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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 13: Woodwork Part 1, Design

Friday, June 1, 2018

On a gray Saturday morning while I was at the office struggling to meet a Monday morning deadline, Kristen approached the counter at the lumber yard. A scruffy looking guy in a faded plaid shirt sat hunched over a computer keyboard at a desk behind the counter.

“Hi. We’re remodeling a 50-year-old Prairie-Style California Ranch and I need some help with selecting millwork.”

Mr. Plaid sighed and pushed his chair back as he grabbed a thin catalogue from a pile on the desk.  He took a half-step toward the counter and dropped the document in front of her, “This is everything we have.”

Kristen flipped through all six or seven photo-copied pages and asked, “Which of these would you consider to be Prairie-Style?”


“Do you have anything else?”


 “What about doors?”

“Interior or exterior?”


-sigh- “Here”

Two more catalogues were dropped on the counter.

“I’ll look at them at home with my husband.”


It didn’t take us long to look.  We never went back.

Monday morning while we were getting ready for work, Kristen hopefully offered, “I’ll be at the Tollway today (we have several staff stationed in the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority’s Downers Grove headquarters and she leads that team).  At lunch, I’ll run to Naperville to a lumber yard.  Somebody there might be helpful with high-end woodwork.”

Ten hours later she marched into the kitchen of our home in Plainfield.  “We’re going to have to figure this out ourselves.  I went to two stores, and they made ‘Mr. Plaid’ seem helpful.  Neither place had catalogues, and one told me to just look at their website.  I did.  It’s useless.”

We bought books, we bought architecture magazines, we looked at websites…we looked at each other, and we were confused. Kristen had a vision that the woodwork should be simple and unique.  My vision began and ended with getting rid of the old hollow-core doors and ash clamshell moldings. We researched, and measured and sketched and we came-up with what we wanted, casings narrower than the heads which would be thicker than the baseboards, no base shoes or plinth blocks – simple.  Hickory, to match our kitchen cabinets which we had already selected (future story).  Fruitwood stain to match the existing Marvin windows that Mom had had installed a few years earlier, which also matched the pine tongue and groove ceilings.  Three-panel solid hickory doors.

Kristen started calling lumber yards, and she found one in Wheaton that was helpful.  We made a lunch hour appointment to meet with one of their design consultants whom I’ll call Fred (I’m using an alias, you’ll understand why when you read Parts Two and Three) and our carpenter John (his real name) gave us a comprehensive list of each piece of woodwork we would need.

Kristen and I met in the parking lot at the lumber yard and in a short time we were in awe as we wended our way through the displays in the show room.  Some of the doors and windows belonged in castles!  We were WAY out of our league in this shop!!  We approached the counter and this store’s Mr. Plaid was wearing a $200 crisply pressed Pendleton.  He greeted us warmly, smiled and called for Fred on a radio.

Fred bounced into the room with a big smile and strong handshake.  He led us to an opulent conference room on the second floor where we told him our story as he looked at the house plans.  After several minutes he smiled, excused himself and came back with a stack of different board sizes in various colors and finishes.  We started putting combinations of the pieces together accompanied by a mimic of an eye doctor’s questions of, “Is this one better…, or this…? This one…, or this…?”  After about half an hour we had a final decision on the three different sizes of wood work we needed; 1” x 4” casings, 1” x 5” baseboards and 1½” x 6” heads.  Then we chose pre-hung interior doors and hinges. Then closet doors and hardware. Then color and finish.  We gave him John’s list, and Fred smiled and said he’d call us tomorrow to schedule a site visit.  Because of the size of the order he wanted to make sure it was correct.  In the meantime, he would get price quotes and timelines from different mills and wood finishers.  If we chose red oak instead of hickory we could expect delivery well before October 1, thus giving us plenty of time to complete the house by Christmas.  We chose the oak.   Kristen and I were relieved as we skipped back to our cars…

Here is a snapshot of our bedroom door:


more to come...

Have a great day!