There’s nothing like an extravagant crown molding, mantel, or corbel to make mundane woodwork outstanding. Unfortunately, there is also nothing like that at the typical home store. Seek such items there and you are likely to come away very disheartened. For the most part, what passes for moldings and appliques consists of simple routings, or shallow heat-pressed patterns in softwood.
Looking for Country French, Colonial, Greek Revival, Federal, or Victorian fittings? How about deeply carved, real hardwood corbels, medallions, and friezes? Forget the home store. Instead, head over to White River Hardwoods Woodworks, Inc. (www.mouldings.com), where you will find all this and much more.
The home page on their web site proudly proclaims “The essence of luxury and flawless craftsmanship,” and that is a pretty good description. One glance at their catalog, brimming with a wealth of beautiful, high quality embellishments in every style imaginable, had me eyeballing my house, picturing a molding here, a carving there, and an oh-so-elegant range hood facade in the kitchen. As if that were not bad enough, their newest catalog, called “Adornments for Cabinetry and Furniture” is chock-full of hand carved hardwood legs, columns, plinths, and corbels specifically sized for furniture instead of rooms. I felt like a dog in a forest.
White River was created, somewhat serendipitously, by two former Texans now living in Arkansas. Joan and Bruce Johnson were part of the “back to the earth” movement of the 1960s and 1970s; they bought some land in Arkansas, grew organic gardens, raised two children, and generally rebelled against the pace of city life. As luck would have it, Bruce was a carpenter who spent his days building homes and additions.
At one point, he decided to dabble in coopering, and started to make old-fashioned stave buckets, called “pioneer planters.” That woke him to the potential in a hardwood business. Bruce started buying hardwood from small mills in Arkansas and selling it in Texas, hauling the wood in an antique 1949 flatbed truck. Before long, he had a regular route through several states, and realized he needed to inventory lumber. He got a warehouse and, since he had the space, started selling moldings as well. In the meantime, Joan was at home handling the phones. “It was kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies,” Joan explained.
As luck would have it, someone came to them in 1978 with a molder for rent, and someone else showed up looking for a job running a molder. This was too good to ignore, and before they knew it, they were in the business of manufacturing moldings in addition to selling them. Since they were familiar with hardwoods, they decided to make hardwood moldings. Most of the existing moldings at that time were paint grade softwood, which were really only good for painting. They chose 12 common moldings, and made them in oak.
It wasn’t long before they started to experiment. “One day,” Joan recounted, “we cut a different molding, and everyone jumped on it. That made us realize that we should be offering something other than the same old moldings. In the 1980s, there were not a lot of decorative or embellished moldings in the market, nor was there one good manufacturing source to get such things. We started the trend of offering upscale moldings in consumer-friendly catalogs that helped customers see what their home would look like after it was dressed up.”
“At that time, heat-pressed embossed moldings were as fancy as it got. For something fancier, you needed to go to either plastic or plaster, and woodworkers preferred wood. We introduced the Mon Reale® (Italian for royal mountain) line in the early 1990s. It’s a molding with a very high-relief embellished surface made of wood dough applied on a solid poplar molding. Consequently, it handles like wood, and can be stained just like wood. Short of hand carving, which is very expensive, there was nothing available to the woodworker who wanted something truly fancy or highly embellished in the way of moldings. We made it affordable, available in long lengths, and most importantly, we made it beautiful.”
That line catapulted the business into prominence. Shortly after that, they developed a hand-carved line of wood corbels, rosettes, medallions, and appliques. By making these things available, they helped woodworkers reach back and recreate something both attractive and traditional. Today, 105 employees offer some 1,500 items, including moldings, carvings, mantels, chair rails and even flexible moldings. “We’re known for having a large range of products that we manufacture.”
Newly added is a line of hand carved “Adornments for Cabinetry and Furniture”, which includes capitals, plinths, legs, corbels, appliques, moldings and even kitchen range hood facades. What is unique is that this line is scaled down in size for furniture, where other classical ornamental moldings are scaled for walls, ceilings and rooms. Hence, it is ideal for woodworkers and furniture makers.
The company markets their wares through a network of thousands of dealers throughout the United States and Canada. Their products are carried in many woodworking specialty stores, including Woodworking and Hardware, and there’s a “find a dealer” button on their web site to locate a store nearby. This marketing strategy allows woodworkers to buy as little as one piece of molding or one applique, or have custom order pieces shipped directly to them.
“White River has also been a leader in educating our customers to what is available, what works together and how to use embellished elements to create a beautiful, classical design,” Joan continued. ” We don’t just copy. We actually design a line crowns, casings, chair rails, panel molds, baseboards and so on that all complement one another.”
For White River, it is all about the design, and the design is all about making things beautiful. “When you design around classical details, there is a discipline involved,” Joan explained. “It is not random. There is an underlying mathematics to beauty, whether it is in music, architecture, or art. That is the basis for our designs.”