Architectural Millwork & Overall Winner

A Touch of Heaven

Curved, transulcent maple panels produce an ethereal glow and a winning entry for Wilkie Sanderson.

By Michaelle Bradford
Wilkie Sanderson

Sauk Rapids, MN

Project: Bigelow Chapel

Year Established: 1976

# of employees: 72

Shop Size: 65,000 square feet

Specialty: Commercial architectural millwork, panels, solid surface work, laminate and cabinetry.

Project Notes: The chapel contains six honey-colored sections, which were used in a curved manner up and down the interior of the curtain wall with light emitting through the panels.

Photos really do not do it justice, but they were impressive enough for our 2006 judges to name the Bigelow Chapel project, with its curved, translucent quilted maple panels fabricated by Wilkie Sanderson, winner of the Architectural Millwork category, as well as the overall winner of the Design Portfolio Awards.

Perhaps the most captivating aspects of the project are the translucent veneer panels that emit a honey-colored glow from the glass exterior over the entire room.

The design for "see-through" wood was envisioned by architects Joan Soranno and John Cook of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson Inc. Wilkie Sanderson was then chosen to create something that "had not been done before."

Marc Sanderson, president of Wilkie Sanderson was up for the challenge. With his background in the automotive industry and his knowledge of plastics, he immediately set out to do the impossible. "Over the weekend - we met on a Thursday - I literally, in my garage, mixed up the glue, got some Plexiglas and a thin sheet of veneer together.

[Then] I lifted up my Ford Explorer and used the front of [it] as a press," Sanderson says. "I still have the stains from the binder permanently embedded in the concrete floor in my garage."

Although his wife was not pleased with the stained floor, Sorrano and Cook were more than happy with the 12-inch by 12-inch sample he created, Sanderson says. "They said, 'That's exactly what we want. Now, can you do that in 4-foot by 8-foot sheets?'"

Translucent veneer panels were encapsulated between non-reflective acrylic sheets to filter light from the glass wall.
Architects for the Bigelow Chapel project wanted a "see-through" wood that would create a warm glow.

The process of researching and creating a 4-foot by 8-foot translucent panel took two years, Sanderson says.

According to Sanderson, the panel is veneer that is petrified or encapsulated in an acrylic matrix. It has binder material and acrylic sheets on both sides. "It's like a sandwich," he says.

Manufacturing the veneer requires a Joos press. "To the extent of equipment used, that's the main piece of equipment we use for fabrication," Sanderson says. "We buy our sheets from Indiana Architectural Plywood."

For the Bigelow Chapel Project, the veneer source was sought worldwide. A big-leaf maple tree from the Pacific Northwest was finally selected and then shipped to Germany for peeling, Sanderson says.

It was returned to Indiana Architectural Plywood and cut into 1?32-inch veneer strips. Acrylic strips 1?8-inch thick were then laminated to each side of the veneer.

Sanderson says that 60 panels were needed for the project, but they only had leaves for 62 panels. "I could only screw up two," he laughs, "but we didn't even use the two we had left over."

Sanderson credits the successful completion of the project without error to the long research period. "The two years in the development of the process left us bubble-free and error-free. It's a pressing procedure that we go through, but what we do to prep the material is critical to making sure we don't trap air bubbles in the product and have cracks or veneer splits because of the pressure."

Sanderson says the biggest challenge was making the translucent veneer panels into 4-foot by 8-foot sheets. But, based on his experience, he says it can be done, and "with similar durability to parts that end up in a car.

"You can do different, creative things with wood veneer and we're experimenting with other stuff right now to think outside of the box."


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