Minnesota’s Split Rock Studios brings displays to life through teamwork between woodworkers and artists.


Denali National Park and Preserve Visitor Center features realistic dioramas created by Split Rock Studios.

When the woodworkers at Split Rock Studios go to work each day, they do not just toil in a standard woodworking shop. Although the saws and other equipment look and sound the same, the walls surrounding the workers recede and become landscapes, encompassing scorching deserts, mountainous forests and rocky sea beds deep beneath the ocean. Their world is filled with wild and exotic creatures, Native American hunters, American presidents and other politicians, plus a treasure trove of precious artifacts from throughout antiquity.

It’s not that the company has invented time-travel, but rather that the award-winning Split Rock has made a name for itself as one of the premier museum exhibit firms in the country. It takes historical and ecological information and presents it in an attractive and interactive manner for adults and children to learn from and enjoy.

Split Rock is located in Arden Hills, MN, just northwest of Minneapolis. Initially founded by museum artist Neal Deaton, the company was acquired by DisplayMasters and became known as Deaton Museum Services for a time, before splitting off on its own in 2000 and continuing to grow far beyond its origins. Named after the famous Split Rock lighthouse on Minnesota’s north shore (an early project the company worked on), Split Rock Studios is a full-service firm of 48 employees who specialize in display exhibits of any size.

“Basically, what we do is design and build interpretive exhibits for museums, nature centers and related institutions,” says company president Craig Sommerville. “We do everything from designing the exhibits to building and installation.”

Working closely with the customer throughout the entire process, the company has the ability to take ideas for a potential exhibit and turn them into reality. Split Rock’s expertise is in taking a project from start to finish, through the various stages of: planning, researching, writing, organizing, designing, estimating costs, building, fabricating, sculpting, painting, adding graphic artwork, audiovisuals and finally, installing the finished product.

The company’s work has appeared in numerous locations, including Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the San Francisco Bay Model Visitor Center, the Bermuda Natural History Museum, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Visitor Center in Missoula, MT, Chicago’s Field Museum and at Denali National Park in Alaska. The company has also worked on exhibits for several former presidents’ official libraries, including those for Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan, as well as those for other notable “wannabees” like Jefferson Davis, Bob Dole and George McGovern.

The art department is where “wood and art come together,” according to Split Rock President Craig Sommerville.

Wood Supports Art

The process of building these projects is involved and lengthy, with considerable care taken in every step. “Every piece is one of a kind,” Sommerville explains. “Every piece has to be figured out.” A minimum of 18 months is to be expected for each project, and there are usually four or five jobs ongoing in-house at any given time.

Roughly 12,000 square feet of its 40,000-square-foot facility is its woodshop, where 10 union woodworkers produce the framework on which the exhibits will be displayed. “The wood guys are really here for one thing, and that’s to support the artists,” says production manager Tim McGannon.

Once a client has signed off on the designs, it is up to the woodworkers to put the project into motion. Following AutoCAD schematics, the woodworkers put together casework that is often in the most unusual shapes and sizes. “It’s not like a guy in a window-manufacturing plant where he’s chopping out windows day after day. These are one-of-a- kind,” says McGannon.

Equipment utilized at the plant includes: a Casolin sliding table saw, three table saws, two shapers, two jointers, a pocket screw machine, drill press, bandsaw, pinch roller, radial arm saws and a 12-feet. by 12-feet. by 8-feet. spray booth with air make-up unit.

Real wood, rather than laminates, is used to give a “warm and fuzzy” feeling to museum displays and artifact cabinets. More complex pieces are cut with CNC equipment jobbed out to an outside company. The woodworkers must interpret the designs and construct the basic cabinetry onto which the artists add their touches, including fake rocks and plants, sculpted birds, fish, humans and other mammals, painted murals, running water and computerized audio visual effects.

To match the scope of the designer’s imagination, the woodworkers must sometimes work with extreme curvatures and non-standard methods meant to help create the effect of a visitor entering a native habitat. Some designs have even called for pull-out drawers and cross-sections to reveal hibernating animals. “These are fantasy pieces, not your usual furniture,” says Sommerville.

Creative thinking is an attribute highly valued at the company, and nearly a third of the woodworkers were recruited through the local vocational technology schools to bring in “fresh blood.” The non-uniformity of the designs and ever-changing requirements mean that workers have diversity both in their daily work as well as in their careers. “Every day is a new challenge,” says McGannon.

This colorful, award-winning display is located at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Taking Ownership

The company offers another unique advantage for its woodworkers. “The person who builds it also gets to go install it,” explains McGannon. While Iowa and South Dakota are great places to work on projects, employees have also been called upon to travel to resort areas like Bermuda and Florida. This strategy has proven successful in reducing potential problems once the displays have reached their end destination. Allowing the worker who built the exhibit to take ownership of the installation process means the company has someone intimately aware of all of the features of the display pieces on site when it matters most. Adds McGannon, “It’s amazing how many problems aren’t really problems when you’ve got the right guy in place.”

Around the corner from the woodshop, is what seems to be another world. This room is the art department, where the artists add the finishing touches to the woodworker’s framework. This is the place where, as Sommerville puts it, “wood and art come together.” Here, a gigantic, hand-painted mural of a raging seascape covers an entire wall, while a huge sculpted Kodiak bear rears on its back legs to tower high above. One artist is busy making faux plants, another paints fish, yet another affixes fake “oysters” to an oyster dome, while a young sculptor painstakingly carves a mother bear holding her cubs for an exhibit. To the wood cases built on the other side of the plant, the artists add these epoxy and foam structures, enhanced with steel to prevent damage from over-enthusiastic parents wanting pictures of “Junior” riding the bear.

Originally, everyone worked in the same room, with artists, woodworkers, estimators and others cramped together. An expansion in 2004 enabled the groups to have some separation and provided for better workflow. Sommerville says the distinct cultures existing within the building are uniquely different in personality, but work remarkably well together in striving to achieve their final goal.

When asked about the most interesting and challenging projects they have experienced, the participants say all projects bring their own challenges, but McGannon and project coordinator Lisa Friedlander both revel in recounting their work on the Gerald Ford Library in Grand Rapids, MI. For that project, team members were flown to Washington, DC, and allowed into the White House to take measurements for the recreation of the Cabinet Room they were commissioned to build. The original manufacturers of the items within the room had to be located so that exact replicas of the furniture and carpeting could be obtained. The end result was a remarkable facsimile of one of the world’s most famous rooms.

Producing finely crafted exhibit showcases and dioramas that re-create important historical and natural history information for the public in a highly entertaining way is rewarding work for the employees of Split Rock Studios, whose efforts educate the public and help keep important cultural traditions alive. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of their work is the effect that such displays can have in sparking the interest in science and history in young people. The daily challenges of overcoming difficulties may, in the end, be offset by seeing a smile and the astonishment in the wide eyes of a curious child looking with fascination at a Split Rock-produced display.

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