Volume 415, Issue 6 - August 2006

The Big Impact
The Biggest Issues Facing the Stair Industry
by Sarah Batcheler

The stair,which had become common by the early 1500s, has influenced the art and science of architecture greatly. Over the last few years, stair manufacturers have seized the opportunity to unveil new types of stair parts and designs with the help of technological innovations such as computer numerically controlled (CNC) equipment. However, stair manufacturers are also combating challenges such as finding skilled workers, achieving efficient manufacturing processes and dealing with code issues.

Biggest Advancements

With technology improving at a fast rate right now, the stair manufacturing industry has become faster and more accurate.
The biggest advancement in the past several years, according to some, has been the adoption of CNC routers. 

“For us, at least, it [the biggest improvements] have been the advances made in the woodworking industry with CNC technology. We also have been using software called StairCon to design and machine our parts,” says Dave Silvia, manager of the architectural products division at Horner Millwork in Somerset, Mass.

“The CNC router is allowing us to continue building accurate, complex stair designs with intricate details that in the past; only a seasoned craftsman could create,” says AJ Cheponis, owner of Symmetrical Stairs Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla.

Erica Banahan, inside sales at Schutte Stairs in Cincinnati, agrees that software and automated equipment have made a huge impact on the industry.

“The computer software to design and manufacture has developed so much over the years which makes these processes even more advanced. Also the use of the CNC routing technology; this is a new advancement that is very exciting,” says Banahan.

The new technology is helping companies deliver a wide selection of products.

“Customers are asking more and more for selections beyond the traditional standard profiles in oak, beech and maple. With our manufacturing capabilities, we can offer custom profiles in hand rail, newels etc. in attractive premium and exotic wood species,” says Terrie Stokes, vice president of sales for Coffman Stairs in Marion, Va. 

Boyd Winkler, director of sales and marketing for Fitts Industries Inc. of Tuscaloosa, Ala., says he thinks the biggest advancement in the stair industry is the increased number of stair shops and companies preassembling rail systems. 

“Once the job of trim carpenters, builders have focused on the cost-effective advantage of buying pre-assembled stair systems,” says Winkler.

“Fifteen years ago, builders wouldn’t put in a prefinished wood floor - most of the floors were unfinished. Now, that has flipped, based on the evolution of technology in the manufacturing process and the fact that builders like to be able to walk on the floor at any point [in the building process],” says Jay Schumacher, partner of Stairtek Inc. of Newport, Ky., a company that manufactures stair parts including treads, risers and nosing. “Stairs were still unfinished and yet prefinished floors were being [installed] in a wide variety of colors. They would put in an ash-colored floor in a different species and people were trying to match the stairs to the floors,” he adds.

Facing Challenges

While every company faces different challenges, many companies in the stair manufacturing industry agree—it is hard to find skilled workers.

“Nationwide, we face an epidemic that few people speak of, the lack of young artisans,” says Cheponis. “Society demands beautiful stairs and railings. To grow a profitable business we, as stair builders, need to invest in technology and create new ways to efficiently manufacture stairs,” he adds.

Silvia agrees, the lack of young woodworkers is affecting the industry. 

“[Finding] qualified, experienced help has been a real challenge,” says Silvia. “I also have co-op students from three area vocational schools working here at different times in a grassroots effort to keep adding on to our team in the shop.” 
Banaham says that educating employees has become very important.

“The biggest challenges that we face within our company is the constant need for product knowledge and teaching that knowledge to employees and also customers,” says Banahan. “We find that the best way to overcome these challenges is to have one-on-one training with every employee, and as much as possible with customers,” she adds.

Some companies, like Coffman Stairs, have been affected by import companies.

“Competition is increasing from a number of small import companies with generally good pricing, quality and lead times,” says Stokes. “While generally regional in nature, these challenges are met with the broadest offering of both products and species in the industry, industry-leading service levels and specialty niches such as pre-finished products, pre-assembled products, high-end series and custom profiles,” Stokes adds.

You Want What?

Staircases offer homeowners the opportunity to dress up an interior or establish a wood species theme. Any stair company that has been in business for awhile has been asked to create some interesting staircases.

“Our most interesting request has to be the 360-degree, free-standing, curved stair with a glass rail,” says Banahan.
Winkler says his most interesting requests are for historical reproductions. 

“People are always asking us if we can replicate products and/or create newels and balusters they have seen in design magazines,” he adds.

Sometimes the requests are not possible.

“[Someone requested] a handrail made of woven twigs. We did pass on that one,” says Bob Spryszak, sales and marketing for Old World Millworks in Maple Park, Ill.

With homeowners looking to personalize their living spaces, sometimes, the sky is the limit.

“Our most interesting request was a $30,000 Australian cyprus stairway. Australian raw material processed in Virginia and installed in the Caribbean. Quite a trip!” says Stokes.

“[An interesting request has been for] a curved stair that started with a Jatoba bull nose-starting step and changed along the way ending with a maple stair tread, and landing tread at the top,” explains Silvia. “The first floor had Jatoba flooring, and the second floor had maple installed. Each tread included both species all the way up creating the transition,” he adds.

Working with Builders and Architects

Some stair companies work closely with builders and architects, while others say their interaction is limited.

“We are constantly working with [builders and architects] on a one-to-one basis to understand their needs, and the needs of the end user of the products and services we provide. We help design if needed, by sending drawings to be inserted into the final floor plans,” says Silvia. “Stairs are such a focal point in any home, and they always need to be considered in that way during the decision-making process. Budgets, designs, code compliance and structural consideration are all part of the process,” he says.

Other companies, such as Old World Millworks and Schutte Stairs, don’t interact much with builders and architects.
We really don’t work that closely with builders or architects at this time,” says Banahan.

“Hopefully, the architect is finished by the time the stair part order gets to us,” says Spryszak. “We do a huge amount of custom orders over the course of a year. If the design keeps changing, it can get very expensive for their customers,” he adds.


The emergence of some building codes in the past few years has affected stair manufacturing companies, some say.

“Everyone is affected by building codes - the best thing that could happen to the nation is the adoption of one building code such as the IRC,” says Cheponis. “Consistency and clarity can help us all create a safer and more consistent staircase. The Stair Manufacturers Association’s (SMA) role in stair codes at the national level has helped an industry; oddly enough; few people know about it,” he adds.

“As we have expanded our service area, we have to be in contact to see how it might affect our product,” says Silvia. “We are members of the SMA. They are working very hard on getting an International Residential Code accepted throughout the United States. It will be a huge benefit to everyone to have one code adopted for the entire country, and a version of it for Canada,” he adds.

Banahan and Spryszak, on the other hand say they are not affected dramatically.

“The building codes are always changing, but we find that there is no big effect; we just role with it,” says Banahan.
“We decided a while ago that we just have to react to whatever is out there,” says Spryszak. “While the SMA has been working all along to make it all more coherent, there’s sometimes no accounting for a region that just has a specific interpretation. So while on the one hand we’re always supporting what the SMA is trying for in relation to codes, [our company] isn’t averse to reacting to the demands of the real world,” he adds.

“Certain stair part categories have been affected through the years due to changing building codes,” says Stokes. “Larger profile rails have been pulled from the standard offering (C-6600 and C-6310) while other rails have been modified from their original profile (C-6210W). All balusters are now offered in a 44-inch length to accommodate the higher rake rail height codes seen in some areas,” she adds.

A Changing Industry

“We aren’t affected too much by the codes because we don’t build the steps. The codes affect the assembly process more than the parts manufacturing,” says Schumacher. “We comply, but it isn’t that big of a deal,” he adds.

In this ever-changing industry, one has to wonder what the future holds for stair manufacturers.

“Consolidation will be the next step. Larger, lean, and agile companies will get bigger and stronger while bringing proven engineering principles as well as standardized applications to the industry,” predicts Cheponis. “Although this statement will prove to be controversial, it will make for a better industry,” he adds.

“The stair industry is going to revolve around codes and standards,” says Winkler. “As an industry, stair builders are going to have to lead by becoming members of organizations like the SMA so that they can take a lead role in determining practices and procedures in building ‘better’ and ‘safer’ stairways,” he adds. 

SMA Participates in Stair Code Development

Professional stair builders are engaged in the ICC code development process through the Stairway Manufacturers Association (SMA). Through the association, stair builders and ancillary businesses associated with the stair industry are able to support testing and research as well. This information is then used to support the development of building codes and standards related to stairs. 

The SMA sponsored the first dynamic testing of actual stairway falls through independent scientists. The results of this testing has lead to the current regulation in the International Residential Code that specifies the acceptable shapes of handrails that provide for safe travel on stairways. In addition the SMA proposes reforms, to the stair codes, that assure consistent enforcement and interpretation, by providing representation at code development hearings. The SMA through the work of its code and research committee also publishes Visual Interpretations which provide accurate illustrations of each aspect of the code language.

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