• reputation of the manufacturer
While the first two are the most immediately visible, at The Shutter Mill we think all three are equally important in the long run.
Primary to quality is the wood from which the shutter components are crafted. Only fully and consistently cured woods, carefully graded as to quality and selected to reduce natural imperfections should be used to assure structural integrity. Durability depends on the density of the wood species used; greater densities produce more enduring shutters. Only premium-choice, quality hardwoods such as maple, oak, cherry, walnut and ash provide the specific gravity, and thus greater density, that a truly high-quality shutter requires for its long life.
The Shutter Mill routinely manufactures shutters in all these wood species, but also has versatility in a multitude of exotic woods. Examples of a few of the more unusual woods used are Peruvian walnut, padauk, bubinga and reclaimed 100-year-old pine. Even reclaimed wormy Chestnut—very difficult to locate and quite expensive—has been successfully integrated into shutters.
Fit, joint tightness and consistent louver alignment are taken for granted in a quality shutter, but can only be guaranteed through intense and frequent quality control mechanisms and monitoring in the component preparation process. Simply cutting the rails, styles and louvers to length according to specifications doesn't ensure the precision that manufacturers such as The Shutter Mill demand before finished products go to a customer—only the trained and dedicated eye of a craftsman can ensure this degree of quality.
High-quality coatings applied in multiple layers are simply a given in a quality shutter, but surface preparation prior to application is, if anything, even more important. Simple mechanical sanding by machine just doesn't produce the seemingly poreless surface that reflects a genuinely high quality piece of work, either in furniture or a painted shutter. Repeated sanding by hand, using the craftsman's naked eye and fingertips as quality control monitors, is the only manufacturing regimen that results in this quality attribute.
When shutters are stained rather than painted, the look of the wood becomes a quality ingredient that makes this part of the process even more critical. Wood continues to live long after the tree has died, and a skilled craftsman can allow the wood to continue to speak by leaving and even highlighting certain selected signature blemishes that are visually appealing. Such techniques were employed by the old masters in the creation of works that still endure many centuries later.
We've already pointed out how essential the craftsmanship aspect is to the quality equation, but careful packing, packaging and shipping of products are important in preventing customer inconvenience. A cardboard carton simply isn't suitable protection to ensure against in-transit damage, and the untrained hands of minimum-wage packaging personnel lack the knowledge of the product that is essential in ensuring proper packing. The Shutter Mill ships all products carefully nestled in foam, packed by personnel who have made shutters and not just packed them, and crates them in solid wood crating that will withstand all but the most violently inclined cargo handlers.
As a general statement, any customer who requires high quality must insist on seeing a very high degree of human, hands-on involvement in the entire process—from the hand selection of high-quality hardwood used, to the delicate and sensory task of smoothing out every unwanted imperfection prior to coasting the wood, to the packing and crating of the final product. Machines can never successfully masquerade as craftsmen.
Reputation and the experience of the manufacturer are the last, but certainly not the least, important factor to achieve overall quality. From the outset, look for a manufacturer who is willing to be involved throughout the process from the beginning until well beyond the apparent end. Expert input on location, louver sizing and spacing of rails during the initial planning process is essential, of course. Technical support personnel who have been directly involved in both the manufacture and installation of shutters and who aren't simply reading a manual contribute to customer satisfaction in a unique and unmatchable way. There's no suitable substitute for experience in the quality equation.
Also, long after the invoice has been paid, when a problem arises—anything from a manufacturing defect to a destructive pet—a manufacturer with integrity and a long history for living up to expectations and being there for the customer years or even decades later rounds out the total definition of quality—quality you can see and the invisible qualities you can't, but can always rely on.
Richard Buchanan is publicist at The Shutter Mill, Inc., Stillwater, OK; (405) 377-6455; fax; (405) 377-1010.