Natural edges and Spalted Wood


I’ve said before that my furniture is about the wood. Many of my pieces have “imperfections,” such as knots, that would not be acceptable in mass produced furniture that seeks uniformity, not to mention special figure, burl and sapwood. These properties make the piece speak of its natural origins. But natural or “live” edges and spalted wood move the piece even further in this direction.

Both spalting and live edges are striking visually, as in this wall cabinet. You don’t really need to go beyond that to justify its use. However, both characteristics are very symbolic in my mind.

Spalting is caused by fungus. Fungus is an extremely important part of the ecology of a forest, being essential not only for recycling biomass but in promoting growth as well. If you look at this detail of the natural edge of the cabinet, you’ll see tracks made by beetles hosted by the living tree. So, natural edges and spalting are features that speak not only of the tree itself as a living creature, but they reference the whole community of organisms in which the tree functioned.

In this way we see that wood is more than a building material that has no meaning until we shape something with it, and it is more than just a beautiful natural product. Wood, and these natural features of wood, are in fact symbolic of life and community and of our dependence on the natural world.

Mixing the refined craftsmanship of the cabinetmaker and joiner with natural edges and spalting presents a contrast that just can’t be ignored.  The one is a very utilitarian and anthropocentric view, the other a poetic and scientific view. That is how it has always been. We humans have a long history of association with trees, much of it a utilitarian history. But there is also a long poetic and symbolic history. However, today many of the world’s forests and the communities they support are threatened. Including these natural features into our furniture can help remind us of the origins of the material and of their importance to a healthy world.  


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Using inlay and marquetry


Inlay and marquetry can be an extremely effective method of drawing attention and creating focus, and most importantly for me as designer, a visual reference or context in which to design the piece. It seems like a traditional use of inlays in furniture was simply to make a piece less plain, such as adding a border of Acanthus leaves might do. I haven’t used inlay in this way for a couple of reasons. First, something like the Acanthus leaves would have no particular meaning to me, and second, I don’t think this kind of symmetric use is particularly effective in creating a focus. Another traditional kind of piece uses marquetry to create a picture, sometimes so extensive as to obscure the wood completely. That is something I’m not interested in doing.

What I’ve tried to do is use marquetry or inlay to create a theme for the piece, focus the eye, and draw the viewer into looking at the whole design, including the woods. My marquetry and inlay has generally been asymmetric, high contrast, and organic themed.   

A visual reference that has motivated many of my pieces is the Chinese garden. Sitting in a garden kiosk, you see a plum tree beginning to bloom or just some leaves framed by a lattice work. The plantings are well distributed, allowing your eye to focus on just an element of the garden, framed by the lattice.  This was the original reference that motivated my plum blossom pieces, as in the following Seattle style table. 

I like to find ways to connect the visual reference for the marquetry with the structure of the piece. For example, in the Plum Blossom cabinets, I am able to carry through the visual reference to lattice work in the marquetry to an actual lattice work in the apron of the base.

In the Ginkgo console table, my visual reference was the yellow, windblown leaves of the Ginkgo in Fall. I have two Ginkgo trees, and in November we have lots of wind, so it wasn’t hard to come up with this idea. I make the Ginkgo leaves to look like they’re flying in the wind, but they still have that unique fan shape of the Ginkgo.

But even though these were my immediate references in designing the marquetry, I love being able to incorporate symbolism into my pieces. The dogwood and plum blossoms are a couple of my Spring favorites, signaling the end of winter and beginning of a new cycle of life. Other than incorporating a “broken ice” fretwork, I’m not sure how else you would capture these feelings in furniture. Ginkgo’s are symbols of health, life and endurance, so I like to have Ginkgos around just for good luck. I make the Ginkgo leaves out of Cascara wood as well, and Cascara bark produces a health product, so there is another level of symbolism there.


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Seattle Coffee Table
Furniture design is an abstract art form. I don’t approach it in a “non-objective” way, though. I mean, I don’t try to assemble “elements” of lines, shapes, colors, textures, etc., to make a pleasing composition without any reference to the real world.  I think all of my designs have had some visual reference, things such as human and animal forms, streams, farms, wind-blown leaves, floating leaves, spring time, and architecture. So, there is usually a “story” behind my designs. I’ll take architecture as an example.

My inspiration for the “Seattle” line of tables was from the historical buildings my wife and I visited in China and Japanese architecture I’ve read about. I was really fascinated with the roofs of some of the buildings in China. We saw that they were often decorated with interesting carved figures having symbolic meanings, and I found the repeating rooflines of the pagodas to be very intriguing. In some of the historical buildings, huge logs functioned as pillars. These buildings reminded me more of tables than of our western style buildings.

Playing around with the idea of repeating rooflines, I finally came up with the idea pictured here. The stretchers overlap the legs using a shallow cross-lap joint so that the stretcher is much proud of the leg surface. Judging from the responses I’ve gotten, I think it very effectively evokes the idea of multiple roof lines, but I also find it an interesting detail even without that visual reference.

Other elements that refer to the Asian architecture are the reverse tapered legs (from the log pillars) and the wide overhang of the top (like some Japanese buildings).  However, the negative space around the stretchers and the straight lines work to keep the piece looking very light and Western, and I kept the dimensions of the components modest to enhance this effect and keep the piece looking contemporary. It really is a fusion of my Western tastes and elements of eastern architecture, so that is why I’ve decided to call it the Seattle style.


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Favorite Woods


Table top of quilted maple
Many people ask me if I have a favorite wood. Two actually.  Big Leaf Maple and Walnut.  We are lucky in the Northwest in having these two very spectacular species to work with.  Our native maple, Big Leaf Maple, occasionally sports an unusual growth pattern that gives rise to dramatic figure in the wood called “quilt” and “curl.” Perhaps one in a thousand trees will have intensely quilted wood.  I love to use it in my furniture.  Finishing it is an experience.  You never know exactly how great the figure is until you put the final finish to it, and it is exciting to see what you’ve really got! Sometimes it is breathtaking.

Our other spectacular species is Claro Walnut, a species native to the San Joaquin valley in Northern California. It is used extensively as rootstock in California and Oregon for English Walnut.  Claro is a deep rich brown marbled with lighter, darker and reddish streaks and can be figured with “curls” as well.

For some people, wood is wood, either light or dark - just a building material until someone forms something with it. These two woods are for people with a deeper appreciation for wood. Furniture made out of these woods is really a celebration of the wonders and beauty of nature, and I think furniture made with these woods is about the wood. 

The icing on the cake, though, is that these are sustainable woods. Big Leaf Maple grows right through our urban neighborhoods as well as throughout the countryside, and the commercial value of Claro as rootstock would seem to assure its continued existence. In an age we are causing the rapid extinction of so many species, this is critically important.


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Welcome to my new website


I've finally taken the time to update my website. The old one was too difficult to maintain so I didn't. The Zhibit software seems very easy to use once you get the hang of it, so I think I can keep on top of it now. I hope, anyway.

The nice thing about this site is I can have a blog. This will give me a place to respond to questions I've been asked over the years as well as let you know what's cooking right now.



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A curly American Walnut Table!


Table Top for Ginkgo Dining "Bar"
This Ginkgo table top is made out of figured American Black Walnut. Usually, when I want to make a table with fancy walnut, I go for Claro from Oregon or California because really deep figure is rare in the eastern walnut on the market. This is walnut was  very deeply figured as you can see from this figure on the top.




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Fine furniture, Camano Island, marquetry