Yale’s millworkers: making the new look old again

What happens when you combine an eclectic mix of carpenters with modern day tools and technology—premium craftsmanship done efficiently.

Years ago, Yale Facilities employed master carpenters specializing in handcrafted millwork to create and repair detailed wooden doors and other complex pieces. When prefabricated materials became readily available at home improvement stores and lumberyards, the need for internal carpenters faded. Carpenters became installers and the valuable art of handcraftsmanship was lost. In later years, it became apparent that the need for in-house millwork at Yale was essential.

In 2013, Yale established a new millwork team comprised of a talented group of individuals responsible for maintaining Yale’s older, often antique, wooden structures on campus. The team came from a diversified background with a variety of skills, including custom cabinet fabricating, handmade boat building, architecture, welding, and Corian expertise.

In 2014, the Millwork team received the President’s Award (now the Linda Lorimer Award for Distinguished Service) recognizing that millwork projects could be done differently and less expensively through the acquisition of a few additional pieces of equipment and the development of the millwright team.

 “This is an amazing group of guys. They care about everything they work on. We aren’t going to cut corners, we want stuff to last 100 years and look original,” said Scott Neeley, physical plant supervisor of Millwork, Carpenters and Painters.

While the millwork team maintains a variety of structures on campus, doors usually require the most work and can be challenging. Many of Yale’s exterior doors are one-of-a-kind, hand carved, and up to three inches thick. When a decorative wooden door or trim needs repair or replacement, the millwork team is ready for the task.

For outside repairs, the team tries to use wood that will withstand weather more so than the original material used. Recently, old and badly weathered exterior doors at the Yale Daily News (YDN) building were replicated using Sapele wood, a stronger timber grown mostly in Africa. At the Sheffield-Sterling Strathcona (SSS) building, the original, almost 90-year old, intricately-carved, three-inch thick doors were duplicated using the same species of wood with a more weather resistant finish

To reduce the amount of manual hand prep needed the millwork shop acquired a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) milling machine in 2017. “After some training and several successful projects, the millwork team has significantly increased their productivity, improved quality, and lowered costs,” said Neeley. Many projects around campus have been fabricated or refinished using the CNC machine including the SSS and YDN doors. The machine is currently being used to refurbish the Payne Whitney Gym colonnade doors. The doors were badly weathered and would typically require many hours of sanding and hand repair. With the CNC machine, hours of manual work are eliminated. “By programming the CNC to cut a thin layer of the door surface off, leaving a semi-smooth surface, we significantly reduced the amount of hand prep and sanding required,” said Neeley. Many projects around campus have been fabricated using the CNC machine including PWG and YDN doors.

Productivity has increased, and time saved on projects that require repetitive work. The team is currently fabricating over 20 wooden shutters for Timothy Dwight College. Before having the CNC, this would have been a very repetitive project. Now the CNC machine can be programmed to cut five sets of shutters at one time-saving time and costs.

“I never imagined the guys would be doing the things they’ve done with this little CNC machine,” said Neeley.

Thank you millwork team for keeping up with the repairs needed to maintain Yale’s elaborate doors, molding, detailed cabinetry, and other intricate woodwork on Yale’s prestigious buildings built over the last 150 years.

*The Millwork team was also mentioned in a local news article in the Daily Nutmeg.