Remodeling and Home Design

Specialty Machinery Stair builder creates "virtual" staircases

Reprint of article from "Wood Digest" September 2005

Written by Steve Ehle

Wood Digest

Arcways offers customers computer - generated tours of their new stairway.

There are no "buyer beware" issues with customers purchasing a custom staircase from Arcways, Inc. That's because those consumers are provided the opportunity to view a virtual image of exactly what their staircase will look like in its environment once it's installed.

Arcways, a family-owned company located in Neenah, Wis., has been producing preassembled, factory-built high-end custom staircases for more than 40 years. With customers in nearly every corner of the planet, Arcways speaks a universal language when it interacts with its customers: design excellence and quality are guaranteed.

The company has a controlled factory environment meant for producing one-of-a-kind stair designs.

Arcways co-owner Tom Stilp explains why this is preferable to on-site production of staircases: "Jobsite conditions are tough on the outcome of a job-built stair. Our stair carriages are completely blind fastened, like a fine piece of furniture, with not a single nail hole present. Job-built stairs are fit piece by piece with limited concealment of joints which then must be carpeted.

"Our stairways are made up of an entire one-piece carriage vs. individual pieces being fit to an inaccurate substrate or rough framed undercarriage. The customer knows the costs upfront with a preassembled unit. Our stairways are an engineered product."

Using a computer-aided design software package called Chief Architect, Arcways' designers work with architects, builders and homeowners to create a computer-generated 3-D curved, spiral or straight staircase that will be built to exacting specifications, guaranteeing structural integrity, according to Stilp, who owns Arcways with his sister, Sharon Stilp-Kressin.

"Something like a curved or spiral staircase is hard to visualize," says Stilp. "With a preassembled factory-built staircase that the customer views in a virtual format, what you see is what you get."

Before the design process is initiated, potential customers can begin the process through Arcways' interactive CD. This password protected CD includes over 200 high-resolution images of both completed stairways as well as complete video episodes of Arcways' "The New Home Show."

Arcway's menu-driven CD can be navigated using a web browser — such as Netscape navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. To view CAD files, a DWG or DXF-compatible viewer is required. If the visitor does not have a CAD program, a viewer is included on the CD.

"We encourage the website visitors to request a copy of our CD," says Stilp. "And, with the 3-D software, we're able to give the customer a virtual tour of what their stairway will look like in the house, including the furniture that will be around it. We can even add people."

Powerful Program

Arcways began using Chief Architect about seven years ago. Currently, Arcways is the only stair-building company using the product; however, according to Stilp, there are thousands of designers and architects using the software in their businesses.

Stilp explains: "We use AutoCAD to draw our shop drawings and Router-CIM to program our Komo VR512 Mach 3 four-axis CNC router. We use Chief Architect, which is a basically a design and drafting software, for 3-D renderings for customers to visualize their curved stairway in the initial design phase.

"If you have Chief Architect software, then you have Arcways' curved stairways and profiles in your software. It's an incredible tool that has given us the ability to show customers what their foyer is going to look like with an Arcways stairway. We can provide either 8"x 10 glossy photographs of several view angles or provide the customer with a CD client viewer so they can pick their own view angles.

"We've been able to up-sell our customers to more elaborate stairway designs now that our customers can visualize the impact. You actually draw in 2-D, then convert the image to 3-D. This allows the customer to see exactly what they can expect when it is installed. This virtual home eliminates a lot of the anxiety that goes along with adding a complex stairway."

The Chief Architect software can create plan views, elevations, cross sections and balustrades that are easily called up, modified and copied into working drawings. Then the DWG files can be translated with a CAD user's DXF software for use with a variety of operating systems.

Chief Architect also creates cutlists, component designs and even the number and type of fasteners that will be used in the assembly process.

Once the design is completed and approved, a precut template is sent to the customer or builder. This plywood template includes the entire design of the walls.

"Using this template, the builder is able to locate exactly where the headers and other structural parts of the stair will be located," Stilp explains. "Then, when we bring in the preassembled staircase, the walls are perfect and installation is fast and accurate."

Again, no muss, no fuss, no surprises. And, buyer need not beware.

Copyrighted material, reprinted with permission of Wood Digest (