Studio Protector

December 19, 2009

In October of 2005 the small city of Keene, NH, where I live and work, was hit with widespread flooding. It wasn’t throughout the city, but all the lower-lying areas were hit to some extent. My workshop was (and is) in one of the worst-hit areas. I had nearly two feet of water throughout my shop/studio/office.

October 2005 - Keene, New Hampshire

I received a lot of help in the aftermath of the floods, mostly from friends and family, but also from the Craft Emergency Relief Fund. CERF is a non-profit organization that helps craft artists/artisans in times of trouble. This is taken from their mission statement:

The mission of CERF is to strengthen and sustain the careers of craft artists across the United States… through direct financial and educational assistance to craft artists, including emergency relief assistance, business development support, and resources and referrals on topics such as health, safety, and insurance. CERF also advocates, engages in research, and backs policy that supports craft artists’ careers…

CERF also takes a proactive role in helping craft artists to prepare in advance of possible emergencies. Their newest effort, which took them two years of research and planning to produce, is called “Studio Protector”.

Studio Protector Wall Guide

In an effort to help educate people on how to prepare for, and recover from disasters, CERF is producing a series of short videos, including four based on an interview they did with me:


Have a Seat (part 4)

December 16, 2009

(read parts one through three first, or this might not make sense.)

This entry foyer bench is a study in curves. The back supports have straight edges, and the surface of the seat is a horizontal plane, but beyond that it’s pretty much all curves. The back, the seat and the leg structure, all of it. And each element of the design has both an aesthetic and structural purpose.

The seat is a low, broad horizontal plane with an arcing outline that draws your attention to its center. The back, its supports angling outward, its ends shaped similarly, and its exuberant top edge following the idea of an arch… all pull your focus downward and inward. The legs are delicate, but broadly spread out to ensure stability. Their lines draw your eye upward, toward the center of the piece. That visual center, that spot where all the elements combine to focus your attention, is located several inches above the center of the seat. It is a void that seems to need something… someone.

That’s right, this bench, by design, is calling out to be sat upon! That’s part of what I call “Human Centered Design”.



In part three I talked about gathering the materials for the bench. So now, the next step is to actually make it. Rather than write about that, think I’ll show a few pictures of the bench in progress:


leg structure, upside-down on the workbench

close-up of the four-way joint

fitting the back supports

close-up of back support… the piece has just been dampened to raise the grain for the final sanding

gluing the back to the supports

final sanding before applying the finish

Have a Seat (part 3)

December 15, 2009

(read parts one & two first, or this might not make sense.)

Foyer Bench on Workbench

So… the couple who commissioned me to build this entry hall bench had approved the design, and the deposit was in my bank account. Now I just had to block out the time to make it, and gather the materials.

The plan called for the entire piece, except for the back, to be made of cherry. I didn’t want anything curly or figured for this, just plain cherry. Too much figure would draw your eye to the wood, instead of to the lines of the piece. I had quite a bit of good cherry “in stock” at my shop, so I was all set there.

As for the back, that is a completely different story, it is meant to stand out, in its shape and as a graphic element. They really go hand-in-hand. You can’t have that exuberant, jagged top edge without also having wild figure and “character” in the wood itself. That live edge on the top of the back was going to be one of the defining elements of this bench, so finding the right piece of wood for the back was going to be the first challenge.

If you are not familiar with a “live edge” board, it’s one which still has the irregular natural edge, just as it was cut from the log. That is not the usual way that wood is cut. Almost all lumber gets those edges trimmed off at the sawmill to make straight, easily stacked boards. Only logs with something special get set aside for the more labor-intensive processing needed for pristine live-edge boards, and they must be handled carefully so as not to damage their outer surface. Typically these logs are sawn “through and through”, that is sliced in parallel slabs right through the log. The boards are then stacked back together, with spacers called “stickers”, to dry. The Europeans call this re-assembled log a “boule”.

boule-sawn logs

There are are a lot of places I can buy good wood, but there are only two suppliers of live-edge specialty lumber near me. Tradewinds is about forty-five minutes away, and is my first choice. Berkshire Products is about three hours away. Only if I can’t get what I need at Tradewinds do I commit to the nearly full-day buying trip needed to go there.

I needed a single board for the back of this bench, 11 inches wide and 5 feet long. I drove to Tradewinds and told Dave, the owner, what I was looking for. I described the size, thickness, shape, color, and working characteristics that I needed. After a couple of false starts we ended up in one of his lumber sheds climbing fifteen foot tall stacks of irregular and oddly-shaped wood. Getting the best footing we could, we started shuffling through layers of boards. It took several climbs up and down before we found the right thing. European beech from Bulgaria. A whole “boule” of wild, gnarly, burly, amazing wood which Dave had imported several years ago.

The board I picked out, the one that had a section with all the right characteristics, was 21 inches wide and 10 feet long. I had to buy four times as much wood as I wanted to in order to get the piece that I needed. That one board cost $262.50.

To be continued

Have a Seat (part 2)

December 8, 2009

(read part one first, or this might not make sense.)

Foyer Bench on Workbench

I emailed the perspective drawings (commonly called “renderings”) of the bench to the couple who had given me the commission. They had not given any preferences for the materials, but in order to produce the renderings of the piece, I needed something. So I arbitrarily chose to show the bench in walnut. For everything but the back, that is. The back was one of the two areas that they had been specific about in their request: they wanted a live edge on the top of the back.

This gave me a great opportunity to bring some contrast into the design. A different wood, maybe even a different color, for the back. Right from the start I envisioned the top edge to be not just wavy, but jagged and craggy, like a mountainous skyline. To get an edge with that look you have to find a board which is full of “character”. I decided to draw it as a section of big-leaf maple burl.

I didn’t have to wait long for a response. The wife emailed back two days later:

The bench looks terrific! I love the top design and the bottom is classic “Spykman style!” Walnut may be a bit dark for us, though. What about a red birch or cherry? Getting excited!

So… an approved design… “Getting excited!”… these are good things! Just have to change the wood. I liked the Idea of cherry, plus I had a good cherry pattern in the drawing program. Getting the woodgrain to flow properly on the curving surfaces of the model was a bit tricky, but it didn’t take me too long to make the change. I sent back the revised drawings that same day… she deemed the final design “terrific”.

Foyer Bench Rendering - Cherry

Now here is an amazing fact: through all of this process, all the emails, the photos, the designing, the back and forth on materials… no one had mentioned money. They had not mentioned a budget, I had not given an estimate (I went back through the emails to confirm this). This is not my usual approach. I had actually broken one of my own policies in this regard. I generally give a “guesstimate” price early on in the process, and ask for ten percent of that as a design fee before doing any real work on things (this will sometimes scare away the “window shoppers”). I don’t know why, but I followed a different course here.

I sent another email with a formal proposal and price quote. I got back an affirmative response right away, and a deposit check in my real mailbox three days later.

(to be continued)

Have a Seat (part 1)

December 1, 2009

Everybody has a story to tell, and most people will gladly tell you theirs if you show some interest.  Things have stories and histories too, in the art or antiques world this is referred to as an object’s “provenance”. This is the story of a piece of furniture, a bench.

At the beginning of July I got an email from a couple for whom I had designed and built a coffee table last year. They were so pleased with the coffee table that they decided they wanted me to make them a bench to go in front of the stone wall in their foyer, something that would be “both functional, and a piece of art”…after all, it would be the first thing people would see when they entered the house. Beyond that, there were only two specific requests: The size should be “a normal seating height, and five feet wide”, and it should have a “raw edge” on the top.

Let me stop right here and say that this is a Dream Commission! Just enough specifics to give me a jump start on the design process, and beyond that… freedom. This couple had chosen me in the first place because they like my style, so they clearly felt safe working this way.

When I am working with a married couple on a project like this, it is the wife that is usually chosen as the “point-person” for communication and decisions. That was the case here, and I emailed her back a big “thank you.” I also had a few questions… some clarification on how the bench would be used, things like that. And I asked for some photos of the spot that the bench would occupy. I needed to see the texture, color and “busyness” of the other materials in the room. The photos would also help me to see the amount and type of light in the room.

Within a few days I had her answers, and the pictures (email sure has simplified and sped up the communication that goes into a project like this). I immediately got to work on a design. This is the part of my job that gives me the greatest joy, bringing into existence a new thing that did not exist before. Of course, it won’t “exist” in the physical sense until I actually start making sawdust, but to me, the design is the reality. Its material existence as an “object” is probably more important to my customers, but to me, the piece exists when the design is complete.

I worked on the design between, and around, several other projects for the next couple of weeks. The concept for the bench popped into my mind very quickly, but it took quite a bit of work to model it on my computer. The picture I had in mind was all sweeping curves and oblique angles. I needed to make sure that the piece could actually be built, and would look good from all angles, so I drew a complete 3D model on the computer. By the time the computer model was done it was almost as if I had actually built the bench already. It felt real to me.

This computer model also allowed me to make renderings of the bench. I can “walk around” the model and “take pictures” from any height or angle. I made three renderings showing the bench from different views, and about four weeks after I received that initial request, I sent out this email:

I’ve got a bench design for you. Take a look at these renderings… three views of the piece from different angles. I’m showing it in walnut with big-leaf maple burl for the back. Obviously the shape of the back will be dependent on the actual piece of wood I find. And of course, if you prefer different woods I can do that also.

(to be continued)