Specialty Church Work Is a 'Heavenly' Job  

A small North Carolina shop has made a big name for itself building beautifully crafted furnishings

for churches.

By Hannah Miller

Churches are big on soaring structures: steeples, crosses, raised pulpits -- vertical symbolism to lift a congregation's vision. If yours is the woodworking shop hired to create that symbolism, you'd better have high ceilings. Or, as in the case of The Century Guild Ltd. in Research Triangle Park, NC, sure eyes and nerves of steel.

The Guild, which has gained a name for itself in building painstakingly crafted church furnishings, is in the same 1,000-square-foot shop with 8 1/2-foot-high ceilings where it began 16 years ago. It has another 3,500 square feet of storage space in outbuildings, and a house next door serves as an office.

Its premier project so far was a $430,000 columbarium (a vault with niches for urns containing ashes of the dead) nestled inside historic St. Thomas Episcopal Church on New York's Fifth Avenue, said Nick and Meredith Strange, owners of The Guild. The challenge was that it was a 9 1/2-foot-high columbarium. The couple and their two long-time employees solved the problem by making it in sections. The project spanned eight months in 1989.

The Century Guild built a rood screen, altar, communion rail and other chancel furniture, all in mahogany, for St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Savannah, GA.

"We were getting ready to deliver the project and the sections had never been together," Nick Strange said. "We rented a tent and set everything up, and they were right on the same line and looked swell."

To celebrate the event they thought, "We've got the tent; let's have a party." So for the rest of the evening, the columbarium shared the outdoor tent with a bar before beginning its trip to New York.

Another project, for St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Savannah, GA, included a six-foot wooden cross and the rood screen it surmounts. Those pieces also were done in sections. Nick said he tried to hire an engineer to work on the job, but ended up figuring out himself how to fit the cross on the screen "so it wouldn't fall on the choir members," he said.

The Stranges didn't set out to become church artisans or even fine furniture craftspeople, they said. They set up The Guild after Nick's six-year apprenticeship in furniture reproduction and repair at Y & J Furniture Co. in Durham, NC. Prior to that, Nick had been a mail carrier and Meredith was a graduate student in English. They expected their shop to do a lot of commercial woodworking, such as store furnishings.

Instead, they have found themselves doing high-end corporate work, like 20-foot-long boardroom tables for "mega-businesses" in Research Triangle Park, plus residential work ($4,000 to $12,000 beds), and church pulpits, lecterns and communion rails. "We don't do pews," said Meredith.

Thanks to their early training at Y & J, Nick and fellow woodworker Richard Maxwell, who also apprenticed there and later went to work at The Guild, received a solid grounding in the basics of the craft, Nick said. Nick, Maxwell and Michael Stewart, who has been with them for 13 years, were cross-trained to do practically everything, Nick said, adding that he does all the finishing and he and Meredith both handle the design duties.

The company does not specialize in any particular style, like Gothic or modern. "There are enough skills in this tiny company to make any kind of furniture, as long as it's wood," Meredith said.

They have been as careful in building their reputation as in building their expensive, one-of-a-kind furnishings, the couple added. "We view each client as a potential customer for the rest of our career," Nick said.

To help with estimating, they keep computer records on each phase of a job and review how many hours it actually takes to complete tasks compared to what they estimated. "This gives us a general sense of how long things take. It's like taking notes when you read a book," Nick said.

They use the records to help with estimating future jobs, not to check whether they are over budget and should start cutting corners, which Nick called "a very shortsighted approach."

Although the shop is small, it is highly organized, a necessity when you're pressed for space, Nick said. It contains an Oliver lathe with an extended bed that can turn pieces up to eight feet in length. He uses it for communion railings and also for the posts of a high-end bed style that is a Century Guild specialty.

There's a Hegner scroll saw for making templates, which are then reproduced on an Onsrud inverted pin router. A 12-inch Wadkin table saw, a Rockwell Crescent jointer, a 24-inch Rockwell Crescent planer and a Wadkin shaper are also used.

Other equipment includes an Oliver stroke sander, a Makita miter saw, a Northfield bandsaw and "a couple of hundred cutters" that the woodworkers grind themselves. The finishing room has neat shelves of Sherwin-Williams finishing products and a Graco air-assisted airless system for applying them.

Century Guild markets to architects up and down the East Coast, sending them videos and slide shows of their work. Those efforts are finally beginning to pay off, Meredith said. For example, a church architect called from Cincinnati recently and said, "We asked around, and your name kept coming up," she said.

Yearly revenues range from $160,000 to $400,000 and the work's nature and volume ebb and flow. One year the shop may do mostly residential work; the next year it may be churches. "This year we're doing 'God's work,'" Meredith said -- mostly churches.

"What those jobs mean to us is that 'God sees all, knows all,' Nick said. "To us, what's not seen by the average churchgoer is just as important as what is in full view." For example, in the many wooden statues someone else carved years ago for one of his church customers "the backs were as painstakingly carved as the fronts," he said. "God sees them."

Nick himself turned each of 75 mahogany posts done for the St. Peter's communion rail on the lathe. He could have turned just one and machine-copied the others, but he would have lost some crispness, he said, and "that's not how we work. A good turner can beat a copy lathe any day."

He also hand carved roughly three dozen 2-inch by 3-inch African mahogany representations of open books as the symbol of St. Thomas More, who wrote Utopia. They will be inserted into the fiddleback makore veneer insets of a chair and altar at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in nearby Chapel Hill, NC, a recent project.

"I want to be proud of everything that comes out of here," Nick said, adding that, "The ecclesiastical work is really the most rewarding."

Churches historically have been the place most hospitable to art and craft, he added, and there is still a timeless element in work done for them. Unlike corporations, they are not going to redecorate on a fixed schedule, Meredith said.

For their church work, the Stranges have to choose their working methods carefully and estimate accordingly, she added. "We have to think about what happens to the joinery, the finish, the whole piece as a consequence of time."

Most of The Guild's church projects have been donated by families remembering a loved one or who want to be remembered themselves. "People see it as their legacy," Nick said.

He has no favorite piece, he added, but the St. Thomas columbarium designed by New York architect Gerald Allen has a large place in his memory.

He succeeded in making the highly visible new piece fit in with the rest of the 87-year-old church, he said. Made of quarter-sawn white oak, its interior cubbyholes for 500 urns were made of mahogany for stability. To reach each cubbyhole, one opens a triple set of successively smaller doors, symbolically representing Father, Son and Holy Ghost. There are 300 doors in all, inlaid on the inside with ebony.

Nick calls the project his masterwork. "It's where you put everything you've learned," he said.

"It's his dissertation," added Meredith.

Will such an opportunity come again? "Who knows?" she said. "We're hopeful."

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