Spokane Journal of Business

Carving a niche in keystones

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Carving a niche in keystones
-—Staff photo by Mike McLean
Clint and Cheryl Bower say Themed Millwork's wall-mounted hardwood accents are meant to look like "room jewelry."

After selling their Rathdrum-based, high-end wood-molding manufacturing company a few years ago, it didn't take long for Clint and Cheryl Bower to discover they weren't ready to retire. So they started over again, though on a smaller scale.

About 30 months ago, the Bowers launched Themed Millwork LLC in the back corner of a 25,000-square-foot building they own at 14028 Ohio, in Rathdrum. The building had housed Braided Accents Inc., the hardwood molding and trim shop the Bowers had sold earlier to Oregon-based Hardwood Industries Inc.

"We thought we wanted to retire, but we're both active, and we still want to do something," says Clint Bower, who's 65 years old. "Now, I just go to work every day and come up with ideas and try to make them work."

Their current endeavor is centered around their take on a historical architectural element called a keystone, which they've incorporated in elegant wall-mounted hardwood accents that they like to call "room jewelry."

The traditional keystone was cut from stone, usually into a trapezoid-shaped block, and placed in the apex of stonework archways such as those erected over windows and doorways. In some cases, the exposed face of the keystone was carved ornately.

That trapezoid shape is the basis of Themed Millwork's wooden accents designed to make aesthetic statements with hand-carved images representing personal endeavors and interests, such as wildlife, sports, hobbies, and vocations, Bower says.

In all, Themed Millwork offers some 60 different carvings so far that come in a variety of stains and finishes. Among their most popular uses, Themed Millwork's keystones serve as thematic focal points for locally assembled coat hooks and frame tops for mirrors and chalkboards.

Themed Millwork occupies 3,300 square feet of warehouse space and 800 square feet of office space, and the rest of the former Braided Accents building is leased to Venom Group International, a Rathdrum company that sells radio-controlled toys worldwide and is owned by Bower's son, Clinton R. Bower.

Cheryl Bower, who's been in the hardwood lumber and molding business since the early 1980s, handles the accounting and fiscal end of the business.

The husband-and-wife team has no other employees, although they work with a Hayden woodworker to assemble the items, and a Post Falls company to stain and finish them.

Themed Millwork also taps Venom for help with designing its marketing materials and shipping, he says.

Hayden Lake master woodcarver Tom Reul carved some of the keystone prototypes, which were then sent to a hand-carving company in Vietnam that Bower says provides consistently high-quality work.

"It amazes me," he says. "We'll get 800 pieces in, and 800 will be perfect."

Now, Bower emails a photo of a design idea he has, and the company usually emails a photo of a prototype carving for approval or changes within eight to 10 days. "And we go from there," he says.

The hardwood used in the carvings mostly is Pacific Northwest alder, which is easier to work with than some other hardwoods, such as oak, Bower says.

"It carves easily and is a terrific wood for staining," he says. "You can make it look like walnut, and you can make it look like cherry."

Themed Millwork currently sells about 150 units a month, Bower says. A keystone alone starts at about $30 finished, or $20 unfinished. On the higher end, a 33-inch by 44-inch framed chalkboard tops $300.

Themed Millwork is turning a small profit, and now that the groundwork and infrastructure is in place, the company is poised to step up its marketing, Bower says. The company recently made its products available through Amazon.com, and they also can be ordered from Themed Millwork's website.

In the retail sector, the company targets certain specialty shops, such as Coeur d'Alene-based Idaho Lights, to sell its products rather than big-box retailers and home-improvement chains, Bower says.

He says he learned while running Braided Accents that high-volume stores aren't good at selling custom woodwork.

"Our whole marketing approach has been on the upper end of the scale," Bower says. "Our success is dealing with small, privately owned companies that understand the design end and the upper end of a given industry."

The company also will soon launch campaigns targeting market sectors that he says have high potential for increasing sales.

One campaign will emphasize its beachfront collection. "We're getting ready to mail materials to every yacht club in the U.S.," he says.

Because some of the more popular carvings are of wine glasses, bottles, and grapes, the company also is preparing marketing materials aimed at the wine industry.

"Most wineries have tasting rooms and gift shops," he says.

Bower says he's sold several chalkboards to area restaurants, including Coeur d'Alene's Bistro on Spruce and Bardenay Restaurant & Distillery.

He's looking into contracting with independent sales representatives to tap further the restaurant market.

Themed Millwork also can do some corporate work.

"If you came in and said you need 45 keystones with your logo, we would make an effort to do it," he says, adding that it takes six to eight weeks turnaround time for such a project.

Themed Millwork currently is working on a project to make trophy plaques for Ground Force Manufacturing LLC, the Post Falls maker of massive support vehicles for mining operations.

As that project is envisioned, the plaques would have hand-carved depictions of Ground Force vehicles that would be presented to customers for office displays.

Bower says the company hasn't even begun exploring how to approach other potential market sectors, such as college and professional sports fans, which would require licensing.

"To some degree," he says, "this has taken us places we didn't originally plan to go."

Mike McLean
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Reporter Mike McLean covers real estate and construction at the Journal of Business. A multipurpose fisherman and vintage record album aficionado, Mike has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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