Design Notebook: The Furniture Maker Scott McGlasson

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Design Notebook: The Furniture Maker Scott McGlasson

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ST. PAUL — What is the value of a dining-room chair? You can’t eat it. And you can sit on the floor free, as millions (billions?) of people do.

A chair — any chair — is a luxury. But then what would be the right term to describe the real worth of a dining chair that sells for $1,600? An extravagance? An obscenity? How about a pretty good deal?

The furniture maker Scott McGlasson, 48, professed a couple of goals last week when he set out to design a new chair in his shop, called Woodsport.

He wanted a prototype that he could display in his booth at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show, which runs March 19 to 22 at Piers 92 and 94 in Manhattan. And he wanted to create a piece that could match his easy chair ($3,200) and chaise longue ($8,900). He calls this furniture line “RB,” for the running bond of two-inch-wide wood tiles that cover the seats like brickwork.

At the moment, the black walnut tiles were all Mr. McGlasson had — that and a pencil sketch on a piece of quarter-inch hardboard. Last Monday found him laying out his high-tech design kit: a free pencil from Youngblood Lumber, a 4-foot-long straight edge, a Starrett square, a bevel, a punched metal disc and a Pink Pearl eraser.

The eraser was getting the heaviest use. He hadn’t liked the hardboard template when he first drew it four months ago. And it hadn’t improved through desuetude.

Ideally, when the chair was completed, it would be well proportioned, impeccably finished and sustainably sourced. It would express Mr. McGlasson’s personal vision as a craftsman.

Practically, the piece needed to be something he could build with about $200 to $300 worth of materials.

And while the test model could take 40 hours to assemble, he would budget just half that time for the production version. (The chaise longue, by comparison, consumed 120 hours.)

Mr. McGlasson also obeyed an overarching imperative: The chair needed to make a profit, and a decent one at that.

“I get hassled on price sometimes,” he said. “Some people will say, ‘Really, isn’t that a little much?’ And I’m like, ‘What do you make?’ I’m sure my hourly rate is a lot lower than theirs.”

Mr. McGlasson estimates that his hourly rate is $85. But Woodsport is a one-man studio (at least until he hires a new assistant).

This means that he spends hours of every workday answering sales inquiries, shipping finished work and posting promotional images on Instagram. In a sense, his hourly rate for this work is zero. “The only time I’m actually making money is when I’m standing at the lathe,” Mr. McGlasson said.

That lathe, by the way, cost $4,000.

This is the perverse economy of furniture making. A completed set of six chairs could run $10,800. The federal poverty guideline for a one-person household is only $1,000 more.

“That kind of money is kind of insane,” Mr. McGlasson said. “People say that to me all the time: ‘I love your stuff. I wish I could afford it.’ And I say, ‘I wish I could, too.’ ”

At these prices, it’s hard to believe that a high-end woodworker would cut corners. But, in a literal sense, cutting corners on a bandsaw is the definition of the job.

The question is what kind of corners a designer chooses to cut. Should the legs be straight or tapered? Should the wood tiles be beveled or flat? Should the back slats be solid or laminated, straight or bowed?

The chair he was imagining would be 36 inches tall, with a ladder-back up the spine. How many rungs should there be? “Two or three,” Mr. McGlasson said.

Each of these choices determines the labor that he needs to put into executing a piece. The easy chair had masculine arms, but the dining room version would go armless. “Arms? It’s a pain,” he said. “I have a price in mind for this chair. The bigger the pain, the more time it takes me. And the more I need to charge for it.”

He added: “I also think it might look more elegant and clean without it.”

Mr. McGlasson sometimes characterizes his style, with its unfussy geometry and clean appearance, as “rustic modern.” It’s furniture he wants to make and furniture he can sell. And these two priorities are not necessarily in competition.

For example, he likes to use logs that he collects with a local sawyer, a weathered maverick named Vince Von Vett — “Triple V” for short.

These are blowdowns from the lake country suburbs. It’s environmentally sustainable, which makes a good story for the Woodsport website. And the harvesting gets him outside during the summer, which is where he wants to be.

These are also the cheapest boards you can find. At the lumberyard, select-and-better-grade walnut costs $6 to $8 a board-foot. Triple V mills the trees for a quarter of that price. (Mr. McGlasson’s own backbreaking labor is free.)

The tiles for the new dining chair came from field trips with the sawyer. And the fetching curls and burls in the grain looked like prisms under bright light.

Another way to put this thought is that if your aesthetic doesn’t jibe with your pricing, you’re not a furniture maker. You’re a contractor, spending half your workweek installing kitchen cabinets and constructing office tables off someone else’s blueprints. Or you’re a hobbyist.

Mr. McGlasson practiced both of those occupations. And before that he, too, was a hobbyist. These were honorable pursuits.

“I’ve had bad jobs,” Mr. McGlasson said. “I scraped the sides and painted houses in the summer heat. I drove an ice cream truck that made no money. I ran the in-school suspension room in a junior high.”

At that time, in his 20s, he was training to be a teacher. A perk of the job: free classes in the district’s adult vo-tech program. “I had no idea how a door was made,” he said.

His tastes were simple from the start. “I liked Donald Judd,” he said, referring to the conceptual artist known for his boxes. “When your skills aren’t that great, it’s easy to look at Donald Judd and say, I can do that.”

He built a bedroom set for himself and his wife, and then a crib. “I was sort of burning out on working with kids,” he said. “I was having kids of my own.”

Then he met a Minneapolis architect who began giving him jobs in custom millwork and fabrication. He assembled reception desks (ramparts for corporate headquarters) and built-ins for condo conversions.

Mr. McGlasson didn’t quit this trade so much as the trade quit him. “When the economy went in the tank, it really made me stop doing things the way I was working, building whatever came along,” he said.

For $25 a week, he set up a table at the Mill City Farmers Market, above the Mississippi riverfront. And he started hawking his original bowls, benches and cutting boards.

Today, some of these early designs fill a showroom in his new wood shop. This is a five-room suite in a hulking old can-spraying factory, which he splits with four other woodworkers. A shopmate flies a remote-control plane under the blast-safe windows that cross the 28-foot ceiling. Mr. McGlasson bikes to the bathroom across the factory floor.

For 5,300 square feet, the wood shop pays $2,000 a month, on a 10-year lease. Mr. McGlasson’s share works out to $600 a month.

An industrial shelving unit on the north wall holds his templates and forms. The key to profitable furniture is replication. He has learned to turn down commissions for one-offs. “If someone called me up and said, ‘Can you make a bathroom vanity?’ I wouldn’t do it.”

This standard would guide the model chair, too. On Tuesday, he redrew the jig (or template), raising the seat by three-quarters of an inch and chopping the top by almost two inches. Coming off the bandsaw, it looked like a lowercase letter h, in Helvetica backslant bold.

“Yesterday, I might have been mired in a little self-doubt,” Mr. McGlasson said. “And today I thought, that’s the chair. Why is there always this effort to change it, to make it something it’s not?”

The back slats would come from walnut he’d milled down to 1/16th-inch veneers. The concept was to laminate them with a very slight curve. He glued these sheets together and clamped them to a solid wood form. Next, he placed the form in a 5-by-5-foot vacuum-sealer: a sous-vide bag for a side of elephant steak. The device cost $1,000.

“This is a ton of work for a stupid little detail,” Mr. McGlasson said. “The piece of wood that comes out of this is a lot stronger than if it was solid wood. So it can be thinner. It’s a detail I like.”

Mr. McGlasson had selected the walnut boards he would be using for the frame. He began to trace the template in three parts: a back leg and post; a seat rail; and a front leg. The plan was to cut them out, join them, then tape the rough outline to the jig and rout the edges.

A router is a violent machine, Mr. McGlasson said. And it makes a mess. The wood shavings will go in a two-cubic-yard Dumpster, with a haulage cost of $100 a month.

If the chair were to enter his furniture line, Mr. McGlasson could farm out these parts to a CNC shop, a computer-controlled router that makes quick, cheap, identical cuts. But then Mr. McGlasson held strong preferences about how the figure of the wood should lie. And he wanted to avoid the imperfections.

You can’t pay a computer to care about knots.

Mr. McGlasson relies on other mechanical shortcuts without apology. “Machines are golden and they’re expensive,” he said. He swears by his timesaver: a belt sander he bought for $4,500.

And the lathe, he added, “took me from a dude in a shop making whatever came along to a designer who was producing original work that people sought out to purchase.” This machine is where he turns his popular tables and lamps, whose voluptuous bases suggest the bust mannequins at Lane Bryant.

An earlier generation of woodworkers was almost religious about hand tools. In the movement called Studio Craft, an artisan expressed an individual credo through consummate skill and strenuous human effort. You could see it in the hand-planing, the subtle gouges and rips.

Building a chest of drawers this way could take four to six weeks, said Peter Korn, an author and the executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, a woodworking school in Rockport, Me.

“When I was a self-employed furniture maker, I made every mortise and tenon by hand,” Mr. Korn said. “Because I enjoyed it, and it was about integrity. And I starved.”

Students can still study that art at the center. Sometimes it’s the best method for the job. But they also practice joinery with a machine called a Festool Domino. A few years ago, Mr. McGlasson bought his own, despite the $900 price tag. “I wanted to hate it,” he said.

Mr. McGlasson runs across plenty of Studio Craft furniture at American Craft Council shows, where he sometimes rents a booth. He can appreciate the technical proficiency that goes into melding six types of wood into a single table. He calls it “extreme woodworking” or “woodworking for woodworkers.”

But woodworkers are not his clientele. To reach his niche, he is paying $5,800 for perhaps 100 square feet of floor space at the Architectural Digest expo. Kiki Dennis, who runs Kiki Dennis Interiors, in Brooklyn, sourced a Woodsport credenza for a Park Slope client who attended last year’s show.

“Her style was sort of minimal, and she loves beautiful wood and an organic sensibility,” Ms. Dennis said. “And I think that’s definitely evident in his pieces.”

The credenza is one of Mr. McGlasson’s best-sellers: a four-panel rectangular box on a stark steel or bronze frame. The corner door-pulls follow the natural wane, or curve, of the tree. The credenzas cost $4,000 to $7,000.

“Furniture is expensive,” Ms. Dennis said. “Even not-especially-well-made furniture or not-solid-wood furniture.” Mr. McGlasson’s minimalist designs and unfussy workmanship could match a new dining room set a decade from now, she added.

Finishing credenza doors with a timesaver, in other words, leads to the appearance of timelessness.

On Friday morning, the riddle still plagued him: two slats or three? “That’s one of the things I’ll get hung up on,” Mr. McGlasson said. “It seems so simple, but that’s the tricky stuff.”

The chair was standing on the concrete floor, clamped and dry-fitted. He had trimmed the seat rail and lowered the back leg, lending the chair a bit of a louche slouch. “Now I like the proportions of it,” he said.

This posture tilted the sitter toward the slats, though. The two-rung version recalled an ex-husband after an amicable divorce: He may appear supportive, but he doesn’t actually have your back.

Mr. McGlasson clamped on a third rung, sat down, and then stood up again and took in the profile. He had his verdict: “Two is better than three. It looks a little more mod. You put the third on there, and it looks like it’s built for comfort.”

As beer o’clock rolled around, it was time — past time — to finalize the chair. “I’ll make a spec piece every once in a while,” he said (that is, a design with no committed buyer). “I’ll knock a week off my schedule. But it’s sort of stolen time, and I’ll start getting really antsy. I’ve got to get back to making money.”

Mr. McGlasson finally punched insertion holes with the Domino and chiseled the seat back slats. Glue, sandpaper, rope, oil. By noon on Saturday, the chair was done.

Correction: by noon on Saturday, the chair was finished, but still not done. The design was fine from the leg down. But to Mr. McGlasson’s eye, the top felt homey, the equivalent of a Rockette wearing a sweater-vest.

By necessity, he had moved on to turning four tables and four lamps. But he wanted a do-over with the chair. “If I had a little more time, I’d make another one right now,” he said. The seat-stays, he realized, should be shaped slabs of walnut, as thick as the back rail.

A week ago, he’d woken up in a fit of anxiety about piloting his Ford F-150 through the Lincoln Tunnel on the way to the home show. “This is not part of the furniture maker’s skill set,” he said. He was thinking of leaving the RB dining chair back home in St. Paul. If someone in New York tried to order it, what would he say?

Designing a sublime piece of wood furniture was an achievement. But at the end of 40 hours, Mr. McGlasson had managed something even rarer. At $85 an hour for labor and $250 in materials, he’d lost $3,650 on a $1,600 chair.

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