I like to know the story behind every piece of wood that I acquire. I have a few sources of native wood within a couple hour (or half day) drive from the shop. When I go wood shopping I usually don’t have a particular project in mind, I just look at the boards (slabs) until a piece or pieces strike me as interesting. I try to find “flitch-cut” slabs (flitch cut means the wood is maintained in the order it came from the log) at least 2” thick. I was taught that flitch cut wood provides options for better matching of color and grain patterns in a piece, usually resulting in a piece that has a harmonious appearance. Thick boards, or slabs, give me a lot of options too ….I often need thick pieces for legs or seats, so I try to get thick pieces that are quartersawn or riftsawn so that there is more strength provided by the grain direction. Unlike many furniture builders who use quartersawn wood for tabletops or doors, I prefer to use pieces with diverse grain pattern for those surfaces that will get a lot of visual attention.
I build my pieces out of solid wood….in some limited cases (like curved stretchers under an elegant table) I make my own laminated pieces, but that is the exception. Solid wood construction techniques are different than using some other material surrounded by wood veneer, because solid wood moves with changes in relative humidity and that must be allowed for during design and construction of each piece. I use wood species native or naturalized to my locale, well, at least the Pacific coast. Some of the species I use are cultivars that were planted here such as fruitwoods, but I don’t believe in bringing in exotic woods from elsewhere when we have such beautiful wood choices around us. I sometimes make an exception to the “native” rule, if I can get some nice exotic that is recycled (E.G. I have some beautiful teak that was recycled from a ship deck). I also try to buy wood that is “FSC” certified (Forest Stewardship Council) because the logging and forestry practices are supposed to be more environmentally sound.
My furniture designs are guided by those of Jim Krenov and Robert van Norman, both of whom I studied under in Canada. I think the design influences are Scandanavian….I love the leg shapes Jim developed during his career, especially the one dubbed “Gumbie”. I use that shape on nearly every piece I build, including smaller accessory pieces. Both Jim and Robert were also very big on considering wood color, grain patterns, and use of “inclusions”…so much so they called it grain graphics. Pieces just look right when those things are correctly oriented…and conversely pieces look terrible when they are not.
I usually don’t build “mock-up” pieces, but often do a prototype that Karen and I keep. I use a lot of cardboard cutouts during the design test phase though just to make sure I am on track with the prototype. Once I am happy with a piece, if I plan to repeat it several times, I will make templates of the important parts like legs and shaped stretchers, or a shelf that wraps around the legs, or a tabletop that allows the legs to project thru. I rough prep the wood several weeks before I actually need to do final cuts to dimension. That way the near final sized pieces can relax a bit in my shop before taking their final shape and dimension, hopefully getting the bulk of wood movement over with before I try to put the piece together. After final dimensioning I do the joinery, or in the case of a tabletop the glue-up of multiple pieces. When joinery or glue-up of flat surfaces is done, it is time for joint-fitting and dry fitting the piece, or final surface prep for flat surfaces. Once I get the dry fit frame right, I cut the shapes into those pieces, like the leg shapes, then final surface prep before finishing. I use traditional joinery methods on each piece I make, usually mortise and tenon, dovetail, saddle, or dowel…all require some degree of hand fitting to be just right. I use machines for a lot of these steps, but still do a tremendous amount of hand work on each piece; I imagine over half of my time on a piece is “hand work” like hand-planing, shaping, joint-fitting, or finishing….I love it!
I do the majority of finishing prior to assembly of my pieces…all the finishes are hand rubbed or brushed; I really like oil finish but often top coat oil finish with polyurethane for protection and durability. I also love to use shellac and wax, but that is a very sensitive finish so I only do that on pieces that I intend to keep or by request for a customer. I sometimes use natural dye products, but again that is limited because I generally don’t like to hide the wood color or grain patterns. A typical side table or end table takes me about a week to finish due multiple finish coats and drying time, sometimes longer if the relative humidity is high.
Once the finish is applied and dried properly, I do a final dry fit assembly and clamp up, then proceed to glue-up the piece. I was taught that the final dry fit is very important and it has often paid off in preparing me for the glue up. After dry fitting, I take the piece apart, prepare my adhesive, glue and clamp up. I mostly use West System “Flex” Epoxy for my joinery, just because it is strong and has a decent (45 minute) pot life allowing me to be more relaxed and take my time during this most critical operation.
Glue ups sit in the clamps generally overnight allowing plenty of cure time while still clamped. There’s often some final touch up work after removing the clamps, cleaning any glue squeeze-out and hand wiping a final thin coat of finish or wax. Then buffing and boxing or wrapping…. Whew…that was fun!