ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
While teaching high school industrial arts at Baldwin City for 81/2 years and Lewis for 15, Daryl Enos never thought he’d use his expertise to build caskets.
“I always wanted to build a boat,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, I still want to build a boat.”
But Enos and wife Pat, both Marion natives, recently finished the first of what they hope will be many handcrafted wooden caskets that are both affordable and professional.
Currently, Daryl does custom woodworking from his shop on their farm in addition to serving as head girl’s basketball coach for the Marion Warriors. Pat owns River Mill Woods in Marion, which features custom matting and framing.
Daryl said he was inspired to think about casket-building by an article in Wood Magazine about a group of monks on the East Coast.
“Things weren’t going so well with their farming, so they hooked up with another guy who was a contractor and made caskets as a sideline,” he said.
Enos said the loss of his mother-in-law several years later prompted him to build a prototype.
“Pat’s mother passed away and they were looking at caskets. After they picked out a metal one, she came home and said, ‘You ought to be able to build a wooden casket,'” Daryl said. “So we thought we ought to at least give it a try.”
That initial effort produced an impressively beautiful oak casket.
The couple agreed building caskets isn’t suited to everyone.
“Some people get creeped out by all of this,” Pat said. “For us, death is a part of life-even though it’s unpleasant. So it’s just something you have to have at some point in time.”
The couple’s first challenge was what to call their product.
“We go by either ‘casket’ or ‘coffin,'” Daryl said.
Pat added with a smile, “Around here, we just call it ‘the box.'”
Whatever the name, the Enoses value craftsmanship.
“This is something we’re very proud of,” Daryl said. “We used to mow a cemetery, and we always did a good job and made it look nice. This gives us the same type of satisfaction.”
The couple has lost track of how much time they invested in the prototype.
“At one time I had about 60 hours,” Daryl said. “But I know there’s probably another 20 hours on top of that.
“Actually, the basic box didn’t take very long because it just didn’t-it’s a box,” he said. “But by the time you start adding the molding and all the other stuff, it adds up.”
And that was just the exterior.
“I have no idea how long it took me to do the inside because I was always trying to fit it in between everything else,” Pat said. “But it took way longer than I ever anticipated.
“In some ways, I think the inside gave us more trouble than the outside did.”
Determined to learn from their mistakes rather than repeat them, the Enoses took meticulous notes in an effort to streamline future production.
“I bought a set of plans that were supposedly for an amateur woodworker,” Daryl said. “No way-I modified them to fit some dimensions we wanted to keep, but I’ll do things differently next time.”
Making a casket isn’t as complicated as it might seem, according to Daryl.
“The basic box was made out of oak plywood-oak veneer with solid oak molding,” he said. “The box itself is glued with a polyurethane glue that is waterproof once it dries.
“The bottom is constructed with a dado and glued an inch off the actual bottom of the sides,” he added. “Under that, I’ve got an inch-thick piece of wood by about 3 inches wide, and that’s also glued to the bottom and screwed into the sides.
“Then, we’ve got a false bottom underneath to allow for smoothness. I don’t think it’s going to go anyplace.”
Available woods include oak, pine, walnut, cherry and mahogany.
“But you can basically use whatever is available domestically,” Daryl said. “I get my wood out of a supplier from Kansas City.”
Once the basic box was finished, the intricate solid-wood molding was added.
“The molding was all handmade,” Daryl said. “I didn’t have a cutter to do the molding in one pass, so it was a lot of different cutters making lots of passes.”
Once the molding was attached, handles were next. He ordered the metal hardware from the same place he received the catalogue.
“The handle is actually made of Brazilian walnut on this one because I was having a difficult time finding dowel rods big enough and long enough-and cheap enough. So I bought a square blank of wood, routered four corners off and sanded it.”
With the exterior complete, giving the casket a warm and comfortable look on the interior was Pat’s task.
“I had no patterns for the inside or any of the sewing,” she said. “I’m a very patterned person when it comes to my sewing.
“We finally just started trying stuff, and it was kind of trial and error,” she added. “It was a struggle.”
A tucked satin fabric backed by quilt batting gave the casket just the right appearance.
“They’ll have a simple, old-fashioned look,” Pat said.
The interior features a bed frame that adjusts at both ends for height, and a zippered pillow to add or remove padding.
“All these features are necessary to make the casket fit different sizes of people,” Pat said. “We’ve tried them out for size-but that’s a pretty weird feeling.”
The standard dimensions for the caskets are 85 inches long and 29 inches wide.
“I can fit in this pretty easily, and I’m 6-foot, 5-inches tall,” Daryl said.
The couple was concerned how the local mortuary would respond to the project. But that fear soon dissipated.
“We talked to Zeiners in Marion and they were more than helpful,” Daryl said. “They let us come in and take measurements, open their caskets, and see how they were put together.
“They even told us when we get one done to let them know and they’d take a look at it,” he added.
“We don’t want Ty to think we’re trying to compete with him or put him out of business,” Pat said. “This will just be an alternative for people.”
Although nothing on the homemade casket is unique from a mass-produced one, cost was a driving force for their venture.
“We want to give people a product they’re pleased with and something we’re proud of,” Pat said. “But we’re building them less expensive with the idea of helping families out at a really tough time because we’ve been there.”
A River Mill Woods oak casket with “fancier trimmings” will cost about $2,000. A similarly constructed oak model available elsewhere likely would cost $3,000 to $4,000, they said.
“I hope just knowing who made these, and the fact it’s from a local craftsman, might be an added incentive,” Daryl said.
The Enoses plan to develop a showroom with two to six models on display at all times.
“I don’t know how many styles we’ll have, but the basic dimensions will be the same,” Daryl said. “When you start doing custom additions, you’re adding a lot of time-and when you do that, you’re adding expense.
For the most basic needs, the couple will offer a simple pine casket in the $1,000 range.
“We won’t take any prepayments for these-we’ll operate just like we did with the custom furniture,” Daryl said. “I never took a down payment. I make what they order, and when it’s done they pay for it and take it home.”
The Enoses have already identified at least one segment of their customer base.
“We plan to make them for ourselves, and my folks want us to make one for each of them as soon as they decide what wood they want,” Daryl said.
“It’s weird to think about making them for ourselves, but I suppose we’ll do that whenever we get extra time.”
Anyone interested in a River Mill Woods casket can find out about the options by calling 620-382-8495