitchen it is paired with. Photo by Michael Seide  
     

Other custom touches included a farm sink’s rounded lines, which were echoed in the half-bun feet of the kitchen cabinet supporting it. Baltic birch plywood cabinets in the studio are starkly spare and functional, so that nothing detracts from the impact of the art itself.

Groh says she wants people to know that cabinets can be made to fit particular spaces, and the back room of the company’s log-cabin showroom is designed to show just how far “custom” can go.

For example, there is a set of maple kitchen cabinets that has an angled top to match an angled ceiling. An end cabinet has doors on two sides, opening into the kitchen and a passageway. A built-in spice rack is hidden on the back side of another door.

As testimony to the quality of Groh’s work, she says that architects bring not only their clients’ work to Miters Touch, but also projects for themselves. She thinks she knows why. “First, I listen real well to what they’re asking for, and second, we’ll find a way to make it work,” she says.

Out–of-the-ordinary projects are welcomed, she adds. “I thrive on them. Of course, customers know they are going to cost a little more.” Miters Touch sales run between $250,000 and $500,000 a year, she says.

As she talked, woodworker Wyeth Morgan remade an antique chest into a computer center, turning drawer fronts into doors. It was an architect’s personal project. Terry Holden, the other woodworker in the three-person shop, was fitting a top on a new entertainment center. One office employee, Alice Harmon, keeps books and does the ordering for a line of cabinets Miters Touch sells as a lower-cost alternative to its custom work — Plain & Fancy Kitchens.

Groh says she founded the shop “the minute I was through” achieving a Master’s degree in industrial education and technology from Appalachian State University. Her duties include meeting with customers, doing designs and estimates, preparing jobs and supervising the shop, and installations. She doesn’t get to do as much hands-on woodworking as she would like, she says, and the staff accuses her of getting “squirrely” if she’s away from it too long.

This year, the company’s work has been divided about equally between custom cabinets and furniture. For the past several years, Groh has designed one-of-a-kind studio furniture, which has given rise to two lines made and sold by the shop: “Lines” and “Spirits.” Lines is made up of straight, clean lines and contrasting woods, while Spirits, made of curly maple and walnut, draws its inspiration from the curving grain of the wood. The September 2001 issue of Taunton Press’ The Custom Furniture Sourcebook includes Groh among 125 studio-furniture makers featured.

     
 
Artist Nancy Brittelle wanted her front door to re-create the view of the sun rising over Grandfather Mountain that she sees each morning. She sketched the sun on a maple panel, and Miters Touch colored it with aniline dye. The door is oak.  
     

The mix of furniture and cabinets suits Groh. “I can’t give up one for the other,” she says. “The actual making of the boxes” for cabinets is pretty straightforward, she says, but there is still a challenge in making them fit with appliances and in devising ways to build them efficiently.

She also likes the collaboration with clients that she gets with kitchen jobs, she adds. “There’s something exciting about the ideas that go back and forth.”

Twenty-five years ago, Groh never dreamed that someday she would be spending her working days over a sketchbook or a saw in a North Carolina woodworking shop, she says.

Married to a resident in psychiatry at Columbia University hospital, she was teaching science to students at a private elementary school in New York. A woodworker came by to give the students some instruction; she took a class and was hooked.

“A couple of weeks into it, I knew this was what I had to do. I still do,” she says.

She abandoned schoolteaching and, still taking classes, went to work building cabinets for an architect friend. Then she built her own 8-foot by 10-foot shop at home on the fourth floor of a brownstone.

“I had a Sears radial arm saw, and everything else was portable power tools,” she says. When she had to work with sheet goods, she would rent space and often lugged her hand tools on the subway.

When her husband completed his studies and the couple looked for a place to settle, she was intrigued by Appalachian State University’s graduate program in industrial education. She wanted to study traditional hardwood furnituremaking. “I wanted to understand the way woodworking should be done,” she says.

The two moved to the Boone area, where her husband is now medical director of the five-county New River Behavioral Health Care. He also serves as Miters Touch’s computer consultant and vice president.

     
 
Miters Touch used walnut and white oak to make this traditional-looking kitchen with counters of varying height. Photo by Michael Seide  
     

“Now I have what I call a pretty good shop,” Groh says. The shop’s production equipment includes a Woodmaster drum sander, Delta Unisaw, Makita compound miter saw, Oliver planer, Northfield 16-inch joiner, Crescent bandsaw, Safety Speed Cut panel saw, Delta shaper with Grizzly power feed, Powermatic drill press, Ritter edge sander and a Laguna Tools mortiser. A Blum hinge machine is used to bore holes and insert hinges. “It is very useful when you have 40 doors to hinge,” Groh says.

Hanging above the three main workbenches are Delta air cleaners. The shop’s dust collection system takes care of dust coming off machinery, but the benches were dusty as well, she says. The shop staff made buying the air cleaners an end-of-the-year request. Miters Touch grants such requests, she says, “whenever the year’s good enough.”

The company’s showroom, in a log cabin more than 120 years old, is flanked on one side by the shop and on the other by the office, with a recently added, 616-square-foot finishing room attached to the shop’s rear. The entire complex is half-hidden by trees, and its driveway opens off a winding mountain highway. Groh refuses to clear-cut, and when the finishing room was built, she included windows that look out into leafy branches.

“We figure we spend a lot of time here. The quality of our lives has to be decent, so we do things to make it tolerable,” she says. In the finishing room, Miters Touch uses Star pre-catalyzed lacquers and Valspar conversion varnishes, sprayed with DeVilbiss equipment. The room was built to provide a dust-free environment and is outfitted with an Oasis dehumidifier that can keep humidity to 55 percent.

In her Lines and Spirits furniture, Groh likes to use hardwoods native to the Boone area. Though they are not commercially logged there anymore, “you can see maples, walnut trees, cherry trees, ash and oak,” she says.

Some of Groh’s clients have been with her throughout her career, like Peggy Polson, a former ASU art teacher now moved to a retirement community in Iowa. “It’s such a joy to go into a house and see woodworking that traces a 20-year relationship,” Groh says.

What have those years taught her? The same thing you learn when you mature in any field, she says, that there is a solution to every problem.

For example, she says that when you’re young and you forget to drill the holes for an adjustable cabinet shelf before you put the cabinet together, you tend to panic. But after two decades’ worth of experience, “You just make a little template and drill them with a hand drill,” she says.

“Those of us who have been doing it awhile know there’s something in that file in your head to solve any problem,” she adds.

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