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Drawn to the drawing board

On his list of favorite things to do, David Marshall puts designing and constructing wood stairs at the top.

Dave Marshall (top, left) with his son Henry.

“Stairs are an interesting and challenging blend of form and function, which I never tire of mulling over,” Marshall says. “Pleasing appearance and proportion are very important and so is precise engineering to carry all the weight and meet the building codes.”

When he opened his woodworking business in 1994, Marshall hoped he could exclusively build spiral and winding stairs for a living. But the just-every-so-often demand for them couldn’t sustain a business, so he added cabinets and launched his Albion Cabinets & Stairs Inc. in Earlysville, Va.

Why the name Albion? It means “Old England”. Someone suggested he play up his English heritage, since the country has a reputation for some of the best wood craftsmen. Marshall adds, “It was also a good name because it began with ‘A’ so it was often the first to appear in the Yellow Pages under woodworkers.”

At first he worked alone, but eventually he hired a part-time employee to help with his first big project, a kitchen for a friend of a friend who was building a home.

“I offered to do the job for a ridiculously low price. She knew I had never undertaken such a job on my own, but she took a risk on me. She was pleased with the final product and that got my business off the ground.”

The bonus was a spiral stair she asked him to build.

Running the shop

Today the 3000-sq.-ft. shop runs smoothly with three employees. Shawn Bailey and Paul Wright came to Albion with carpentry experience. Henry, Marshall’s son, joined his dad in 2001. He grew up learning the trade and gaining appreciation for wood and woodworking at his dad’s elbow. He was between jobs and uncertain about his career path. His dad suggested he join Albion and see how he liked it. Henry now manages the shop.

“Henry is talented in every way – woodworking, installation, customer relations,” Marshall says. “Eventually, he’ll inherit the company, but not too soon. I’m in my 70s and still pretty healthy and I don’t want to give this up. I look forward to being here every day. I’m sort of the front-office guy. I handle job development and ordering supplies and make initial contact with customers and do follow-up consultations. I take care of bookkeeping and issuing paychecks with the help of QuickBooks and Payroll for Mac.”

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Of Marshall’s many functions, making a congenial connection with clients is always of primary importance for a company like Albion, a custom business serving the residential segment. Sometimes customers have their own architects but if they don’t, Marshall provides his experienced advice.

“They may have a vague idea of what they want and often support preferences with pictures from Pinterest or magazines. Our objective is to help the client visualize how the end product will look and function. Sometimes that means discussing a variety of options they may not have thought of. My drawings can often help clarify a sticking point.” 

Getting the word out

Now that Albion has more than 20 successful years in the woodworking business, word of mouth plays a big role in getting the jobs it wants. In addition, the company’s website and social media presence have been big draws. “Some of our competitors are having trouble staying busy because they haven’t put the time and effort into creating a web page and signing on to social media sites. Though I don’t care for Facebook very much, it’s proven its value in staying in touch with past and prospective clients.”

The Scout Guide has also been a good advertising tool. The sophisticated, hardcover magazine is published annually in print and online and features regional ads for small businesses and artisans. There’s a localized guide for each of 60 cities across the country, including Charlottesville where it originated.

“One of our major problems is finding clients who can afford our products and who appreciate handcrafted stairs, cabinets and furniture. Upper end cabinetry is our niche and The Scout Guide targets that demographic within our 15-mile operating area.”

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But keeping the company name out there for everyone to see doesn’t always assure an even, consistent flow of work. “This past winter we had a dry spell similar to the recession and we invented things to keep the guys busy. Then we were buoyed in spring 2016 by four cabinet jobs and a staircase. Right now, we have people waiting, which you could call a backlog. We average about 25 jobs a year, including staircases.”

Tackling stairs

Marshall says designing a staircase requires an expanded set of guidelines and an open mind. The available space will automatically dictate the form, be it winding, spiral or straight, as well as the degree of the turns and the number of treads.

“One of the greatest architects, Thomas Jefferson, hated the amount of space a staircase required, so he built narrow, steep spirals with tight turns. Today the building codes won’t allow those. And it’s probably a good thing; those stairs were hard to traverse and impossible for moving furniture.”

Marshall likes the winding form because it can be a space saver over straight stairs, it’s pleasing to the eye and a challenge to design. For a visual reference, think of the sweeping staircases in the old Southern plantations.

Though they seem to be going out of style, Marshall has designed several spiral stairways with no risers and no skirt. “Riser-less stairs can appear to be free floating, but they have different requirements. When you take away the risers, the supporting framework has to be substantially thicker so there’s no sway or bounce and the rail system has to be perfectly engineered to stabilize the whole structure.”

Albion recently crafted a grand spiral stair for a monastery. The white oak framework was built in the shop and transported to the site where the major architectural details were added. The skirt was formed by gluing together four thin strips of poplar and clamping them into a 180-degree curve. Like all spirals, the staircase revolves around a post secured to the floor. It was completed in about three months and cost around $14,000.

Marshall built a scaled mockup of a spiral stair to help his clients see how it would appear in different configurations. His model shows where you get on the stairs and where you step off as it’s rotated either clockwise or counterclockwise.

Stairs have been in Marshall’s mind since childhood when he made a small step ladder for his mother’s “larder”. “It took one whole school term to design and build,” he says. “I was taken with the whole process and wanted to build more. To me a good stairway seems like a great invention every time.”

Taking on cabinets and furniture

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The drawing board is a mainstay at Albion. Marshall gets along well with pencil, ruler and a piece of graph paper; he’d rather not let technology interrupt his flow of ideas. Though he prefers doing scale drawings, he might supplement with CAD renderings, especially to check the construction feasibility of his cabinet designs.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a Luddite, but I still prefer to do things by hand. I like hand tools and using an old-fashioned plane, for example. But, of course, in the shop we have the essential power equipment to get the job done; we buy only used and only what we need.”

Albion’s inventory of power tools includes a SCM SC3 MiniMax table saw; Bridgewood shaper; Bosch router; Timesaver sander; Blum Minipress; Hitachi miter saw; 16” Delta jointer, and Grizzly dust collector. There’s no CNC right now, as it isn’t needed for the work the company does.

Crafting cabinets uncompromised in quality and precision is a source of pride at Albion. It likes to purchase top-of-the-line, up-to-date hardware and built-in features from Hafele. Currently it’s using a new, smoother pullout pantry unit, and metal retracting storage baskets, which expand cupboard space and swing from back to front for easy access.

To save time and manpower, Albion purchases smooth, prefinished maple plywood for all its custom cabinets. The Kreg pocket hole screw system is used for more efficient joint connections. Doors and drawer boxes are outsourced and Albion adds all the front panels.

Allotting the proper space for built-ins was a problem in the past, because spec sheets can be inaccurate. Now Albion has the appliance the customer specifies shipped to the shop so exact measurements can be determined.

Spiral staircases have always been a shop specialty, but Albion is also known for its high-end cabinets and furniture.

Occasionally, Albion finishes its cabinets and furniture, but usually it contracts its painter, who comes to the shop to use its facilities. The company does, however, do all its own installations.

Furniture commissions normally come as an outgrowth of a cabinet project. Albion has built a variety of one-of-a-kind pieces through the years – desks, tables, chests. Any one of them could win an award for beauty and functionality. In fact, Marshall did receive first place in the commercial furniture division from Wood Digest for his cherry lectern. The church podium, one of his few commercial projects, was praised for its design and workmanship. His personal taste tends toward clean, simple lines, but he adds finials or any decoration at the customer’s request.

The Dave Matthews traveling “piano” is one of Albion’s most unique pieces. Marshall crafted a spiral stair for one of the musicians and was asked to build a piano shell for the band’s synthesizer. “We used 1/2–inch plywood so it was very lightweight and easier to ship to their gigs all over the world. It was an interesting project and unlike any I’ve done since.”

Life unfolds

Passion for wood and woodworking was sealed during Marshall’s early childhood. In Bath, England where he grew up, he learned hand carpentry in prep school. “My teacher was strict and exacting and taught us to love the craft using hand tools,” Marshall recalls. “We learned to plane by hand and cut dovetails with the use of a hand saw and chisels. There was an emphasis on planning, being able to visualize the final product and bringing out the beauty of the wood.”

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Marshall was a social worker in England before moving to the United States with his American wife and four children in 1982. “I wanted a career change because social work is rather depressing; I thought I’d be happier in the woodworking business,” he says. “We decided to try Iowa where carpentry jobs at construction sites were plentiful.” Then the farm economy collapsed, work was scarce, and the family was ready to move on.

They chose the East Coast and the Charlottesville area because it reflected the English culture that Marshall missed. “We liked the town immediately and have grown to appreciate it even more over the past 20 some years.” For the first four years, he worked in restorations and building construction. His last boss saw his potential and said he should form his own company. And so he did.

“When I first started out, the hardest thing for me was asking the full price for my work for fear the client would think it was too much. I had to realize the merit and value of handcrafted wood and that people are willing to pay the fair price.”

Earning the going rate and making a good profit are no longer problems for Albion. Though expansion could be in the offing, Marshall will keep Albion the manageable size it is. “I’ve never grown fast and there’s not a good reason to get any larger right now. We’re profitable, keep our families nicely sheltered, fed, clothed and happy. I feel our small size enables us to focus on each individual customer, which wins their overall approval. Besides loving what I do, I get a lot of satisfaction from pleasing our customers.”

Contact: Albion Cabinets & Stairs Inc., 395 Reas Ford Road, Ste. 150, Earlysville, VA 22936. Tel: 434-974-4611.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.

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