After twenty or so years of building furniture I
still love what I do. I cannot imagine a day passing without working
with my hands. I guess what truly fuels the creative fires is
that I am allowed to visualize something and see it through to
its finish. Very few things in life take you from its origin all
the way to its completion. So finite. So simple. So basic.
All my works start with a concept that has to fit into some sort
of parameter. A chair has to be strong enough to support someone,
a stairway that can’t creak when you walk on it and so on.
Structural constraints are easy to satisfy by themselves. Add
the aesthetic to the equation and all goes out the window. Add
the quest to construct it out of shapes that are provided by the
landscape and it goes out the window and flies away!
After the concept has been defined and refined a few times the
entire process starts with a trip to the woods. The landscapes
in which we travel vary greatly depending on what we are building.
Works built of juniper such as the barstools, pool tables, etc
are gathered some three hours off the pavement on rocky slopes
throughout the arid high deserts of Arizona. Whereas, the twiggyer
works, made of oak saplings like the Dryad’s bed and oak
chairs are found in the higher mountainous regions. No matter
where we are going the trips are always referred to candidly as
“Wood Safaris”. These trips always include Beulah,
my ugly black train wreck of a dog and my “SUV” from
across the sea, the Pinzgauer 710, a decommissioned Austrian built,
Swiss Army vehicle. Basically Nato’s 30 year old answer
to the Hummer. A vehicle that pretty much goes anywhere and a
few places you may not want to go.
|And in the West they cut down alligator junipers, trees that have
been standing hundreds if not a thousand years and reduce an entire
tree to a few cords of firewood, a few months of heat, and a couple
buckets of ash. From the start, these great trees are doomed. Rarely
do you see these trees completely alive and thriving, they seem to
pick the less than optimal places to inhabit. Unlike most trees, they
don’t seem to congregate where surface and ground water abound.
They prefer rocky and windy high desert slopes. Perhaps they like
It is the diverse elements, of drought, of high winds,
of days starting with frost and ending with a heat stroke, and intense
monsoon storms, which these trees endure that make them so amazing.
At a glance, these trees remind you of driftwood. Instead of wood
drifting through the elements, the elements themselves find the
trees. If the sculpted exterior of the tree wasn’t amazing
enough, what lies inside is even more dazzling.
The blanking out of a juniper barstool
“the beauty of what lies inside!!!”
A magnificent Alligator Juniper approximately 800-1200
The window of opportunity in which one can harvest these trees
is limited. First the ENTIRE tree must be dead, a constraint that
firewood cutters seem to blatantly ignore. I couldn’t even
begin to put a number on the “amputees” I encounter
on any given trip. Second, the window of opportunity in which the
wood itself is suitable for use is brief, maybe ten years at best.
When one these great trees finally calls it quits, they are subject
to a multitude of destructive elements including but not limited
to decay and carpenter ants. In addition to the obvious, since they
prefer rocky barren slopes, they also tend to be great candidates
for lightening strikes and high winds.
If finding one of these trees in a usable and legal harvest condition
isn’t sporting enough, finding one with the elements needed
for a certain project is even more daunting. Unlike conventional
furniture builders, I typically do not take a piece of wood and
shape it into a piece of furniture. The tree literally makes the
chair. Since we do not bend or alter the material in any way we
must rely on the shapes that nature provides. To create a chair
that has a gentle contour for ones back takes finding THAT particular
tree with THAT particular contour. In short, I spend a great deal
of time looking at trees in an entirely different way than most
people probably do. This addiction/obsession never seems to subside.
Even when I’m not on the hunt, I find myself looking in my
neighbor’s yards, staring at landscaping trucks that are full
of cuttings and clippings, and even pondering the discarded Christmas
tree along the curbside.
|Once we finally locate a suitable tree
we then have to figure out how we are going get the materials home.
Ideally, we like to transport the tree in the largest pieces possible.
Leaving the tree whole leaves more options when we get back to the
shop. Leaving the tree whole also means it weighs a lot more. Getting
trees 40” in diameter and 10’ in length is nothing less
than a sport. The most successful methods usually deploy long lengths
of pipe used as levers and fulcrums. With an occasional block and
tackle, a few lengths of pipe, and that stuff they taught you in the
early years of school one can move amazing things.
A bountiful Trip
After all of this we are just barely getting started ! Once back
at the shop, all the material goes into the kiln. The drying of
the wood is crucial. Wet wood equals loose joints. In addition to
adding structural integrity, the drying process pretty much does
away with any insects that may be hanging around. Few things survive
a couple weeks at a constant 250 degrees.
Finally, It is time to actually start building something!