By Matt Monaghan, Business, Statesman Journal,
Salem, Oregon, February 16, 2004
Sweat drips off the brow of Alex Zukowski as he sands the railing of a
staircase that he is building in his shop. The staircase likely is not the
kind you have in your house - unless you live in a multimillion dollar home.
Zukowski is the owner and founder of Master Woodworks, a small business
in Salem that specializes in building staircases for luxury homes. After
withstanding the economic downturn that dried up some of the luxury
home-building market, Master Woodworks is springing back to life with a
publicly funded local project.
As an added bonus, the project - the replication and replacement of the
existing exterior staircase on the Bush House - will give Zukowski the
opportunity to show off his work. The Bush House, built in 1878 by Asahel
Bush II, is a 12-room Victorian-style home open to public tours operated by
the Salem Art Association.
The staircase to be replaced measures approximately 6 feet high and 8 feet
wide. Zukowski's task is to make an exact copy. The existing structure,
which is deteriorating, has a curving rail that flares to two intricately
Mark Connors, who manages the Bush House for the city of Salem, said
finding someone to match the staircase's original specifications was not
Connors said the new stairs will replace the old in the first week of March.
Master Woodworks owner Alex Zukowski has built a business building
custom staircases for homes. One project is a free-standing structure in a
Clackamas County home made of cherry wood with steel supports
Wright / Statesman Journal
To complete the task, Zukowski will call on lessons that he has been
learning and practicing his entire life. As he grew up in Argentina,
Zukowski learned the intricate skills and techniques from his Ukrainian-born
Crafting wood in the back of his family's home, the elder Zukowski fashioned
household wares with an old-world style. "I would watch my father do veneers
by hand with a knife and a straight edge using hyde glue," Zukowski said. "I
had all that built into me very early."
In 1980, Zukowski came to Salem to attend college and never left. In 1985,
he opened his first shop.
Master Woodworks will produce between 15 and 25 jobs per year, some of
which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cliff Frey, a high-end home
who has contracted with Zukowski, estimates that a moderate home may budget
a basic staircase between $2,000 and $4,000.
Master Woodworks currently operates out of a 6,000-square-foot warehouse
where the company's five employees work on multiple projects year-round.
Today, Zukowski combines his father's old-world principles with the
precision and safety of modern technology. Following industry standards,
Master Woodworks uses a computer aided drafting program to draw design
In the replication of the Bush House, Zukowski took measurements of the
existing staircase, then input them into the drafting program. Even the wood
cutting is done electronically. Still, Zukowski depends heavily on his sight
and feel of the wood to produce the kind of finish he desires. However, as
Zukowski learned in 2002, craftsmanship alone is no substitute for solid
"2002 was a really tough year, and I found that we had to diversify to
simpler jobs because the high-end market went away," Zukowski said. In fact,
Zukowski had to reduce his staff by half because business had slowed so
much. He said it felt strange to regress the business, but he never lost
sight of his primary goal: building masterful and unique staircases.
"If you're a small business, you can't be enamored with your idea," Zukowski
said. "You can take a step back as long as it will help you move forward in
the future." If the first two months of 2004 are any indication, Master
Woodworks appears headed in the right direction. With the gradual growth of
the economy, high-end homebuilders once again are turning to Zukowski. As a
result, he has plans to hire more employees.
He even is gaining national acclaim, recently finishing a staircase for a
homeowner in Hawaii who had seen his work on the Internet. One of his
current six-figure customers is Seattle-based high-end home contractor
Krekow Jennings. Dave Pitkethly, a project manager for Krekow Jennings,
said Master Woodworks excels in every facet of its craft.
"They did traditional oak staircases with oak paneling and made a pair of
taper fluted satin wood columns for a home in Seattle," Pitkethly said. "It
Without doing much direct advertising except for a couple of industry
magazines, Master Woodworks' client list extends as far east as Indiana
because of referrals.
"It's the kind of thing when people move, they don't want to leave it (the
staircase) behind," Frey said. "It's not like a dining set. You can't pick
it up and take it with you."
Matt Monaghan can be reached at (503) 399-6744.
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