Many who read this shop profile started their business with little money and meager surroundings - often in a garage. But few, if any, can claim they started their woodworking business in a chicken coop. Hap Shepherd and his late partner Tony Maurer began working in a chicken coop in 1974 before moving into a Civil War-era factory. The business, Maurer & Shepherd Joyners Inc. of Glastonbury, Conn., focuses on 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century millwork, primarily reproducing doors, windows, moldings and wide-pine flooring.
Shepherd began working as a carpenter's helper at the age of 14 and says he was "on the roof" all the time. His father had a business as a dormer salesman. When he reached 18, he had to register for the draft and decided to sign up with the Navy Reserve.
"I wanted to pick my school so I decided on pattern making, because that was woodworking and I was able to stay on a ship and still did woodworking. I was in the service for five years, went to school in California and graduated as a third-class pattern maker over in Spain."
Hap Sheperd Owner: Maurer & Shepherd Joyners Location: Glastonbury, Conn. Shop size: 4,000 sq. ft. Employees: Seven • Founded: 1974 Hap on Hap: “We do a little bit of everything. I’m not making widgets. If I was making coat hangers, I probably would have hanged myself by now.”
He returned from Spain, got married and lived for a while in Charleston, S.C. Then he returned to Connecticut and took a union job at Pratt & Whitney. He didn't realize he had to start all over as a pattern maker
"They said it was nice that I was a pattern maker in the Navy, but you were on your first hour of 10,000 hours that you had to do for your journeymanship. It took me six years to do the journeymanship; I became a journeyman pattern maker and that was when everything fell out. The Vietnamese war was ending and the world was getting smaller and they were laying me off a lot. Every time they laid me off, I would go and work on building my house."
The business begins
In 1974, Shepherd was finishing his house and needed some 18th century reproduction doors. Enter Tony Maurer and his chicken coop.
"We became partners up until about 1989 when his health got to him. He actually started in a chicken coop. If you wanted to turn a board around, you had to go outside the coop and turn around. He had a couple of Sears Roebuck machines and managed to make a window with a table saw, a radial arm saw and not much of a shaper. Then we moved here in 1974. I was getting out of the pattern industry even though it was very lucrative; there were only about 25 pattern makers in the Greater Hartford area. But I wanted to move on. Tony never got to making my doors, so I asked him if I could make them and he said 'Sure, come on down.' When I went into the business, I was young. I was a go-getter."
Maurer & Shepherd Joyners Inc., started out as a small local business, made the products and did their own installations. Through the years, the business had been kept small with never more than 10 employees. But Shepherd noticed there needed to be some changes.
"I figured out that we were making money in the shop and losing money on the road," he says. "So I got rid of installing right away. I was better at communication than Tony was. He was a great engineer, but his communication skills were lacking, so I pretty much started running the company even though he was about 20 years older than I was. He eventually got out of the business because of health problems."
Shepherd decided to start broadening the business around 1977. He took out a tiny $20 advertisement in the former Colonial Homes magazine and soon the shop was getting inquiries and jobs from around the country. The business began making a profit and he reinvested in buying machinery.
"The business has changed through the years by taking on some more modern stuff and probably a heavier volume. I'm very picky about what I want to do and what I don't want to do. I'll turn a job down. I'll recommend somebody; I won't leave anybody in a lurch. I'll say this is a better fit for you. I don't want anything to do with cabinetry."
Besides doing restoration work, Maurer & Shepherd Joyners also builds new items for mansions, but in a traditional manner. He currently has work in lucrative areas in Montreal; Hamburg, Germany, and the Hamptons in Long Island, N.Y.
"I have work all over the place. In 1976, they had what they called a Colonial revival period, 18th century houses were being disassembled and that's where the history stuff comes in. You have to see it and actually feel it so it is the correct stuff. When the house is disassembled you find out more about a house. Houses are changing about every 40 years or so. We do windows, doors, architectural millwork, paneling, anything.
"The window business is probably the most profitable for us. If you get into windows, you'll probably get the doors; you get the doors you might get the interior. We don't do any type of casework. We replicate everything; make our own knives, whatever it takes."
Shepherd says the two things he was good at were history and woodworking and, if you put the two of them together, "you've made a good life."
The business end
The company's philosophy is described perfectly on its website:
"From the beginning, our focus has been historical preservation and quality craftsmanship. This focus has made us knowledgeable not only about the joinery techniques of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, but also about America's architectural history.
"Over the years Tony and Hap brought in additional craftsmen, but always kept the shop small and focused. To this day, we are still located in the same building in Glastonbury and we still take the same approach toward our work. Each person has his own project and the job is seen all the way through by the same worker, from selecting the right lumber to the final swipe of the hand plane."
Being off the shop floor and running a business has been a major transition for Shepherd. But since his partner left years ago and he has a shop foreman, he can concentrate on the business end.
"Woodworking is very much piece of mind - you're always thinking ahead," he observes. "You're always thinking about money. There is a big difference. It is more stress related in the business end of it than the actual woodworking end. I get a $25,000 insurance bill coming in and you have to worry about getting paid after you finish a job. A lot of companies are getting hurt because a lot of people aren't paying their bills."
Although it is a specialty shop, Shepherd will accept all types of window and door work.
"If somebody wants a storm window, I'll make him a storm window. If they want a $25,000 entryway, I'll make them a $25,000 entryway."
Glass is a key item in restoration and reproduction work. Shepherd manages to find glass that was made from the exact period of the production of a piece.
"We use old glass. A guy I know is putting in plastic glass and he's pulling out this old cylinder glass. Well, I buy it up. I just got a load in that came in from Boston, but it has to have that wave to it. It's not table glass which was the early one that was blown into a bubble ... the next step out was cylinder glass and cylinder glass came out about 1800 or so all the way up to about 1930. The glass you buy today is called float glass. You have grades: A grade, B grade and C grade. Well, we want the C grade because we want the wavy stuff - it's the cheap stuff. They make reproduction glass, too, but I don't like it. They overdo it.
"The early windows were lead and they were all casement, they swung out. Then they went into a double hung, but they had lead panes inside. They were rectangle panes instead of triangle panes. That was your first double-hung window. Then they went into wood muntin bars, which had pretty standard sizes and went up to 1775 or so. That was the age when the houses were being done with American technology."
Shepherd also provides wide pine flooring for his customers, a bit of an oddity considering the considerable amount of window, door and architectural millwork the company produces.
"The customers don't want strip pine, they want the old 13" to 24" wide boards and they want a hand plane finish on it instead of a standard finish. And they want it put down with old nails. We have nails made for us. But the trouble with pine lately is its hybrid so you can't use it because there are only four to five [growth] rings to the inch. They try to grow a 100-year-old tree in 25 years and it is a bunch of sapwood."
"Brad Douglas [our shop foremen] takes care of all production downstairs, everything from working with the guys and organizing stuff. I have to do the history stuff; the research. When it comes to the history of the window, you have to go in there and look and look and look for little telltale signs, little shadows in the wood to show you the profile of the molding that was there 100 years ago."
Shepherd was asked what still excites him about his job.
"Old houses," he quickly replies. "I go in there and I find stuff that other people don't have. And selling a job - that's what excites me. I'm in charge of the payroll. And I want things to be historically correct."
Contact: Maurer & Shepherd Joyners Inc., 122 Naubuc Ave., Glastonbury, CT 06033. Tel: 860-633-2383. www.msjoyners.com
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.