Great Planes Millwork pieces shine in Ames-area businesses and homes; Nevada woodworker creates furniture that tells a tale
A cabinet in Luke Ulrich’s workshop is full of antique planes, each with a special story behind them.
Although he has a building full of big power tools, Ulrich does still sometimes pull one of the beautiful old tools from the cabinet as he makes moulding at Great Planes Millwork, his business on Lincoln Highway in Nevada.
For a quarter of a century, Ulrich has been woodworking in Nevada — the past seven years at his business located in a historic brick building at 1207 Lincoln Highway.
One of Ulrich’s specialties is creating decorative moulding for homes or for details on furniture. Ulrich custom grinds the knives he uses to cut the moulding.
“It takes a few cups of coffee and some patience,” he said as he demonstrated how he grinds the knives in one of the many large machines in his shop.
His attention to detail and tendency for perfection have helped his business grow via word of mouth. Recent work on the bakery cases and cafe tables at Bricktown Bakery in Nevada led to work at Z.W. Mercantile in downtown Ames as well as work at FarmGrounds coffee shop in Nevada.
“If you look at Bricktown’s bakery case, some of the details match the base,” Ulrich said. “The base is original to the building. It’s been there for a hundred years.”
Ulrich brought the whole case to his shop and restored it. He copied the moulding details and added them to the bakery case so it would look like they match.
At Z.W. Mercantile, Ulrich copied the details from the antique apothecary cabinets used as shelving in the store and added those details to the point-of-sale countertop.
“When people come in and want a piece of furniture made for their home or a fireplace mantel or surround, I’ll look at the details in their homes,” Ulrich said. “I’ll try to pull that out and add it to the existing, and then it looks like it’s always been there.”
For example, a Nevada family in a late 1800s home wanted to fix up their fireplace. Ulrich created a mantel that has interesting moulding details found in their staircase.
“A customer will come in with a piece of facing that they’re trying to match in their home,” he said. “So I’ll make a pattern and grind a knife so I can create something that will go with what they have.”
Attention to detail is also important for Ulrich as he selects wood for his projects. He especially loves it when the wood has a story itself.
A customer with a 1990s home wanted some work done, and Ulrich immediately thought: Red oak.
“They wanted something rustic, and as soon as they mentioned that, I thought of this wood,” he said as he pointed to a stack of old-looking boards.
The wood was recovered from a river in northeast Wisconsin, where it had been for more than 150 years.
“The same day the fire started in Chicago in 1871, the Peshtigo fire started,” Ulrich said. “That was historically the country’s largest recorded forest fire.
“There was a logging community way up there by Oshkosh. The loggers would float the logs up and down the river.”
Because of the fire, some logs sank in the river and remained there until about 10 years ago when a father and son found and salvaged them. The boards look old and dull as they sit in Ulrich’s shop, but his work with the wood will reveal its inner beauty and luster.
“Once you start cleaning it up and working with it, the beauty of that wood comes out,” he said.
Another unique wood Ulrich has on hand is a figured hardwood called spalted maple.
“In some woods, when they cut the tree down and the tree is dead, it may still have moisture in it and bacteria causes disfigurations,” he said. “If it’s not caught quickly enough, it gets rotten. But if you catch it in time, it creates a beautiful wood.”
Ulrich’s friend Bob Kloes in Wisconsin deals in figured hardwoods had two spalted maple logs from a forest — the only two spalted logs there — and sold some boards of it to Ulrich. Some of it will be used for personal projects, and a local luthier, Andrew Drake, will use some of it to build custom guitars.
“I’m always excited when somebody comes in and wants to have something built,” Ulrich said. “Especially something where I can use some pretty wood, something with some figure in it or that’s going to have a story behind it.”
Perhaps a story like the lumber rescued from Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines. Ulrich has used boards from the old seating there.
“If you look at the cafe tables at Bricktown Bakery, all that wood came from Vets Auditorium,” he said. “That wood all had bubblegum on it when I first got it. It was the boards people would walk across to get to their seats.
“They cleaned up nice though and it’s got that backstory to it.”
The story behind the wood adds to the beauty and value of a finished piece, he said.
“It gives it some romance right away and nobody else is going to have that,” Ulrich said. “That makes it exciting. It’s not like pulling a perfectly sized board or a piece of plywood out of the rack.
“It takes a lot more work to get it to be a piece of furniture because of the flaws in the wood, but you end up with a piece that has a story behind it.”