Any given day at The Wills Company office, there’s a 12-foot strip of custom carved crown moulding lying on the floor, awaiting installation along the ceiling of a Nashville house. Chances are it was carved by Stephens Millwork.
The Stephens family founded the company in 1918 and operated for many years out of the Shelby Bottoms area. About five years ago, Nashville cousins Gray and Tucker Egbert purchased the venerable company, which now occupies a warehouse off Dickerson Road. Under a vast network of dust-filtration ducts, piles of oak, red grandis, cedar and other other Tennessee-grown woods make their way through a gauntlet of planers and table saws, to emerge as architectural elements, ranging from mantels and mullions to casing and corbels.
I recently arrived at Stephens with a shopping list that included arched French doors, a pair of garden gates, and 150 lineal feet of exterior window stop with an odd dimension.
Wolfgang Gander, a veteran of Nashville’s home-building industry, gave me the nickel tour of the woodshop, where I ogled mahogany screen doors and delicate hand-carved brackets for a historic restoration. When I asked the guys if they used a CNC machine–a digitally controlled cutting device–to make such precise replicas of original wood trim, I got the same indignant look I get from knitting maven Ann Shayne when I ask if she bought her sweater at Target.
“We are old school,” someone explains.
For a prime example of old-school craftsmanship, look no farther than the rows upon rows of drawers containing knives to create custom moulding profiles. Like an old-fashioned library card catalog, the drawers bring order to the infinite chaos of architecture, where every transition from floor to wall and wall to ceiling provides an opportunity for a different decorative solution. Quarter-round, beaded, Shaker, Colonial…The options for moulding profiles are limitless. It can be overwhelming choosing among the curves and angles in their infinite permutations, not to mention trying to match existing mouldings among so many variations.
It is reassuring to know that when it comes to selecting moulding profiles, virtually any design can be matched or recreated. But the pragmatist in me can help but ask, “Why don’t we just all agree on a standard shape?”
I know the answer before someone responds: “Nobody wants to be all the same.”
As long as there are skilled craftsmen like the woodworkers at Stephens Millwork, we don’t have to be.