Tucked down an almost hidden farm lane at the west end of Orangeville’s Broadway Avenue is a specialized architectural woodwork firm whose creations are anything but hidden and are, in fact, signature pieces in numerous houses throughout the town and beyond.
Now in operation for more than 30 years, Kurtz Millworks designs, fabricates, and installs intricate gingerbread trim, chair rails, crown mouldings, balusters and other products which evoke memories of a bygone era.
Carefully selected and kiln dried lumber is used in the production of those products in a reconverted shed on the three-acre property.
“Basically, I serve a market within a two-hour radius of Orangeville,” says Larry Kurtz, a self-taught carpenter and the sole proprietor of the company which he started in 1990.
Larry serves a diverse clientele which includes custom home contractors and renovators who purchase the intricate pieces for their own projects.
For the most part, though, his customers tend to be the owners of historic or-century houses who are looking for a certain architectural type of woodwork to complete the look of the house, be it the exterior façade or interior rooms.
Of course not all the houses are old. Some customers want a new appearance, as was the case with the owners of a traditional 1970s bungalow. That transformation was achieved by installing white oak siding which complemented the existing red entry door, he says.
And some of the projects are not even for houses, says Larry, citing a 23-foot-long by eight-foot-high wall storage unit he created for a very high-end horse barn.
Although some order and purchase transactions are completed over the Internet, he prefers in-person consultations and meetings where he can assess customers’ expectations, show them a range of styles and designs, and offer advice. Meeting those desires and expectations is actually a two-stage process.
“A customer will often bring in an element or component of what they want duplicated—or perhaps a photograph. I will then create a mockup, discuss a ballpark figure and, if the client agrees with that price, I will go to their home and take measurements.”
Depending on the complexity and size of the project, turning those ideas, concepts, and designs into a finished product can take some time. “Our products are all hand built to order, so customers do need to be patient.”
Assisting Larry is woodworker/carpenter Kevin, who’s been working with him for the past 30 years. A subcontractor who also takes on his own projects, Kevin is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the shop. The two men describe their working relationship as a “perfect partnership” as it provides Larry with the time and flexibility to focus on the administrative side of the business, a key component of which is those crucial meetings with customers.
“I still like to get back to working in the shop though,” says Larry, adding he now has time to take weekends off or go to the cottage which he didn’t have in the business’s early years.
Like some, or perhaps most, entrepreneurs, he started the business in somewhat of a roundabout way. In his early 20s he studied radio, film, and television arts at Sheridan College, but didn’t finish the program. “I could see the graduates before me weren’t getting jobs.”
Instead, he acquired woodworking and contracting skills working at a woodworking factory in Georgetown and later as a partner with his father Allan, who is 86 years young and still doing some contract work.
Then, in the early 1980s Larry moved to Orangeville and started a renovation company which he operated from 1983 to 1987.
As a renovator, Larry was frustrated by the lack of an available supply of elaborate architectural woodwork for his projects and that frustration became the origins of Kurtz Millworks. After moving to the country property which is now the base of his operations, he started the company in 1990, using money borrowed from his father- in-law to purchase the necessary machinery and equipment such as saws and a moulding machine.
Launching the business and acquiring the loan was somewhat of a leap of faith for both, “As there was no guaranteed customer base.”
However, he rented space for a promotional booth in the Orangeville Mall and the leads and business contacts he made generated about half a year’s worth of work. About the same time he also landed a three-month contract to restore the distinctive exterior woodwork on the Orangeville Provincial Courthouse on Zina Street.
Over the years Kurtz Millworks has grown and evolved, in terms of both its customer base and the products and services it offers. For example, in 2012 Larry and Kevin built a 1,000-square-foot farm-building style show room to better showcase products and provide a more comfortable experience for customers.
Highlighted by an old-fashioned tin ceiling in the main meeting room, the showroom houses a number of products such as a series of screen doors which can be transformed into storm doors by removing a frame and installing a custom-cut piece of glass. The glass cutting is contracted out to another firm.
In another progression a few years ago, he replaced an old scroll saw with a computer numerical control (CNC) router. This is a sophisticated computer-controlled machine which automatically performs the cuts necessary for turning lumber into complex shapes, turns, and corners, a prime example being gingerbread trim. Previously those cuts were done by hand using the scroll saw, a time-consuming and laborious undertaking, he says.
Learning how to program and operate the router meant that Larry had to take a two-day online course and another two-day in-person session at the headquarters of the Burlington based manufacturer. Although it was very expensive, Larry expects it will pay for itself over time.
Even though he has been operating Kurtz Millworks for more than three decades, Larry says he still enjoys working with clients to help them improve their homes and businesses and is looking forward to continuing to create more beautiful woodwork.
WRITTEN BY: DAN O’REILLY | PHOTOGRAPHY: PAUL SPEARS
RESOURCES: KURTZ MILLWORKS