Strength and Beauty Combined

Woodverks helps its residential customers meet the challenges of violent weather and still have beautiful doors.

By Ann Gurley Rogers
Woodverks of Sarasota
Sarasota, FL

Year Founded: 1989

Employees: 6

Shop Size: 5,000 sq. ft.

FYI: Owner Jeff Stearns was working as a trim carpenter on high-end homes when he recognized a void in the marketplace for top-quality custom doors. So he started a company to meet that need.

Hurricane season is almost upon us - and it should be the start of a very busy time for Woodverks of Sarasota Inc., a Florida company that specializes in beautiful custom exterior doors engineered to exceed code requirements for hurricanes and interior doors. In fact, a rush in business already started at the end of February, following the appearance of an article about the company's doors in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. "Our phone has been ringing off the wall ever since that article ran," says Jeff Stearns, founder and president.

It was not Woodverk's first print exposure, however. CWB wrote about the company shortly after it started 10 years ago. Florida Architect also has featured the company. But this was the first time Woodverks received local attention, Stearns says, and it has had an impact.

Woodverks does all of its business by word of mouth and has customers all over the country. "In spite of myself, I have been very successful," jokes Stearns. In actuality, he takes customer relationships very seriously. "We do not have a catalog. Every door is custom," he says. "Instead of numbers, my doors have my customer's names on them."

Stearns founded Woodverks in 1989. At the time, he was running a company that did high-end installation and trim work for contractors working on a custom house. Stearns says he was motivated to focus on doors because he became aware that there was an unmet need. That customer became a mentor to Stearns as he set up the company. His advice was to be sure to work for his customers and not the bank. "He said to me, 'If you can't afford a piece of equipment, you don't need it.' Based on that advice, I started this company on four hundred dollars," Stearns says.

Building Hurricane-Strength Doors

Hurricane codes changed in Florida after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. Stearns says that it took about five years after that for code changes to be enacted in Sarasota. He consulted with his engineering company to make sure that his doors would meet code and received welcome feedback.

This set of doors in figured Spanish cedar was retrofit into an existing home. It meets Florida code.

"When I told them how I was constructing my doors, they laughed," Stearns says. "My engineer asked me if I had been making my doors that way all along, and then told me that I probably was the only one in the state of Florida who was making doors that would pass code."

Woodverks manufactures single doors that have a 10-point locking system, which refers to the number of points of contact with the jamb. The double doors have an additional four locking points in the inactive door, for a total of 14. To illustrate what this means in terms of weather-resistance, Florida hurricane code only requires three locking points. In addition, Woodverks doors have 30 to 40 tab cons, a concrete fastener used to anchor the frame or jamb to the structure, which also contribute to their weather-resistance.

The company also specifies a 9?16-inch laminated glass that can withstand storm impacts. "The people who buy my doors are my neighbors. I have to sleep at night," Stearns says. "I have been in Florida during a hurricane, and I have felt the walls shake. So that is the only way I will make my doors." Stearns adds that he has sold doors to customers in Naples and Venice, FL, that have been through hurricanes without a leak.

'Doing Things Right'

Stearns learned the value of doing things right at a young age, thanks in part to his grandfather, who was the postmaster in Blufton, OH, a small community with only one traffic light. "There was a lumberyard down the road. I would walk there and come back with some wood and make things with my grandpa," Stearns says. "He would always tell me, 'If you are going to do something, you must do it right.' There were times when he would lose his temper with me because I failed to pay attention to his words. I never have forgotten those times, because I did not like disappointing my grandpa."

This door is ash and picky cypress. It is plank door construction on the exterior side, shown, while the interior side is beadboard. It is 23?4-inches thick and each side weighs 352 pounds.

In addition to constructing doors that protect against the elements, the master craftsmen at Woodverks make doors that are beautiful and last a long time, Stearns says. "My customers want something that is custom-made for their houses. They have the money, and they don't want a commodity-type product," he says. "Some people are spending more for their doors than my wife and I spent on our first house. Our doors are known for their joinery and their grain matching. I am concerned about how the door is going to look several years down the road. That is why I provide a door that comes with a 20-year finish."
Stearns buys his finish from Pinellas Paint, a local company that uses a product first tested and still used by the Navy. Stearns says that it not only is durable, but also beautiful.

In addition to a fine finish, Woodverks doors are flat, straight and true, Stearns says. Proper preparation techniques and joinery are required to get the wood to relax and make a door that will not warp, he adds, noting that it was his grandfather who taught him the importance of the joinery.

With a product that has such great potential, given the impetus provided by violent weather the past couple of years, there should be marvelous opportunities for growth. Stearns acknowledges that he is interested in expanding the business, but says that he always moves slowly and cautiously.

A Door Story

These mahogany doors with palm tree cutouts have an interesting story behind them, Woodverks owner Jeff Stearns says.

"I built them for a show we were doing in Atlanta. They were sitting at the back of our shop about three weeks before the show when a prospective customer, a well-known local real estate developer, came in looking for doors for his home," he says. "We discussed some ideas and I took him for a tour of the shop, where he spotted these doors and said, 'I want them.' I explained that they were not available because we had to have them for a show, and the customer just turned his back on me and walked out, without saying another word.

"I thought that was somewhat rude behavior, but didn't think any further about it until the next morning," Stearns continues. "At 6:15 a.m. when I arrived at the shop, he was there with his wife, waiting for me. I opened up, he came in and put $20,000 cash on my table and said, 'I'm taking those doors with me,' and I said, 'Yes, sir, you are.'"

These doors are the first of what became Woodverks' Silhouette Series. To date, the company has produced many variations with different types of cutouts. "We can incorporate a silhouette of almost anything," Stearns says. "People love them."

The doors feature a double panel set back-to-back, with one full piece of carved laminated glass sandwiched between the panels. They are dramatic, Stearns says, because at night the interior lights of the house shine through, and in the day, sunlight steams into the home and creates a moving shadow pattern inside.

"I am too much of an artist at heart. My lack of business sense is what holds me back," he says. "I always ask myself, can I boost productivity and maintain quality? Also, what hangs me up when it comes to expanding is finding the right people."

Stearns has never advertised for employees. "Everybody who works for me has come in through the front door," he says. His three master craftsmen get paid the same and they all do the same basic job. However, because each door is custom-made for each client, they are not doing the same thing every day.

Stearns developed a company policy to establish a connection between the master craftsmen and the customers. After project plans have been developed and agreed upon, the client is invited into the 5,000-square-foot shop for a planning session with the craftsperson who will be making his or her doors. After the session, everybody feels that they are a part of the process, and the clients are talking with enthusiasm not only about the doors, but also about the company.

Woodverks uses a lot of imported lumber from Brazil. However, Stearns says he believes that over the past few years, the quality of the Brazilian wood has decreased while prices have increased. Consequently, he has been exploring alternatives, including domestic ash and maple.

"I also have been working on a prototype using a plantation-grown poplar. It is a pristine, white wood, but I need to be sure that it is a stable product," he says.

The company most commonly manufactures hand-made, walnut-pegged, resin-glued doors in Spanish cedar, ash, mahogany and maple. Interior doors range in price between $650 and $1,000. Exterior doors start at $2,500 and can cost as much as $25,000.

Two pieces of shop equipment play a significant role in Woodverks' doormaking process: a Cantek straightline rip saw and a Wadkin PAR joiner/planer, specifically designed for door and window sashes. The company also uses Powermatic shapers.

Stearns predicts that his next equipment purchase might be a CNC machine to prep doors for the multi-point and hinging. "I hang every door myself, because nobody else will take on that responsibility," he adds. "If a door is not hung properly, it has to be re-made. It is getting to the point where I will need some assistance with this process."

Like so many other companies in the custom woodworking industry, Woodverks is a family business. JW, Stearns' father-in-law, is the company bookkeeper, and Dean Stearns, his son, has organized the company on the computer. Jeff Stearns says that so far, the task has kept his son interested and challenged.

"Who knows, he just might take over the company one day with the help of Ken [Parmenter, Stearns' right-hand man]," he says. "And it is about time for me to involve Heather, my sixteen-year-old daughter, who knows everything."


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