Flooring company flourishes thanks to innovative system that makes replacement easy
Original story published by Altoona Mirror on April 1, 2022
TYRONE — When Lynn Johnson dropped her computer and gashed a plank on her new hardwood floor, she swapped that plank with another one under the couch, and didn’t tell her husband.
She could get away with it because the floor in her living room was built with materials manufactured — and a system developed — by Steller Floors in Tyrone, where her husband, Scott, is CEO. The system eliminates one of the major disadvantages of traditional tongue-and-groove hardwood, which is nailed down and locked together from wall-to-wall, making replacement of individual planks difficult.
Lynn Johnson confessed to her computer accident Thursday at an event held at her husband’s Tyrone business to acknowledge the recent provision of a $500,000 loan to Steller from the state Department of Community and Economic Development’s Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority.
The epiphany that underlies the idea on which the company is based grew out of co-founder Evan Stover’s wood products consulting work with his father, Lee Stover — work that began after Lee’s retirement as a wood products department director for the Penn State Extension.
As consultants, the Stovers often gave advice to contractors on what to do about tongue-and-groove hardwood flooring that had buckled or split because of excessive moisture and other issues, Evan said. One day at lunch, his father observed that all such problems occurred because it was nailed down — and that if the wood could expand and contract freely, the problems would go away.
That night, Evan went home and devised the basics of the system that his company put into practice three years ago, a setup that allows a solid wood floor to “float” on a subfloor, expanding and contracting without constraint, he said.
In the Steller system, the underside of the planks are grooved along the edges so they can snap into ridges on plastic channels that sit on the subfloor, running the length of each plank and bridging the divide between individual planks.
The floors are installed plank-by-plank, with a channel attached to the leading edge of the next plank before it is placed down, after which that new plank is snapped into the channel.
Individual planks are removed with a special suction cup.
That easy removal is not only advantageous when there is a call for replacing a single plank but also to install or relocate floor-based electrical outlets or heating vents, according to Johnson and Evan Stover.
The Steller process is patented, said Evan Stover, whose wife, Britta Teller, is co-founder, and whose name, blended with her husband’s, comprise the company’s name.
The patent on tongue-and-groove flooring expired 100 years ago, and the new patent is the first advance of its type for solid wood flooring since then, Evan said.
The easy removal and replacement of individual planks was an accidental advantage, he said.
There were others, including the capacity for owners to resell an already installed floor or to contract with a company to remove and restain or refinish a floor in a shop, then reinstall, Evan said.
But the process requires manufacturing precision and tight moisture control, Evan said.
Tolerances are more typical of metalworking than woodworking — generally 0.003 inch, Evan said. Woodworking tolerances are usually 10 times larger.
The close tolerances are critical for the grooves that snap into the channels.
The company demands the kiln-drying firms deliver the oak, maple and ash at 45 percent humidity — which is typical for a house.
The shop itself is kept at that 45 percent humidity and at 70 degrees, similarly typical for a house, Evan said.
Keeping the environment constant helps ensure the company’s stock of planks remains within the proper tolerances.
Staining and sealing those planks for particular orders helps ensure the wood remains within tolerance under more variable conditions.
The company sells directly to many homeowners, who can do the work themselves, he said.
Contractors who learn about the system are skeptical at first, until they see it demonstrated, Johnson said.
When they realize how easy it is to install, they say, “Oh my goodness,” he said.
Evan’s concept was developed about five years ago and became marketable about three years ago, according to Johnson.
Growth has been “exponential,” officials said at the news conference.
The current plant is about 10,000 square feet, but in five years, the company will probably need 10 times that much space to keep up with demand, Johnson said.
It will also need more skilled employees, officials said.
That means it will need additional capital, including support from the state.
The principals want to keep the company in Tyrone, in keeping with an early plea from state Sen. Judy Ward, who was at the event, said Britta Teller.
Evan is a Tyrone native; his father was a longtime member of the Tyrone Area School Board.
The desire to develop an entrepreneurial effort in home territory is in keeping with a trend that gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone seemed to be more home-focused, said Richard Vilello, deputy secretary of community affairs and development for DCED, who spoke at the event.
Older communities like Tyrone can come back, and companies like Steller are the kinds of enterprises that can help it happen, said Vilello.
Stellar works with several lumber mills, all of which take their timber from within 150 miles of Tyrone, according to Johnson.
Tyrone is in an ideal location for accessing hardwoods, which are harvested in sustainable fashion, Johnson said.