Remodeling and Home Design

Arcways, Inc. Constructing Distinctive Curved Stairways That Are Simple to Design and Install

Reprint of article from "Builder/Architect Magazine"

By Mary Schmutzler

Builder / Architect Magazine

"Once a builder has one of our curved stairways in place, he'll see how simple it is. Oftentimes, builders will tell us that our preassembled curved stairways are much faster and easier to install than a straight staircase built on site."

Tom Stilp, who owns and operates Arcways, Inc., Neenah, Wisconsin, in partnership with his sister, Sharon Stilp-Kressin, believes that staircases manufactured by Arcways can simplify home construction. He wants builders to know that Arcways' curved and spiral stairways increase the value of a home significantly, and that Arcways provides the necessary design and installation support.

"In the past, some builders hesitated to use curved stairways because they weren't sure how to install one," Stilp explains. "However, we do shop drawings to ensure accuracy, and frequently field measure on behalf of the builders. We deliver the staircase directly to the site, with one of our field technicians, who assists with setting the stair carriage."

Builders' reluctance to use curved stairways can end up short-changing the customer, Stilp says. "There are builders who aren't using the product, but should be, because they're building homes of over $300,000. They assume a curved staircase will cost the homeowner an additional $10,000, but that's not accurate," he continues. "In fact the cost for the upgrade from a typical L-shaped stairway is only about $3,500 or $4,000, which the homeowner will recoup in resale. Read some real estate ads - if the home has a curved staircase, it's one of the first selling points that's mentioned."

Stilp says that architects and builders throughout the country are using curved stairways as signature trademarks. The foyers with curved stairways automatically spell "quality" to the consumer, he says.

Stairways built in the Neenah factory of Arcways reflect the latest design trends and consumer demands of the market, Stilp says. "We're seeing more use of metal balusters on wood curved or spiral stairways. The metal balusters can be hammer-forged, or with designs ranging from a simple twist all the way to calligraphy. Gothic, Mediterranean, Southwestern and contemporary decors all are enhanced by a staircase with metal balusters and a wood railing.

"We're also seeing increased use of exotic species of wood to build our curved and spiral stairways," he continues. "More than half of the stairways are still constructed of red oak, but more and more are being built of cherry, white maple, black walnut, mahogany, and exotic woods such as anegre and macore."

Along with the use of more wood varieties, Stilp has seen stairways become increasingly elaborate. "Over the past few years, we've seen our dollar volume increase while the number of units we manufacture remains about the same. Homeowners and architects are requesting or requiring very elaborate staircases, with features like laminated bent glass or hammer-forged wrought iron work, " he explains. "With the size of homes increasing as well, some larger homes require more than one stairway. Last year, we saw more than a dozen homes of over 20,000 square feet that required as many as five or six monumental stairways."

No matter the size or specifications of the staircase, however, all curved and spiral stairways manufactured by Arcways share common advantages over site-built stairs, Stilp points out. "Our stairways are manufactured in a factory, in a controlled environment with humidification systems," he says. "This is all we do. Our stairways are warranted, and meet Architectural Woodwork Institute standards."

"Curved stairways are much more affordable being built in a factory, rather than on the job site," Stilp says. "A curved stairway built on site is much more labor-intensive. The staircase is the largest object that the finish carpenter needs to work on. Having the stairway pre-assembled, whether straight or curved, can free up an enormous amount of time at the job site."

He continues, "Finish carpenters are also limited by the equipment they have on site. In the factory, we have computer numeric-controlled routers, moulders, and a CADcam station tied to a router that's within 1/100th of an inch tolerance. Our accuracy is much higher due to the high-tech equipment we have."

Stilp cites quality differences between Arcways staircases and sitebuilt stairs composed of stair parts. The Arcways continuous handrail is horizontally laminated and shaped, not bent." We've developed a process that has eliminated the bending of handrails. Our shaped handrails are an exclusive Arcways feature. There are no finger joints or numerous top glue lines in the handrails," he points out.

Instead of conventional glue and nails, balusters in an Arcways stairways are attached with tap-loc fasteners, so they will not loosen or wobble. "All of the returns are pocket-screwed and fastened from underneath," Stilp says. "All of the treads and risers have tongue-and-groove joints, just like a piece of furniture."

A pre-assembled staircase from Arcways is an all-one-piece stair carriage that doesn't rest on any other material, Stilp explains. On a typical site-built stairway, a carpenter will cut out rough "horses," put plywood down, then attach the treads and risers on top of that. "Whereas our pre-assembled curved or even straight stairway is one complete stair carriage - it's not resting on any surface below it. That way, we've eliminated any potential squeaking or movement."

The fact that the stair carriage is all one piece makes installation easy, he continues. Normally, within two hours, the stairway is through the front door, in place and fastened to the header. If the stairway is not entirely free-standing, the carpenters can build 2 X 4 walls after the stairway is in place, using the stairway stringers as templates.

Stairways from Arcways have been featured on "This Old House" on the Public Broadcasting Service, and Arcways is currently involved in an upcoming episode of "The New Home Show," also on PBS.

Arcways staircases can be found all over the U.S. as well as in Japan, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, and other nations. Railings and balusters manufactured by Arcways have been used in large institutional offices, such as law firms, accounting firms, hospitals, even the chambers of the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.

Quite a journey for a Valley company that was founded in 1966 by Donald Stilp and John Boehme. At that time, Donald Stilp was a general contractor who was building a home for Boehme, who wanted a curved stairway. Stilp, a skilled woodworker, researched the project and assembled the staircase, which he delivered to the home site. Both men saw the potential in assembling stairways in a factory setting, and formed the Arcways, Inc. partnership. What began in a small warehouse on Canal Street has grown into a business with more than 50 employees building hundreds of stairways each year in a 100,000 square-foot location at 1076 Ehlers Road, Neenah.

In 1989, Tom Stilp and Sharon Stilp-Kressin purchased John Boehme's share of Arcways, and a year later, their father, Donald Stilp, retired. Today Tom is in charge of sales for the company, and Sharon handles the operations end of the business.

Builders and contractors interested in Arcways curved and spiral stairways can contact the company directly at 1-800-558-5096, or email Arcways at