Sunday, September 15, 2013

Working with Veneer

Let's face it, veneer has a bad name. When we say that someone we don't like has a thin veneer of erudition, or a thin veneer of sophistication, what we really mean is the guy's a jerk but he's covered himself with a very thin layer of something decent to fool the general public. Here's a sheet music cabinet I made that's covered in something decent, except the inside's pretty nice, too:

Many people think the same way about veneered furniture. Even some folks that make furniture professionally think of veneer as just a way to cover something cheap with something expensive-looking, often covering shoddy work and technique in the bargain. Shuddering at the mere thought, they say "Veneer? I never touch the stuff! I only use solid wood!" Their tone of moral rectitude is clear.

Solid wood, of course, is a wonderful material for furniture, and we've got museums full of it to prove the point. You can shape it and carve it and texture it, and when your kid sticks a fork into it you can repair that surface, often many times over. A well-made piece of furniture which is built from solid wood will last many generations over; of course, a poorly made piece built of solid wood will end up in the dumpster just as fast as anything you buy at Ikea. Here's an example of the good stuff:

People who know good furniture, though, know that some of the most beautiful furniture ever made was veneered; our museums are full of that stuff, too. There are some things you can do with veneer that you just can't do with solid wood. Take these panels from a set of passage doors we just made: this is a parquetry pattern called "Louis Cubes", so-called because it was used in French furniture during the reign of Louis Quatorze. The pattern is built with diamonds of anigre, mahogany, and padauk, and shifts as you stare at it.

Or if you look at the first photo in this post, the swirling wood pattern that spreads uninterrupted across 14 drawer faces and two doors would be impossible to replicate in solid wood. Or consider this desk we made a few years ago; the checkerboard pattern on the drawer and chair back were only possible with veneer, and it made the circular drawer case and chair sides a heck of a lot easier to build in a way that will withstand seasonal humidity variations:

Another reason I really like to use veneers is that an entire table-top can match perfectly from one end to the other -- the color, the figure, everything. Here's an example of a figured cherry dining table that matches the entire length, even when all the leaves are in -- and then it's ten feet long:

Or if you wasted a few minutes and read my last post, you'll know that I used a very rare wood to build that sideboard; building it out of solid stock would have been, in my opinion, extraordinarily wasteful. I could also carefully control the look of the piece by selecting quartersawn veneer, and know the entire piece was going to look the same from nose to tail.

So why don't we just build everything out of veneer? Well, there are many pieces where solid wood just makes more sense, either structurally or aesthetically. And just as there are some things that solid wood can't do, there are many things that veneer can't do: it can't be carved or shaped, for instance. And I've done enough antique restoration in the past 32 years to know that the glue that hold all that veneer on can sometimes fail (although that's mostly due to bad construction), and then you've got a lot of little pieces of really thin wood floating around in your sock drawer waiting to be stuck back on your dresser. And last, to really lower the tone of this post, there's the question of filthy lucre: for small shops, using veneer is more expensive than using solid wood because there's so much more labor involved. Unless you're using pink ivorywood (very rare, indeed), it's less expensive to build in solid wood than to use good veneer work. A friend of mine likes to say that every time he turns on his vacuum veneer press, it sucks all the money right out of his pocket.

The moral of this story? There's a time to use solid wood, and there's a time to use veneer. And veneer can be pretty good stuff indeed if you know the work of the person building your dresser.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cocobolo Sideboard

Kathy had a nice new corner office, and wanted another piece of furniture for some decorative storage and a little pizzazz. The rest of her furniture was nice -- dark brown and appropriately serious -- but she wanted this new piece to be more reflective of who she is. We decided on a small sideboard, which would give her storage for those things she wanted to hide (papers, folders, plastic cups) and things she wanted to display (photos, awards, objets d'art). Here's the final design we developed together; the colored glass in the sliding doors picks up the hues in her upholstery:

For the pizzazz part of the equation, we decided on quartersawn cocobolo veneer: the deep reds and browns would harmonize with the colors in her existing furniture, but the quartersawing would keep the grain from getting too wild and overwhelming this relatively small piece. Flat sawn cocobolo can get pretty swirly, as you can see the first photo; the second photo shows quartersawn cocbolo, revealing how nice and straight -- almost calm -- the grain becomes:

Certainly Wood in East Aurora, NY had a some great new flitches of quartersawn cocbolo in, so we got the veneer from them. Building the piece from solid cocobolo would have been extravagantly expensive and a poor use of rare materials; further, the figure of the solid stock would not have been nearly as consistent as the veneer, creating disharmony in this otherwise serene design. Anyway, here we are going through it and cutting it up:

Next we jointed the pieces and taped it up into panel sized pieces:

We use a vacuum veneer press to press the veneer onto the panels; the press is like a big shrink-wrap bag. The veneer is on the bottom caul underneath the panels that are being veneered; there are thin cauls on top of the panels to protect their corners from the bag -- and the protect the bag from their corners. Here's the press in action:

A little while later, after all the joinery and assembly is complete -- the case is assembled with multiple blind splines -- we rolled the sideboard into the spray booth where we sprayed on a satin-sheen lacquer. The lacquer protects the veneer from mild forms of abuse, but doesn't have a thick, plastic-like look. Here it is in the booth:

The sideboard is now complete and sitting in Kathy's office; she likes this little bit of whimsy Here it is:

Monday, August 19, 2013

Transformers, or Making Custom Furniture

There are many times when a customer asks if I can make a bed for them like one I've made before, except in king-size rather than queen ("Of course," I say); or a table in pau ferro rather than another rosewood ("I'd be delighted"); or a cupboard filled with drawers instead of the doors ("No problem!"). My portfolio is littered with examples of transforming the directives of one customer into the desires of another; here's one series:

But sometimes I get more difficult tranformational challenges.  I recently received an email from a woman who liked one of my chairs, and wanted me to turn it into two guitar stands. Hmmm. I scratched my head for a while, then I realized I better figure out what she liked about the chair so I could incorporate it into the stands. It was the Art Deco feel of chair that was most appealing, and she thought the eye was pretty cool, too. I began to do some research on guitar stands, then started sketching some ideas; the best ones I sent to my customer. After a few back-and-forths we abandoned the eye because the stands looked a little spooky, but we kept the shape of the back of the chair and its Deco lineage. Here's the chair, and the finished stands:

The stands will soon be winging their way to Colorado.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Working with Designers

Over the years I've had the opportunity of working with some very talented interior designers. One of these is Christina Oliver of Oliver Interiors in Newton, MA; she also happens to be a really nice woman who is a pleasure to work with. I thought I'd write a little something on our latest collaboration to give an idea how this co-mingling of vision works.

Christina called me in the spring to say she had a client who needed a hutch for her newly re-designed dining room. She was using other makers' work in the room, but thought of me for the hutch -- possibly because she wanted a contemporary take on a traditional form. She gave me dimensions, a target budget, and her thoughts on how this piece should look: transitional, with a glazed finish and some kind of contrasting accents. What I did then is what I do with all my clients: I gave Christina my best estimate what it would cost to design, build, and deliver what she had envisioned.

My estimate fit within Christina's budget, so she gave me a deposit (included in my estimate) to start designing. After a little back and forth, this is what I sent her:

Her client didn't really care about having drawers, so she wondered if we couldn't save a little money by deleting them. Absolutely, I said:
Christina then wondered if I could leave the interior unglazed to brighten it. Yes! Could I use walnut burl accents? Yes! Could I make a glaze to match a standard paint color? Yes! Could I change the design of the side elevation to match the front more closely? Yes! Here are Christina's final notes on the design:

The glazed finish on this piece was a little tricky. It took many iterations of formula and technique to get it right, but we kept sending samples down to Newton until Christina and her client gave the thumbs up. When we got the go ahead we locked Paul in the finishing room until everything was glazed. Here he is at work:

We delivered the hutch last week, and everyone was delighted. Here it is, finished:

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Alex's Bedroom -- Fanciful Children's Furniture

A few years ago I built a really whimsical set of bunk beds for Alex; it was a project that demonstrated the sad truth that drawing furniture is usually a lot easier than making it. The problem on this occasion was that I left much of the designing to my friend and reluctant sometime-employee Paul, a very talented and creative guy who can easily draw things that can barely be built. On this occasion he designed a bed that was covered with over one hundred hand-carved and -painted fish and aquatic creatures, as well as undulating blue and green epoxy-filled grooves. Here's Paul painting all those fish:
"How hard can a bed be to build?" I thought. As I discovered, pretty damn hard, but it was very cool in the end:
Here's a closeup of a post. You cannot -- I could not -- believe how much work went into these!

Fast forward to now. Alex's mom, Catherine, wanted some more furniture for Alex's room, and when you have a bed that looks like this one, most factory furniture pales in comparison. So I sketched some ideas for Catherine, and after some back and forth we decided on designs that are less obviously fanciful -- Alex IS getting older -- and with more sophisticated shapes; but we tried to that pick up the colors and panache of the original work. We built a desk, a bookcase/dresser, and a night stand. Here they are:
Catherine and her interior designer chose the blue and green, and Paul mixed the colors for the knobs. Looks like a fun bedroom! I've been out of the fish business for a little while, though -- until my next commission, anyway. Here's a desk we built for the first children of my ornithologist friend McGrady:
The starfish twirl out of the fishes' tails to raise and lower the writing surface, and the chair seat spins up and down like a piano stool. Paul designed this desk too, and painted the fish. We had a good time building this one.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

New Cadillac Table

Late in the spring I got a call from Duncan Hughes, an interior designer in Boston, saying he had clients interested in a table on my website -- the Cadillac Table. I was a little surprised, because though the table itself is pretty cool, the image doesn't really do the piece justice. It was the one photo in which my friend Cook, who shot my work for over twenty years and made everything beautiful, didn't work his usual magic; in fact, you see only about three-quarters of the table in the image, and the beautiful and rare rosewood of the top is lost. But Duncan's clients -- Erin and Nathan Sanders -- could visualize what was special about the table, and we embarked on the commission.

The Sanders liked the contrast of sap (light) and heart (dark) woods in the Brazilian rosewood of the original table, but export bans have made that veneer practically unavailable. We decided on another South American rosewood species that is more plentiful, and still shows the variation of dark stripes and light sapwood. Here it is in the flitch:

And here's the veneer match laid up:
The wings were veneered in wenge. Here's Kevin trimming the excess veneer off one:
And here's the "skeleton" of the base, before being skinned with bending plywoods and rosewood veneer:
Here's the base assembled and in the spray booth:
The original table had a thick and wide wenge edge around the top, which added a lot of stiffness to the structure. Duncan asked that this table have a lighter look, so we dispensed with that, but had to add stiffness without visual weight. With the help of our friends Dan and Sam Mosheim at Dorset Custom Furniture, we experimented with steel on the underside of the top until we achieved a rigid structure. Here's the finished piece, which we delivered last month:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Electronics Fashion Pushing Furniture Design

Everyone who makes furniture has at one time or another been asked to make something that holds electronic equipment. When I was growing up in the sixties, electronics came with their own very cool cabinets -- like the MagnaVox stereo system in my parents' house: a record player and speakers housed in a dark, ornate case the size of a minivan.

But sometime in the eighties people decided that they wanted to hide their electronics in furniture that didn't look like it had any electronics in it. So in that decade I designed and built a lot of pieces that held electronics, including the relatively small TV's then in fashion. Here's a television hiding in Shaker garb:

But as we Americans grew larger, so too our televisions. In the nineties large picture-tube TV's became the electronic rage, so we furniture makers responded with armoires that were big enough to shoehorn in these increasingly massive units. Here's an armoire I made in 1996, with a 250-pound television hiding demurely behind the center doors:

But as furniture people like to say, the tables have turned. With the advent of sleek flat screen TV's, people are no longer ashamed to have their televisions in plain sight with its tacit admission that you actually watch it. But you can't just plop these elegant glass and plastic sculptures on the floor -- you need something to support them at the proper elevation. And thus we have the birth of a new kind of low console, that not only puts your TV at a comfortable height for viewing, but holds all the associated paraphernalia: cable boxes, DVD players, remote controls, discs, etc. Here's one I made last month:

So I suppose we'll be building these for twenty years or so until people think having a flat screen in open view is declasse. I foresee the advent of very wide, and very thin, cabinets.