A Guide To Architectural Millwork

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Whether you’re a junior architect just starting out in your career, or you simply want to learn more about architectural millwork, this guide covers everything you need to know. We explain:

  • what architectural millwork is,
  • the different types of millwork manufacturers,
  • the uses of millwork, and 
  • provide tips on how to differentiate lumber for millwork.

What is Architectural Millwork?

In the course of your career, you’ll often work on projects that will need quality architectural millwork fabrication and installation. That means you’ll need to work with a millwork company that adheres to woodwork industry standards, provides high-quality work, and is reliable and consistent.

Architectural millwork is the process of producing various types of woodwork to be used internally and externally on architectural projects, both for practical and aesthetic purposes. Millwork can either be customized based on something specific a client wants, or mechanically mass-produced (more on this below). Architectural millwork covers the whole process, from using raw lumber to creating a finished product.

Types of millwork commonly specified by architects include, casework, wall paneling, trim, countertops, staircases, and decorative moldings for various structures of a building, such as pillars. Decorative components are either mass-produced based on common sizes and designs, or they can be based on customized designs.

The History of Millwork

Humans have been using wood for thousands of years, and carpenters and wood carvers are among ancient professions that date back at least 6,000 years. However, mechanized and commercially-produced millwork is relatively new.

In the US, the so-called “Golden Age” of millworking was between 1880 and 1910, a period during which almost all buildings and virtually all interiors, including furniture, were made of wood. 

As technology has advanced, other materials for interior architecture and furniture have been developed, including synthetic veneers that have the appearance of wood. Combinations of wood and synthetic elements are now also considered part of the millwork process.


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Two Different Types of Millwork Manufacturers

There are two main categories of millwork manufacturers: 

  1. Mass-produced or commodity millwork manufacturers, and 
  2. Custom Millwork manufacturers 

There are advantages and disadvantages to using both, and of course, which you use will depend on the type of project you’re working on.

Mass-produced millwork products fall into two subcategories, those that are built and tested to AWI standards, and those that are not. The latter typically found in big box stores or designed for more residential type applications are inexpensive because they are manufactured in bulk, often using cheaper materials in limited species and limited sizes. This means that the quality might not be as good as you expect, and the design might not suit the taste and specifications of your client. While those built and tested to AWI Standards, may still offer limited sizes, they are typically available in more material types and a higher quality providing more options for your client while controlling costs. 

Custom-designed architectural millwork is often superior workmanship that offers a wider variety of higher quality materials. Clients can specify exactly what they want, and will usually pay a higher price.

Uses of Architectural Millwork

Millwork is an integral part of a lot of commercial architecture, especially in the fields of education, healthcare, government, and large corporations.

Architectural millwork elements can be used both internally and externally, and in both decoration and structural elements, such as:

  • Stairwork and rails
  • Doors
  • Wall panels
  • Window casings
  • Mantels
  • Moldings

Types of Lumber Used in Millwork

There are two main types of lumber used in millwork: hardwood lumber and softwood lumber. With hardwood being the predominant material used for most millwork projects. Both have different textures and aesthetic characteristics specific to the species.

  • Hardwood species – an angiosperm species, i.e. flowering plants that have broad leaves. Only 900 species out of 200,000 are commonly used for producing wood veneers and other millwork products.
  • Softwood species – a gymnosperm species, i.e. seed-bearing plants that have needle-like leaves. About 600 species are coniferous trees such as pine trees.

Most of the aesthetic characteristics of lumber, such as grain patterns and colors, are based on their biological characteristics. For instance, annual growth rings form distinctive patterns that may vary based on the way the lumber is cut. Color variations can also be affected by the area in which the tree grows.

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