Rick Schneider of Vermont Custom Woodworking in Monkton combines his knowledge of science and tolerances and his artistic bent to create one-of-a-kind furniture pieces, staircases and sculptures.

It could be said that Rick Schneider starts in heaven his love of woodworking to build his stately staircases.

Stairways to Heaven

by Rosalyn Graham

Folks who think of wood as solid, stolid, hard, inflexible, humdrum and even boring should hear Rick Schneider when he describes the material he loves: subtle, melting, floating, warm. "Wood and woodworking are a passion for me," admits this native Vermonter, who uses his intuitive understanding of the power and beauty of wood to coax the desired product out of a piece of mahogany or cherry or maple, balanced with a physicist's love of the intricate forces involved in attaining a harmonious and functional solution to a problem.

Of particular interest to clients who seek him out are his "tapering staircases with horizontally laminated stringers." Seen from the side, the staircase seems to float, a graceful curve of warm cherry rising from floor to ceiling. From above, its tightening spiral evokes the mystery of a chambered nautilus. Hidden in the beauty are thousands of hours of laminating massive blocks of wood, cutting perfect arcs, stacking them in an ascending pattern, then measuring, assembling, reassembling, machining, polishing and buffing to exacting tolerances. More art than production, Schneider says.

Schneider has been making spiral staircases since he began his professional woodworking career. It was the early '70s. He had earned a degree in physics from Cornell University.

Schneider felt a pull, however, back to the satisfaction he had felt growing up, as he helped his father, Ed Schneider, with woodworking. Ed taught woodworking to young farmers-to-be at the University of Vermont's Agricultural College.

"He had had polio and was in a wheel chair, but he was determined to do everything himself," Schneider says, "so I, as a young boy, and my brothers were extensions of his hands, getting tools, reaching things." Schneider says his father was a big influence and good teacher, and after college graduation, Schneider decided he had "had enough of this laboratory stuff" and would work with his hands.

The evolution from carpentry to fine woodworking began as Schneider worked as a finish carpenter in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where he came in contact with the arts and crafts community that surrounded the Naples Mill School in Naples, N.Y. "By the time I came back to Vermont in 1977, I had done my first spiral staircase; had had carvings at galleries. My spark had been ignited. I couldn't see anything but woodworking."

Schneider's furniture pieces and staircases have been in galleries and shows throughout the Northeast. His work has appeared in such publications as Architectural Digest and American Craft, and has been featured on the Discovery Channel and HGTV's series Modern Masters.

Schneider returned to Vermont to a wooded lot in Monkton's rolling foothill countryside, a property his parents had purchased in the mid-'60s that belonged to him and his two brothers. The first order of business was to build a shop, which Schneider designed on a napkin. For 15 years he and his brother Cal worked together in the Vermont Custom Woodworking business that Schneider continues today.

"I built the studio with staircases in mind," he says. The sunny building has a 20-foot ceiling and lots of room to maneuver the lumber he uses and the spiral staircases he might assemble as many as four times before delivering them to the homes where they will become centerpieces.

Schneider has collaborated for more than seven years, on everything from staircases to secret doorways, with Laurie Brittain, who is building a home in North Chittenden. She first talked to Schneider about her idea of creating a "secret staircase" to connect her eighth-grader daughter's room to an attic playroom with the sense of magic she loved in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

"I wanted the railing to be sinuous and follow the curve of the stairs, with a tree-like carving to give a feeling of the outdoors at the top," says Brittain.

She says she values Schneider's intuition, creativity and ability to convert her ideas to reality. The current project he is doing for her house is a stair rail made of cherry that embodies her idea of a rail that will "slow down the feeling of the stairs," making going up and down the stairs an aesthetic experience.

Schneider leaps at opportunities to confront challenges such as the ones he addressed in his work on Brittain's house. He likes to engage not only his skill in woodworking and his mathematical ability to translate an idea to a product, but also taking an idea and making a prototype that helps a client visualize the concept and move it forward to production.

An early challenge was to carve the mahogany forms from which plaster casts were made for the decorative acorn, oak leaf border and rosettes on the ceiling of the governor's chambers in the Statehouse in Montpelier during the first renovation work there. He also carved the pineapple decorations for the House chamber of the Statehouse.

He enjoyed the challenge of creating a larger-than-life sculpture called "a bust of Buster the Boxer" for a man who raised champion boxers, and the fun of designing a headboard for a client who said she needed a tall headboard because she had 10 pillows. He has designed and built a cantilevered balcony for musicians that overhangs the great room of a home in a reconstructed barn, and decorative detail for the ecclesiastical furniture for the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington.

He has made prototypes for projects such as variable-height tables and fine art lamp bases, and loves the excitement, constant learning and reinvention involved in solving technical and manufacturing problems for a new product. "Every time it is a new challenge," he says of prototyping or commission-designing one-of-a-kind pieces. "After 30 years, I still have to learn something new for every project. I keep pushing myself a skill; a book to read; a tool to learn how to use. It's half the fun of picking projects."

Schneider uses a quirk router to make stair fittings that turn in two directions at once called "wreaths." He learned to make the templates for these stair fittings from an antique book he encountered. A blacksmith friend crafted the router's blade.

Grace Pomerleau of Grace Pomerleau Furniture Studio in South Burlington continues to come to him with new ideas for translation into wood. "She has great ideas; I do the prototypes; and she has machinery to copy it," Schneider says. His most recent project for Pomerleau was creating two mahogany cats, as tall as a fourth-grade child, to stand guard at the foot of an Egyptian motif bed.

Schneider finds inspiration on his "commute" from the house he built and shares with his quilt-maker/painted-furniture maker and watercolorist wife Helen Gordon just across Meader Road and up the hill from the studio.

"The birds are there and I see evidence of bear and deer, and now there are owls in the trees," he says. "The things I love are the natural things. Flowers have got me intrigued. I want to carve and sculpt flowers. I love the subtractive process of sculpting, but it's very, very painstaking because subtractively you can go too far, so there's an edge to it."

In his studio, Schneider combines the technology of today with the ancient skills of woodworking. He has the typical woodworking tools a lathe, a router, a shaper, a radial arm saw, a band saw. He also uses sculptor's rasps and has made specialized tools from directions in 100-year-old woodworking manuals. He works at the bench that was his grandfather's, and stores tools in the tool boxes that were his father's.

Schneider describes himself as an anomaly between a tradesman and an artist. "People buy my work for its art, but that's not what starts them," he says. "They need a chair or they need a staircase, and then they realize it can be more than they were originally thinking."

Originally published in April 2004 Business People-Vermont