Owner Ralph Wells reviews a quote for a
spiral staircase. Although the cost of freight
restricts most orders to a distance of a few
hundred miles, Wells-Osborn has shipped
custom staircases all over the U.S.
ing, he was thinking about the equipment he had in the shop, and what the
equipment could do, and when the guy
was done talking, Bill would put the
piece of paper in front of him and say,
‘Like this?’ and often the guy would
Building Equipment for Building
Spiral Staircases. There wasn’t much fabrication equipment available in the early
days, and the equipment that did exist
wasn’t too sophisticated. Osborn had to
use whatever he could get his hands on.
Using a machine originally intended for
rolling steel bands for wagon wheels,
Osborn rolled steel bar into a circular
shape to make the handrail and the
stringer, the two components that twist.
He used stamping presses to run punching dies to punch out various features
and a press brake that he designed and
built to bend the steps.
But that wasn’t enough to make a
complete staircase, so Osborn dreamed
up the designs for a few machines. He
used whatever he could find—cast-off
hydraulic cylinders, speed reducers,
appliance motors, and an automobile
transmission—and cobbled together
machines for bending ornamental
Several of the company’s machines, jigs, and
fixtures were designed and built in-house.
Fabricator Ed Adams demonstrates a jig for
making minor changes in rolled bar.
scrolls, twisting square bar, and so on.
Although the company now has
some modern equipment, including an
ironworker for some of the punching
and bending, Adams and Ray Jones, the
second fabricator, still rely on a couple
of Osborn’s original machines.
“He made the scroll roller we still use
today,” Adams said, “He’d seen scrolls
that were rolled to a half-circle, but he
wanted something different—he wanted
the scroll to curl up a bit more. So he’d
figure out a way to make a machine that
would do what he wanted.”
The machine rotates at a moderate
pace, and Adams has scribed chalk
marks on the machine’s base and the
rotating table. After starting the
machine’s motor, Adams inserts a
straight, narrow length of metal. He
moves a lever that engages the drive sys-
tem and watches closely as the table
rotates and the metal bends. When the
chalk marks are aligned, Adams moves
A finished tread (left) consists of a trapezoid
with a couple of square notches so it can be
folded and a round notch so it fits to the center pole.
the lever back to its original position to
disengage the drive system and the table
Most shops have machines with
CNC, touchscreen controllers, and digital readouts, but the staff at Wells-Osborn doesn’t need them. Adams and
Jones are akin to blacksmiths, using
manual processes and working quite a
bit by feel and intuition to form and
shape metal. Experience counts for a
lot. Adams has been with the company
for 40 years, Jones for 10.
Spiral Staircase, Silent Salesman, or
Both? Whether he realized it or not,
Osborn was exceptionally fortunate to
find this niche. He didn’t have to put a
lot of money into marketing; spiral
staircases practically sell themselves.
“He started to make the first one,
and the shop was visible from the
street,” Wells said. “Other people saw
it and asked if he would make one for
them. That was the beginning of the
spiral staircase business.”
In many cases, one sale leads to fur-
“Every time we ship one of these
things, it’s like having another salesman
out there,” Wells said. “We’ll put one of
these on a deck on a home on a lake, and
other people around the lake see it, and
it starts a chain reaction. Pretty soon
nearly every home on that lake has one.”
“In the middle 1970s we were building
300 to 370 spirals a year,” Adams said.