THE HANDSOME wooden Venetian blinds that shade the restored homes of Colonial Williamsburg, the wooden blinds that line the downstairs corridor in the White House and the blinds used in the backdrop for the movie "Hurry Sundown" -- Hudson Venetian Blinds of Richmond, Va. made them all. And today, wooden blinds are more popular than ever.
Sixty-three-year-old Porter Hudson began his business back in 1947.
"I just stumbled into it," Hudson recalls. "When I first got started I was in the furniture business down in Florida. I got into refinishing wood, which eventually led me to refinishing wood blinds. I returned to Virginia where some decorator/designer friends of mine, J. Frank Jones and Lewis Ferguson, noticed my refinishing work. They liked it and started recommending me to their clients. These clients often asked if I knew where they could buy wood blinds . . . I learned how to make the blinds myself."
Hudson manufactures the blinds. Dealers (such as the District Shade Shop; Bethesda Shade and Awning in Maryland; Dick Waters Shade Shop in Arlington, and Jules Rist Interiors in Great Falls and Leesburg, Va.), sell them. Hudson's 900 accounts are all over the country.
A number of other companies also produce the wooden Venetian blind, but most are all relatively newcomers to the industry.
The first Venetian blinds were widely used in Venice, Italy, during the 1600s and were made of wood. In our century, steel and aluminum became popular. Then came World War II and the metal shortage. Venetian blinds were constructed out of wood again, since this was all that was available and since wood was cheap (30 to 40 cents per square foot). Following the war, blinds production returned to metal (it weighed less and was less bulky than wood) and remained mostly aluminum or steel until a few years ago. Now people are demanding wood once more.
Why ae wood blinds popular today? Porter Hudson thinks it's because of wood's durability. "It lasts a life time. People want to make solid investments these days." Hudson used Ponderosa pine, which, he says is not as heavy as some other woods. For large windows, Hudson uses four pulleys to hold the weights of the wood, making them easier to lift.
According to Barbara Buehler of Nanik (a blinds company based in Wausau, Wis.), customers like the wood blinds because they're energy efficient. "They reduce the heat if needed and allow it to come in if you want it. Through the ages wood has been the best insulator," says Buehler. "And," she adds, "like all Venetian blinds, they can be tilted at different angles to follow the sun's movement."
Because the slats of wood blinds come in smaller widths than do metal blinds (1 inch as compared to 2 inches), wood blinds don't collect as much dust.
Karen Edwards of Americana Natural (a blind company based in Huntington Beach, Calif.) thinks wood is selling more than metal because "most people are into natural earth tones these days."
The blinds are made in a variety of woods: pine, bass wood, cedar, and parquet. They come in the original 2-inch slat and increasingly today are being made in the 1-inch slat.
Frazier Gardella Sr., owner and president of The Shade Shop -- a custom-made shop (Rt. 634 and Acacia Lane, Sterling, Va.) -- says his family has been in the blind business for 80 years. In response to the high demand for the wood blinds, he's been carrying both the 2-inch and 1-inch blinds for the last two year ($15 per sq ft).
The major drawback to wooden blinds is that they are two to three times as expensive as metal ones. At Nanik the blinds cost between $16 to $17 per square foot -- retail. Hudson blinds sell (on the average) for $11 per square foot; Ohline (based in Gardenia, Calif.) charges from $200 to $300 for 1- and 2-inch slat blinds at an average size of 37-by-45 inches; and Americana Natural sells the blinds for $235 -- size 48-by-36 inches -- in both the 1- and 2-inch size.
The average metal blind (size 37-by-45 inches) rangaes in price from $20 for the plain 2-inch aluminum ones to $65 for the 1-inch mini blind. Or anywhere from $1.75 to $7.50 per square foot.
The high cost is not just due to the cost of wood but because, unlike metal blinds, most wood Venetian blinds are entirely made by hand. At Hudson Venetian Blinds, which employs only five workers besides Hudson himself, the process takes at least five days.
First, the wood is cut to the size slats needed. Then the slats are sanded. Next they are routed -- meaning the holes are punched into the ends for the cord -- and the edges are rounded off. The slats are sanded again. A stain is selected -- there are about 20 -- and the slat is hand stained. The stain is allowed to dry. Then a coat of clear sealer is applied. It must dry. Each slat is sanded again. More sealer is applied. The slats are sanded once more. Finally a coat of semi-gloss varnish is brushed on and the blind is ready to be assembled. When Hudson ships his blinds out of town, the blind must hang for a day before packing it up.
So who can afford these handsome but expensive window dressings? Hudson thinks that the people who buy his blinds are those who haven't been hurt by the recession. "People who buy them know the blinds are a sound investment, if you take good care of them. All the Blinds need for good upkeep is to be kept clean and be repainted or restained occasionally."
Sales manager Barbara Buehler of Nanik says she's not sure who's buying the blinds, but somebody is. "Our wood blinds sales have tripled in three years. Three years ago we sold a little under 1 million, while last year we sold over 3 million."
Venetian blinds in general provide privacy, as sell as insulation, ventilation and light. Mike Glass, owner of District Shade Shop (1252 8th St. NW), says: "If closed, a venetian blind is equivalent to a one-ton air conditioning unit in a one bedroom apartment."
Porter Hudson, as mentioned earlier, has made his wooden Venetian blinds for a number of places -- the Chrysler Building in New York City, Disney World, and the Chevy Chase Country Club, to name a few. Most of the time he has been pleased with his work. But he and his wife (who helps him out for much of his 12-hours-a-day/seven-days-a-week job) were very disappointed the night they stayed up late to watch the made-for-TV movie, "Hurry Sundown."
Hudson had made the blinds used as the backdrop for one scene in the movie. "I remember the set designer calling me to place the order. It was a last minute thing. He asked me how soon I could ship them out to New Orleans, where they were filming. I told him 10 days was the fastest I could get his order out. They halted filming until the blinds arrived. But me and the missus never could understand all the fuss. We stayed up to watch the movie -- we usually get to bed by 9 -- and you know we couldn't even tell that those blinds were wood! The director, or someone, had pulled them flat closed. When the blindss are straight like that -- at least on television -- you can't tell whether they're aluminum or wood. That's showbiz for you."