My interest in woodworking started in 1967 as I was walking past the fire wood pile in the driveway. I was drawn by the possibility of the raw material and I found myself in the garage, picking up a 3/8" chisel and a hammer and sat down in the driveway to put my own mark on a piece of oak and make it my own. I was in 11th grade.
College, Navy, marriage, and children pulled my life in many directions but I was always drawn by an interest in woodworking. I went to see the work of George Nakashima, and I loved the woodwork of Wharton Esherick. I was inspired when reading "The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking" by James Krenov.
This is a water damaged photo of me and my four youngest children in 1983. I am reading "Fine Woodworking Magazine", issue #40 May/June 1983. I didn't have many woodworking mentors that I knew personally but I had many experts that shared their knowledge and passion with tips, tricks, photos and "how to" advice, that inspired and instructed me with each issue. I started getting Fine Woodworking Magazine in 1975 when it first came out and my passion for fine woodworking became greater as my knowledge and confidence increased.
I have been self employed most of my working life in some sort of residential construction. At the time of this photo, I had just left a job, running a three man shop, making jewelry showcases and had formed a partnership with a woodworking friend. Our first job was trimming houses and installing handrail on prebuilt stairs. I was beginning to get the bug for stairbuilding. It wasn't long before I had the opportunity to fulfill that itch. The job superintendent asked my partner and I if we could build a set of stairs. I jumped at the chance, although I paused for a moment when he described the job as a 90 degree circular stair. He wanted us to build the stair in place, because the last two prebuilt stairs that were delivered to the house didn't fit.
We did a lot of homework before we took on the job. After some serious head scratching we successfully completed the job. The end result pictured below.
At this point I had a serious case of stair fever, so we subbed out the trim work and just concentrated on handrail and stairs. The handrail installs kept coming, but the stair work was hard to keep steady, mostly because we did not have a shop to prepare our materials.
Partnerships don't always last forever and neither did ours. I soon found myself working for a design build contractor. I did his stair work, trim and kitchen in an old church he was converting into his home.
I worked exclusively for this builder for about five years doing all his carpentry work from the foundation forms to the roof rafters, building the stairs, balustrade and making the kitchen cabinets.
Custom Home and Barn Conversion
Sometimes steady work and a paycheck every Friday, trumps pursuing what you would like to be doing, but the fire still smoldered as I began reading some of the books that were available on tangent handrailing. Most of these books were gems from the 18th century and at first glance made no sense and required more attention than I could give during sleepy moon light encounters.
I had by this time built a shop on my property for stair building. I also started to pursue the art of tangent handrailing more seriously.
I decided the only way to get over the hump with the tangent handrailing, was by committing myself to using this method on the next circular stair, no matter how long it took to complete. That soon happened and there were many roadblocks in the process. There were many cries for help to a few friends, but once they saw what they would have to invest to begin to understand my questions, they didn't have the time or the same desire.
The cry of the heart is most useful and most fervent when all our resources are exhausted and we are at our wits end. It is at times like these that we are more apt to seek the God of all wisdom, who is gracious and gives gifts and understanding unto men. I have found that many times the gift from God begins as an unfulfilled longing or desire and it provokes a groaning of the heart which often ends in enlightenment.
Let's get back to the problem at hand. I needed handrail for a circular stair with a double open starting tread at the bottom with two descending volutes all cut from solid blocks. The clock kept ticking. As I poured over the drawings and methods in three different books the light began to shine, a little bit from this book and some from another, until I was able to draw my first face mold and apply it to a glued block of scrap framing lumber. Everything went well except that I had applied the bevels on the joints backwards and the rail section ended up being twisted the wrong way. Regardless, I was thrilled to have overcome what seemed impossible and I was on my way to a more perfect understanding.
Finished stair and handrail pictured below
The rest of the puzzle came soon after I made contact with my old partner in business. Unbeknown to me he had been pursuing the same handrail process. The only difference being that he found someone who was well established in the old world handrail techniques and was willing to share what he knew, including the shaping process. The shaping or profiling process which he shared with me was a key element for making the whole handrail process practical and I used this method for years. The down side was that it was very dangerous and eventually I almost lost my thumb, so I began looking for a safer, affordable, way to shape the handrail. A five axis cnc machine will do the job nicely but was not affordable, but a three axis machine with a 4th axis indexer was my next adventure. Communicating with a machine requires you to speak the language which in my case meant learning 3D cad and a cam program to write the tool paths. Now I am applying the old world ideas of laying out handrail with the help of modern technology in 3D cad, and using a cnc machine for the actual cutting which makes for a safe and accurate, beautiful end product. I have successfully sent handrail components from Pennsylvania, all over the USA, as far as the state of Washington, Idaho and Alaska.
This is my story and the passion behind Custom Handrails. Maybe you have a project you are considering and desire something beautiful and different that can't be bought at the big box stores. If you are not afraid of an investment, let me show you how to produce a timeless centerpiece of beauty in your home.
Give me a call and let me put these skills to work for you on your project.
610 476 4025
G. Earle Vogels