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Materials and Methods

The visual and tactile properties of solid woods are sometimes hard to distinguish from materials manufactured to give the impression of solid wood. This goes for most quality ingredients in the built environment, both natural and manmade. Every material, whether from a tree or from a factory, has inherent qualities and limitations. I believe that each material should be what it appears to be, even to the uninitiated. Therefore, I oppose the use of plywood, veneer, stains, toxic petroleum-based finishes, fillers, and all manner of hocus-pocus designed to make a certain product appear to be another.

There are a host of problems associated with these manufactured materials, from the offgassing of formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOC's) to forestry and manufacturing processes that range from environmentally insensitive to criminal. A recent New Yorker article outlines the source for the majority of the wood used in manufactured furniture products— and the environmental and social cost of its harvest.

Enough said. Quite simply, the final judgement of the quality of our furniture, (and our built-surroundings as a whole), shall be in its effect on the people involved in its manufacture and use. Most users would agree that these products should be comforting, functional, long lasting, and as non-toxic as possible. They agree that they should not be uncomfortable, useless, rotten, poisonous, or carcinogenic. Thankfully, there are material options that satisfy all these requirements.

The Wood Itself

I am sometimes suprised by client perceptions about what constitutes a “quality” wood. All wood species can be utilized effectively or ineffectively— it just depends on whether we use them to the advantage of their strengths. It is true that dark colored wood is usually more expensive than light, but this doesn't mean dark woods are of a higher quality. Trees are like people; color and texture vary widely within the individual and from one tree to the next. In fact, trees are usually better looking than the furniture made from them, and it is a fallacy to think that the pinnacle aesthetic achievement of wood is in the hands of man. In addition to the tree itself, the way in which the wood is dried after harvesting can alter physical characteristics and quality, as can the orientation of the tree's cell structure relative to the plane of a finished surface. As the folowing pictures demonstrate, even maple, which is often treated by designers as a benign light-colored wood can display remarkable variation in color and texture:

Left to right: textured sugar maple; red maple, heartwood/sapwood transition in sugar maple; spalted (fungus eaten) red maple; red maple

I use a full range of North American hardwoods and softwoods in my work, but I avoid using tropical hardwoods or other imports. I particulary like red alder and black walnut, and most housewares are available exclusively in these woods. Red alder is a fast-growing nitrogen-fixing tree from the Pacific West; it has long been utilized by native cultures for bowls and spoons. Black walnut grows throughout the eastern and central United States. Generally considered the best of the North American furniture woods, it is perfect for almost everything, from tables to chopsticks.

While there are certainly sustainably grown tropical woods, I find that the farther I am from the source of a material, the harder it is to assess the quality of both resource management and the material itself. I would prefer to harvest all of my own trees and have complete control of the cutting and drying process. Until this becomes possible for me, the best way to make sure I am getting both a high quality and sustainable product is to keep the source as close to home as possible. To do this, I travel to my the source of my wood whenever possible, select it by hand, and buy it from locations as little-removed the logger or arborist as possible. The best way to gain an understanding of how these woods look is to enter the galleries and view each piece- different wood types are always noted. Remember that cameras and computer screens are notorious for inaccurate color representation. In all cases I have done my best to achieve an accurate color balance in the photos.

Veneer

Veneer is wood cut or sliced into thin sheets. Some wood species are not stable enough in their thicker forms to be used in most furniture. They can be used as veneer if the wood is cut thin enough and attached to a stable substrate. I design differently, only using these wood species in locations where it isn't a problem if they move.

Industrial veneers are usually thin enough that they don't retain any structural integrity— they relie on the substrate (usually plywood) underneath for strength. Arguably, this is an efficient use of material, and while it may stretch the “nice” wood further, the overall product represents false economy: it is not what it appears to be and will likely age poorly because the “nice” surface membrane is so thin. As an alternative, I cut my own veneers between 1/16” and 3/16” thick— thick enough to retain structural integrity and thin enough to be dimensionally stable. Like plywood, veneer should be used only when dimensional stability is paramount, not as an excuse to use a rare or fancy wood.

1/8” sassafras veneer fresh off the bandsaw.

Plywood

As a designer, I love the dimensional stability and strength-to-weight ratio of plywood. In some cases, it is an elegant solution to a design requirement. Plywood is composed of veneers stacked with the grain direction of each at 90° to adjacent members, resulting in near-complete dimensional stability. However, “cheap” or low quality wood is used in the center and various unhealthy glues hold the plies together. The outer “face” veneer is usually with a very thin (often less than half a millimeter) layer of “nicer” wood on one face, making durability and longevity and issue. So, when I need the dimensional stability of plywood, I laminate my own using non-toxic glue and veneers I cut on a bandsaw.

1/4” walnut and red maple plywood lamination.

Glue

When I was a wooden boatbuilding instructor, I used just about every toxic goop ever invented to hold wood together. If your furniture must float, there may be instances in which these modern compounds are necessary. In this case, the piece should be designed to use as little glue as possible in its construction. All glue fails— someday. Furniture should be built to rely on glue strength as little as possible. When it is necessary, non-toxic “carpenter’s” yellow and white glue is sufficient. Whenever possible, the best glue is no glue.

Finishes

The average hardware store wood stains and finishes are mixtures of toxic and carcinogenic volatile solvents and synthetic resins. They are often designed to obscure the texture and color of wood. How did we get to this point? The reason to build with wood is its inherent warmth, color, and texture. Our ancestors had all manner of low- and no- toxic effective wood finishes and paints (and a few that weren't too safe, too!). From milk paint and shellac to linseed, tung, and walnut oils, there are options for every use and look. My personal preference for furniture lies with the tung oil finishes of Sutherland Welles with an overcoat of polished beeswax. Not only do these finishes highlight the natural beauty of wood, they are easy to maintain and refresh. Housewares are finished with a combination of food-grade walnut oil and beeswax for a completely edible finish. While walnut and tung oils may not be as maintenance-free as as some less healthy finishes, they look better and better as they age. What is an heirloom but an object that has been cared for over a long period of time?


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