Mountain Laurel Majesty

James Pader builds artistry into homes using an iconic wood of the South

In 2004, James Pader was working for a contractor in North Carolina when he and some co-workers were asked to craft 200 feet of porch railing from wood scraps and branches. “Those other guys left me to do it myself,” he recalls, “and I figured out some tricks.”

In 2009 James Pader gave up his contracting business to focus on the more artistic process of making handrails. 

In 2009, Pader, now a contractor, posted a photo to his website of deck railings he’d made for a local client. Before long a woman in Washington contacted him about building 80 feet of railing. A month later, he was asked to send 30 feet of railing to Missouri. Within a year, he’d renamed his company Mountain Laurel Handrail and was focused solely on handcrafting railings from the beautifully gnarled and locally abundant mountain laurel. 

Pader builds the railings in sections, then ships them for installation to sites such as this rustic Michigan home.

The wood has a strong history. “It’s really durable and widely used regionally. The Kalmia latifolia grows in Appalachia from Georgia to Maine. In some states it’s the state flower or tree, and it’s pretty in the springtime, with clusters of pink or cream-colored flowers. It’s perfect for this application: it’s strong, lasts a long time, and can be woven into artistic shapes.”

Pader works with Kalmia latifolia’s twisted and curved shapes to create balanced patterns for both interior and exterior applications. He taps into his years of classical musical training to find the harmony in each design. 

The railings Pader builds are art. They are crafted from sinuous red-hued branches and arranged in patterns that undulate and crisscross each other. The balance—between one section and the next, and of branches in relation to negative space—is crucial to their aesthetic appeal.

“I’m a classically trained musician,” Pader notes. “One of the things about music is that the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. If mashed together it becomes garbage; if strung out too far, there’s no discernible melody.”

The material often comes from local land clearing, where it’s typically burned. Pader builds in sections, then ships them to be installed within a framework delineated by the posts of a stairwell or porch and trimmed in material matching the home. Sometimes he is asked to create something like a pergola, or to build furniture, and he’ll supply railing parts for DIY-ers. The bulk of his work, however, remains railings, typically for post-and-beam homes or porches.

Mountain laurel, a hardy red-hued native wood found throughout the Appalachian region, provides the raw material for Mountain Laurel Handrail’s handcrafted works.

Workers prepare the material, cleaning it with a wire wheel brush to remove dirt, lichen and moss. Then, each day Pader cranks up the music and starts crafting. He likens it to therapy. “It’s very creative. I have a process and the ability to step into this space for a few hours, and at the end an amazing product comes out. I can release my creative energy in a way that has a positive effect for other people.”

One railing at a time, Pader finds the melody in mountain laurel.

As seen in the September/October 2019 issue

Categories: Artists & Artisans