Great River Door
It might seem like an enormous leap to go from a career working in the sign business to another career creating one-of-a-kind handcrafted wooden doors. But for Brent Manley, “one thing led to another” when Mark Erickson, who owned and operated a local door company, noticed Manley’s creative, hand-carved wooden signs and asked him if he could create some of those designs on the doors he built.
“We started off doing sub-contracting work for Mark’s company back in the late ‘90s, carving a wildlife design in a door for a particular customer, which then led to creating more doors for other customers over the next several years,” says Manley. “We could see that there was an increasing demand for these unique, personalized doors, and we felt that if we marketed them more strongly, and also expanded our customer base and area, we could possibly make a go of it.”
The Great River Door Company
In 2004, Manley and Erickson took the leap and decided to formally combine their talents and experience (in sign-making, wood carving, millwork and door building) to create the Great River Door Company in Brainerd. Their website states that they build some really “cool” doors, and according to Manley, the personalized designs they carve into those doors range from names to logos to wildlife, along with outdoor scenes or any other specific type of design a customer is passionate about.
“We may start with existing images, but we’re not just taking a design off the shelf,” says Manley. “If they see something close to what they like, we will revise it, but if they don’t see exactly what they want, it just means we haven’t created it yet. If a customer can dream it, we can most likely design it.”
Since each door is custom-made, built from scratch and hand carved, production time can be up to four months. A few talented local crafts people are contracted if the design includes etched glass, stained glass, or hand forged metal, but otherwise the four Great River employees do it all right there in the Brainerd shop. It provides a personal touch and a solid commitment to the product and the customer.
Although Erickson is now “semi-retired,” he continues to spend some time at the company almost every day. Manley emphasizes that Erickson’s background and 30 years of experience in door manufacturing ensure that the entire process is top quality, including the time-tested mortise and tenon method – the strongest and most lasting way to join two pieces of wood together – instead of the dowels, screws or bolts used by many door companies.
“First and foremost, we’re selling a high quality wood door that will stand up to decades of use,” says Manley.
Besides the highest quality of woods and components, the company uses heavy duty ball bearing hinges, durable nylon weatherstrip, and an aluminum sill with adjustable threshold for a secure closure. Although Great River doesn’t install the doors, they work with each customer to ensure that it’s the right fit, the right door, and the right design.
“Once we find out the customer’s structural needs, then we establish what, if any, carving they have envisioned,” he continues. “That’s when we begin working on the design element. We can get as wild and crazy as they want us to with their design ideas.”
Sand Carving Method
Wood carving itself is an ancient art, and in some areas of the world there are examples of intricately carved doors that have remained standing for centuries. With traditional wood carving techniques, however, the pricing of those doors would be out of reach for most people.
Manley’s “sand carving” method may not be as traditional, but it is unique and it is effective. Building on the techniques he learned over the years creating wood signs, he uses utility knives and Exacto knives to carve out a completed design on a sheet of specialized rubber to be used as a stencil.
“This process is what separates us from the others,” says Manley. “It’s a very labor intensive process, but it allows us to create designs that wouldn’t be possible with other methods, like using a router. We can make ornate type carvings without being out of reach with our pricing.”
The rubber stencil is laid across the door panel, and that’s when the sandblasting begins. A mixture of air and sand is shot at high speed from a compressor to eat away at the wood in certain areas. The rubber stencil, made of a “resist material,” causes the high-powered sand to “bounce back” around the carved out areas, creating a design in the door.
“After the background is carved out, we come back to finish off the remaining details of things like animal facial features,” says Manley. “If there’s a design that warrants it, we go back to do the rest by hand.”
Some types of wood work better than others with the sand carving/sandblasting process. Knotty alder is probably the most popular right now, but they also work with a lot of pine, cedar and fir. Preserving the door and the design is critical, too, so employees at Great River work with each customer on different types of finishes for both the interior and exterior that will help protect these remarkable doors from the sun and other weather elements.
If possible, the doors are delivered to local customers. Otherwise, they’re carefully crated and shipped. This niche market has created interest in the lakes area of Minnesota, but Great River recently shipped a door to Alaska, and they also ship them to several areas along the East Coast and among the mountain states out west.
“There are certainly artistic elements in what we do, but we’re not trying to push the boundaries of a work of art,” says Manley. “What we’re trying to do is produce a quality door that also has something that people are going to like – allowing them to display a customized feature in their home that is a reflection of their personalities, passions and interests.” ~L&H
by Patrice Peterson
Photography by Kip Johnson