Northern California Millworker Handles the Curves

Nereo Woodworking has found a niche supplying curved staircases and millwork to customers in San Francisco and the neighboring wine country areas.

By Renee Stern

 

Nereo Woodworking did the millwork, including curved railings and balusters, for this reproduction Victorian custom home in Sonoma, CA. The millwork is redwood.

Whenever he can, Philip Nereo “takes the curves.” His architectural woodworking company, Nereo Woodworking, specializes in curved millwork projects for customers in California’s Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties, south to San Francisco. He works from a 2,000-square-foot shop behind his house in Windsor, CA, and gross sales fluctuate between $400,000 and $500,000 a year.

Nereo’s jobs can range from $5,000 for a relatively modest staircase, including installation, to up to $100,000 for an elaborate model. The company also handles woodturnings, mouldings, custom millwork, doors, windows and mantelpieces.

Most of his projects are built with standard hardwoods: red and white oak, maple, cherry and walnut. Some customers want to match flooring, leading to more unusual choices, including santos mahogany and jatoba.

Finding quality redwood for exterior projects is growing more difficult, he says. As the supply has tightened, he has turned to using recycled redwood salvaged from the region’s old wine tanks and lumber mills. “It is beautiful stuff,” he says.

Nereo uses veneers occasionally, “when for structural reasons it is not practical to use a hardwood,” he says.

He achieves a lot of the curves he specializes in through bent lamination. Recently he has switched to a vacuum bag method that produces a smoother curve in less time.

He uses the VacuPress system from Vacuum Pressing Systems Inc. Using the vacuum bag, he can saw hardwood boards into thinner layers than called for with regular bent lamination. The vacuum press requires only a few clamps, and with it “curves come out nice and fair,” he says.

 

         
         
   
    A private residence in Silicon Valley has a Nereo freestanding mahogany staircase.    

Using fewer clamps results in greater time savings. “When we had something 3 inches thick, 12 inches wide and 14 feet long, it was quite an operation with clamps,” he says. “And we were always worried about the clamps.”

He also uses a wood welder from WorkRite Products Co. The machine generates radio frequencies to dry glue quickly. “It has turned out to be a real workhorse in the shop,” Nereo says.

With the wood welder, he puts 15 to 20 stair treads in a rack of clamps and tack-welds treads in enough places to be able to pull that batch out of the clamps. While the remaining glue dries normally, workers can set up the next set, speeding production.

Nereo squeezes a lot of equipment into a small shop, thanks to California’s long dry season and enough space on his property to spread beyond the building’s four walls — he sets up commercial tents to shelter an outdoor work area.

The shop includes a widebelt sander and shaper from Sunhill, a Calpe automatic copy lathe and Delta Unisaw table saw. A slot mortiser from Laguna Tools handles all the company’s joinery. He also recently bought a variable-speed drive unit for his Leeson hand lathe to cut down on vibration problems.

The shop also has a Foley United profile grinder to create profile knives needed for custom designs and a Williams & Hussey moulder for doing small curves. Nereo’s library of catalogs and old books with pictures of Victorian and Craftsman-style homes gives clients a wide range of choices in trims and mouldings.

Nereo has been in business full-time since 1979. Before that, he attended art school in Sonoma. He landed in California while serving in the Air Force and never left. While in art school he taught woodworking part-time to high school students in a vocational exploration program and worked on his own projects on the side. When he started his full-time business, he built custom furniture and restored antiques while he accumulated machinery and developed his skills.

Over the years, the focus of his business shifted. One curve in the road came when a job called for turning and installing stair spindles. That helped get him started in millwork.

“It’s a nice niche,” he says. “I had done cabinets for a while, but I realized I had to specialize and I didn’t want to limit myself. And I hate hardware.”

So he moved into millwork and staircases. In part, changing his focus also helped him tackle a dilemma over adding employees as his business grew. “With custom furniture, everything is unique,” he says. “I either had to hire someone as good as me, which I couldn’t afford, or hire trainees and spend all my time supervising them or redoing their work.”

But staircases call for a certain amount of production-type work within each custom job — 40 feet of balusters, for example, plus a handrail. So it is easier to find and train qualified workers. Nereo currently has four full-time employees and a couple of part-time workers, including his son, a high school student. He also contracts with four finish carpenters for installation.

From millwork and staircases, he expanded into custom mouldings, turnings and other architectural work. For a time he worked with contractors building housing developments. But he found that they were too focused on speed and hitting quotas for his taste.

“It was my artist’s background that didn’t like that,” he says. “I was willing to give up a little financially to do more custom work.”

Developing a flair for specialty radius work helped spread the word about his business and to build his portfolio. In addition to residential projects, he has worked on assisted living centers and put together several jobs for the area’s wineries and tasting rooms.

Nereo’s only marketing to date has been having listings in local telephone directories. He is pondering whether to set up a Web page to showcase his portfolio, but says he isn’t sure how much business it will draw. “Nobody is going to order a $20,000 staircase over the Internet,” he says.

In addition, he does not want to get more business than he can handle. The directory listings bring occasional calls from homeowners, especially for remodeling work, and he ends up turning down more of those projects than he accepts, he says.

 

This newel post in Honduras mahogany was built for a home in Napa Valley. The design was supplied by the architect.

“In the last year it has gotten busy enough that I have to work on saying no or that I can’t get to it for, say, three months,” Nereo says. “If I fill up with little jobs, I don’t have room for a nice big one when it comes along.”

Balancing jobs is a constant goal. “Not having enough work or having too much work — those are the two main sources of stress,” he says. “I would rather have the latter problem, so I tend to overbook a little.”

But it helps that clients with a large project, such as a fancy house or winery, tend to be optimistic with their scheduling, he adds. “So there is a certain built-in flexibility.”

Working with contractors also leads to repeat business, as they regularly send out plans to bid. That brings him to the latest curve in the road. “I started out as a craftsman,” Nereo says. “Now I’m trying to become a businessman.”

Calculating bids is a time-consuming responsibility, he says. Spreadsheets and databases, along with experience, help him work up estimates; he typically adds a few options, such as carpet runners or treads.

Dealing with customers, employees and contract installers also fills his day, along with learning more efficient management practices, including accounting, bookkeeping and job costing. “I am working less and less in the shop and more in the office,” he says. But he continues to handle all the hand turning himself, he adds.

His son-in-law, Laird Brown, serves as shop foreman, supervising day-to-day operations. Nereo sees himself now in the role of conductor.

“This is a new challenge, learning how to orchestrate the production,” he says. “I wear a lot of hats. It can be frustrating, because I can’t concentrate on any one area. I can’t get so absorbed in what I’m doing now that I let the bidding go.”

A better description of his role might be juggler, he adds. Juggling is also a handy skill when you live and work on the same property. “It’s a challenge in letting go after hours,” he says.

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