Oooof. Does this website even work anymore? It has been a crazy past couple of months and it looks like things are finally winding down for a spell. Now it's just back into qualifier mode, which I am really not looking forward to, but at least I can concentrate on it without having my attention pulled in about four different, yet important directions. Hopefully in the downtime I'll have a little bit more of a chance to get back into the swing of updating and doing non-exhausting art projects.
Speaking of art projects, the purpose of today's post is to talk about my most recently finished woodworking project. Since I didn't post process/contruction/build photos this time, this post will be the write-up of the finished product and I'll talk about the design process and... influences? (I dunno guys, I'm in new territory here with this whole talking about the work I've done.) Mainly the goal here is to post a lot of pictures of the finished product and call out some of the details I put a lot of effort into. Let's get to it! Also, forewarning: I use a little bit of "art-speak" here and kinda feel like I sound like a huge tool. Just know that however uncomfortable you feel and however big your eye-roll is, I am about ten times more uncomfortable.
This was what I would consider to be my first design and build commission. I have previously done one other project for someone, a headboard, and while I definitely designed and built that piece, it was somewhat out of style for what I would typically make, and I was largely working from influences Ally had pointed out that she really wanted. This request was for a bookshelf for a friend, Beth Wollman, and the only caveat was... that it not... suck? Basically, I had freedom to build any bookshelf, provided it fit in her apartment, fit a book twelve inches tall, and be made of light wood (in color, not weight). Beth is an artist out here working in animation (she does many jobs at her current studio but started there as a storyboard artist), and well, suffice it to say that she's a pretty cool lady. You should definitely check out her art over at bethwollman.com and bethwollman.tumblr.com/.
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The design process:
I recently wrote a post about design struggles and specifically, it was about my design struggles with this shelf. My real goal was to deliver something that (1) no one else would have come up with and (2) was personal for Beth. After you get the pragmatic layer of this out of the way, i.e. the shelf should function as a shelf and should hold the things that Beth needs it to, there are a million and one different things you can do. I wanted to capture something of Beth's personality in it, I wanted to have a least a little symbolism in what I made, and I wanted it to be beautiful and well executed, and have a bit of my own influence in it. Beth had pointed out that she liked the live-edge walnut desk I had built for myself (we actually reconnected right as I was starting that project) so with all of this in my head, I set out to come up with a design.
The aesthetic I like most in furniture is that of George Nakashima. He lets the wood do most of the talking, and lets his influence be on the construction, wood choice, and beautifully simple designs. When I build things for myself, his work is largely where I draw inspiration. I also love the wildness, asymmetry, and nearly unrestrained creativity of Wharton Esherick's pieces who was as much a sculptor as he was a furniture maker. I think the freedom, and lack of fear he has with his work is astounding. I hope to one day feel that level of freedom with the stuff I build, even if I may not always act on it.
knew from the get-go wanted to bring elements of both to this bookshelf. I iterated through maybe forty different designs (a subset are shown above) before I finally came across one that I was at least happy enough with to go buy wood. (Spoiler alert: the finished product looked nothing like what I had drawn!). I got really bogged down trying to imagine what Beth would want, incorporate all of this symbolism I had cooked up in my mind, and trying to pull inspiration from work that was already out there. Most of what I drew was a clear "no" and only a couple even spoke to me enough to enough to not outright reject. I was satisfied with none of them. The main thing I didn't like was that they felt very forced: you could tell I was trying to jam in a bunch of meaning and influences. If I had just built what I had drawn, it would have been a fine, maybe even beautiful bookshelf, but it would have been the angsty teen poetry version of what I was actually going for.
What eventually broke the cycle was just going and buying wood, and most of the things I like best about it came as I was building. When I bought the wood I had a design that I was happy enough with and I had a sense of how much wood I needed to buy, so I bit the bullet and bought... well let's just say wood is pretty expensive*. Once I had the wood in hand and started acting on some of the design choices I had sketched out, everything completely fell into place. Just about every joint, dimension, and overall shape changed from the plan throughout the course of the build, but ultimately all of the symbolism, influences and "touch" (both Beth's and mine) came together in what I consider to be the best thing I've built to date. Much of it is understated and should be missed by most onlookers (if your symbolism is hitting people over the head then I think you're doing it wrong) but it's exactly what I wanted it to be. And at the end of the day, we mustn't lose sight of its true purpose: it holds books like a champ.
Wood color (specifically light wood) was the only real constraint Beth gave me at the outset. The lower part of the of shelf was intended to be 100% maple, however due to an error at the House of Hardwood I ended up with some natural birch boards as well. They're really quite difficult to tell apart. I actually leveraged this though from a design stance and the front board in the sides and shelves is always the maple board, while the back board is the birch. The lamination line (where two boards are glued together to form one large, wide board) actually lines up on the shelves and sides. This creates a cool, two-tone kind of effect that I really like.
The slab top is figured Swiss pear which ended up being incredibly beautiful but is harder than a m***** f*****; it's actually used in place of ebony somewhat commonly. Normally, the slab just requires finishing and joining, but I ended up doing a boatload of shaping to taper down the edges to to 0.75" from the roughly 1.5" thickness it came as. Let's just leave it at it's a miracle we didn't get evicted from the noise and I didn't die of exhaustion.
I also didn't 100% know how the pear would look finished. When I bought it it appeared to be fairly light (poplar-esque value) with some reddish tone. Then when I finished a test patch, it looked really dark, like reddish-walnut kind of dark. I chose the different dovetail key woods to try and contrast the pear or disappear into it (maple for contrast, koa for tone-matching). That ultimately failed, just like my other design choices, but also came out alright!
All of the joints connecting components are wedged mortise and tenon joints. There are 40 structural joints (an absurd number... never again... well probably again, but at least not for a little while). In addition, there are eight dovetail keys and one koa "patch" over one of the wedged mortise and tenon joints between the slab top and the shelves. I had originally planned four large(r) mortise and tenon joints per shelf (two per side), but after doing a bit of reading discovered that a greater number of smaller joints would be less susceptible to swelling with humidity and potentially (1) cracking the glue and (2) splitting the wood. Given how the grain lines up, (2) was a legitimate concern considering I ran into some splitting early on in the sides of the bookshelf.
From a design point of view, the wedges in the shelf/side joints are very carefully placed. The contrasting wedges (made of cherry) all radiate from a single point placed just slightly above the very bottom of the shelf. This was in part to capture one of the original design inspirations I had hoped to incorporate, a desk by Wharton Esherick with beautiful radiating figured oak panels on the front that, when less humid, shrink to reveal teal splines that hold them in place. I loved his use of this property (mostly) unique to wood that allowed it to continue to be this "living" construction material. Instead of trying to stop this ebb and flow that occurs in all wood furniture, he allowed it to happen; not only happen but allowed it to be a defining component of the piece.
While I didn't capture that life quite as much, I did incorporate that "radiating" imagery into this shelf through these wedges. For me, the symbolism was that of the scallop shell, one of the original ideas I had attempted to use for inspiration. If you're interested, I'd encourage you to hop over to wikipedia to read more about the symbolism of the shell. Nothing there is entirely irrelevant to what I hoped to capture.
From a more practical standpoint, wedged mortise and tenon joints are incredibly solid, however I had to place the shelf joint wedges somewhat carefully. Ideally the wedges would have all run horizontally (i.e. parallel to the ground) to avoid any risk of splitting the sides of the bookshelf. If all had run vertically, the mechanical forces at work, the ones that make the joint so strong, could have split the entire side down the length, similar to how you can split a huge round of wood or an entire log using only wooden wedges. I took a balanced risk here: some run vertically which isn't ideal, but a purely pragmatic or a purely artistic piece isn't really what I want, only one that combines the two ideals. In addition to all of the design, they should hold pretty solid for... ever?
The Slab Top:
The slab is roughly 3'-3.5' feet of a 6.5' piece of pear that, at its thickest, is roughly 1.5". The original piece of wood was that thickness in its entirety and I'd guess weighed roughly 50-60 pounds. After all of the maple parts were built, and I had cut off the part I knew I wanted to use for the top, I was playing around with the positioning and something just didn't feel right. It was extremely visually (and physically) heavy relative to the rest of the shelf. I had secretely suspected it would be all along, but not having a solution (or the capacity to visualize it the finished product) I knew I need to get the rest of the construction done before anything would come to me. It took a night or two of stressing with no clear idea of where to go before it struck me. I even texted Beth that I had had the "epiphany" I had been waiting for.
That epiphany was to use a natural feature of the wood, a heavy, gnarled knot as a center of mass, and then taper down the thickness to the ends. This would use the features of the wood, the ones that only wood can really provide, as well as relieve much of the weight I was seeing and feeling. Also, because that knot was offset from the center of the slab which would capture the asymmetry I had hoped to bring to it from the get-go. As crude and overly simplistic of a metaphor as it may be, Beth has a haircut that's asymmetric, which I really like, and it felt important to capture that with a little bit of noticeable asymmetry in the final construction. If you look at my drawings above you'll see that's part of what I was going for even from the very beginning.
The Dovetail Keys:
Finall, when you use slabs of wood, you capture boatloads of figuring and beauty you really can't get any other way. Along with this you tend to get some natural splitting of the wood that is... hmm... less than ideal? Over time, as the wood swells and shrinks with humidity, these splits can elongate, become wider,etc. which you don't really want in your furniture. A Nakashima-inspired solution that I like is the dovetail key.
Beth's bookshelf has eight in all, seven of which are made of maple (all the same piece of wood actually) and one that is made of koa. About five of them are structural, placed over splits I felt would, over time, lengthen and cause issues. The other three I added to continue the natural arc that developed as I was placing the other five. The extra three are also partly structural (i.e. bridging naturally forming splits in the wood) however they are not necessarily over splits I was particularly worried about. I used koa for one key to incorporate something different, a little special, and unique. I like that sort of thing. I'll leave any symbolism up to the reader/viewer to find.
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I have to say, it felt a little odd to let this one go. The headboard took me all of twelve hours to complete, from buying the wood to finished product. This bookshelf took a month from start to finish, and while I don't know the exact number of hours that went into it, it was at least 50-60. It literally got blood and sweat (sanded out of course, don't worry ;-)). I don't *think* there were any tears... maybe one day though.
There are other little details and imperfections that I haven't and won't discuss here; some stuff has to be left between a lady and her bookshelf. I poured a lot into this piece of furniture and I think it has ended up with someone who appreciates that. I'm thrilled with how it came out and hope that it brings its current owner and potentially all of its future owners many years of beauty.
P.S. The title of this post is a reference to a Bon Iver song, "Beth/Rest", that you should definitely check out. :-) I leave you with a few process photos.
* While I don't think price is really relevant to what I wanted to discuss here, I can foresee someone interested in woodworking stumbling across this post and wondering what it may cost to build something like this. The final cost for the wood, which includes the pear slab and ~23 board-feet of maple/birch was $479. I buy most of my "fancy" wood from House of Hardwood here in LA which will cut you a deal if you pay in cash, so what I ended up paying was a little less than the list price. I also have some wood left over that I'm going to use for another piece. There are lots of other incidentals that should factor into the total cost of construction, like the wood I used for the dovetail keys and wedges, things like glue, finish, tools and hones (which do wear out over time), sandpaper (of which I went through a LOT), and router bits (which also wear out... or break. Don't buy cheap ones...).