Archive for All Things Artisanal

Three of a Kind?

Posted in Artisanal, Canadian Woodworking, Furniture Making, Woodwork with tags , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2012 by johnwiggers

About a year ago I received an urgent email from a freelance writer who claimed to be on a deadline to submit a design article to Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. She was keenly interested in my Bow Tie pedestal table, so I quickly sent her specifications, pricing and high resolution images.

It was only after the article was published that I realized what it really was. Called “Three of a Kind“, the article was one of an ongoing series of abbreviated sound bytes which take 3 similar looking pieces of furniture to compare them – primarily on the basis of price.

One previous article compared a $2560.00 Le Corbusier club chair to a $499.00 POS from Ikea. What was the main point of comparison between the two? Both were chairs covered in blue fabric.

A solid birch 3 legged table by Tom Dixon was ambushed in a similar fashion when compared to repackaged landfill offerings from Ikea and West Elm.

What I find unfair about this kind of homogenized design pseudo-journalism is that it doesn’t properly compare apples to apples. For example, my Bow Tie table is a hand made one-of-a-kind piece that is crafted from FSC and NAUF certified woods, non-UF glue and low VOC finish. The top has a hand cut diamond matched inlay pattern, with additional inlays in the collar and plinth made of traditional holistic woods such as Black Walnut and Narra. It’s no surprise that this table ended up being the priciest of the three shown.

The cheapest of the tables was a variation of a block stool that is imported by the containerload from some place in Africa. The table at the intermediate price point is a similar looking piece of mass production that is also imported by the containerload, only in this case from a factory run by Gus* Modern in China.

In the grand scheme of things this “Three of a Kind” concept of literary penmanship isn’t all that difficult to emulate, as I’ll demonstrate here with the following 3 examples of cars.



Please study these images carefully. One is of a finely engineered $2900.00 precision instrument manufactured by Tata Motors of India. At the middle price point we have a Buick Regal by General Motors, which has a base price of $27,000.00. (It’s unclear from the photo whether this particular Regal has been manufactured in North America, or at one of the new GM factories recently built in China). Finally we have a Maybach 57S Coupe that has been customized by Xenatec of Germany to the tune of $1,000,000.00.

Can you tell them apart, even though all 3 of these cars share seemingly identical silvery paint finishes?

Ellipse II Table – The Story Behind Its Creation

Posted in Artisanal, FSC, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2012 by johnwiggers

In 2002 I began to experiment with ideas on how to bend wood across complex three dimensional planes. In the course of doing this I inadvertently created a tapered elliptical cone shape that, at first glance, looked ideal for a dining table base.

After building a prototype of the cone my next challenge was making the top. After heeding advice to “keep it simple” I settled on a pure elliptical oval shape with bookmatched grain and flat edge apron. A 1″ high stainless steel plinth was added to the underside of the base. The resulting table was finished in Tobacco Mahogany, and named the Ellipse Dining Table.

Although the resulting table looked OK, there was something about it that was just plain missing. What bothered me most was the finish – which was a basic chocolate/mocha/expresso brown. At the time this was a safe finish to use, because just about every professional in the interior design industry was using it in one form or another since it “went with everything”.

One could probably credit Holly Hunt and Christian Liaigre with first introducing this look to the high end of the market in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, however, the finish was everywhere and I soon realized that to be the main problem. Namely, because of the finish this table was looking like everything else out there – even the cheap dross knock-offs that were now beginning to flood the market by the containerload from offshore.

By 2006 I decided to refine the design with some subtle changes. I began by using a wood called Nero Chaquiro, which is a lesser known species that comes from an FSC certified forest in Brazil. In addition to being certified as sustainably harvested the use of this wood also helps support an indigenous community living along the banks of the Amazon River by providing a tangible incentive for the peoples living there to manage their surrounding forest responsibly.

The main structure of the table was crafted out of FSC certified ply, which was also NAUF and CARB2 compliant due to the fact that there were no added urea formaldehydes in the glues and binders. To minimize the heaviness of the top the grain pattern was changed to sunburst and the edge profile became a deep undercut bevel. The stainless steel plinth was removed in lieu of a small convex inlay of Narra being added as a subtle detail. The resulting table was finished in a low-VOC water based urethane, and renamed the Ellipse II Table.

Taken together these changes created a more sculptural look to the design, and the response from the design community was tremendously positive. Our ability to custom tailor this design to meet the requirements of each individual client has since resulted in the Ellipse II Table becoming one of our most popular offerings today.

In October 2008 a custom commission of this table for interior designer Wendy Blount was even published in an issue of Metropolitan Home magazine.

Thanks to the positive response this article received, the table photo was subsequently republished in the book “Glamour: Making it Modern” by Michael Lassell.

Sustainable, Environmental, Eco Lifestyles, Healthy, All Natural, Home and Garden, Interior Design, Eco Friendly, Green Furniture, Green Furnishings, Green Designs, FSC Certified, Reclaimed Materials. Organic, LEED compliant, NAUF. CARB2, Bamboo, Natural Fibers. Non-Toxic, low-VOC, Non VOC, Natural Finishes.

Custom Ellipse Dining Table

Posted in Artisanal, FSC, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2011 by johnwiggers

Last month we made a custom Ellipse II Dining Table measuring 123″ long x 47″ wide x 29″ high.

Crafted from silver dyed anigre veneer, the grain pattern of the top was configured in a custom sunburst pattern.

The tapered elliptical cone base has internal counterweights for support.

The inlay medallion is stainless steel.

This table was delivered to the Trump Hollywood in Florida in time for Thanksgiving supper.

Live Edge Dining Table

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2011 by johnwiggers

Recently we were commissioned to make a live edge dining table for a custom residence in Muskoka, north of Toronto.

For those of you who do not know what it means, “live edge” is a style of furniture that was inspired by the late George Nakashima in the 1940s as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement. The term is derived from the incorporation of the natural edge of a wood slab into the design of a piece of furniture.

For this particular project our client was looking for a dining table that would seat 14 people, and measure approximately 144″ long by 44″ wide. Black Walnut was the original wood of choice, but it soon became apparent that available walnut slabs were far from suitable for a table of this size.

As can be seen in the following images, walnut is notorious for having interior voids and rot – especially in older trees. In addition it is rare to find reasonably clean slabs in excess of 132″ in length. Therefore, walnut was deemed to be unsuitable for this particular project.

After a great deal of effort a magnificent slab of African Bubinga was finally procured.

Based on the width of the slab and the concentration of growth rings it is estimated that the tree yielding this slab was roughly 2 meters in diameter and over 300 years of age before it fell.

The live edge slab arrives in our shop.

The rough surface of the bark is still on the edge.

An air drill with nylon wheel was most effective for cleaning the edge.

Cutting the slab to length. This was a very challenging task, considering that this piece of lumber weighed almost 700 lbs and needed to be counterbalanced at the opposite end for stability.

The sanded top ready for finishing looked like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

Sanding the sealer coats and thoroughly inspecting the surface before final finish.

Applying the precatalyzed lacquer finish as a protective coat.

The steel legs arrive from the platers.

The unwrapped legs showing antique bronze finish. Given the extreme weight of the top we decided to fabricate the legs out of 1/2″ x 4″ cold rolled steel. Welded corner gussets were added for additional stability. Given the asymmetrical taper of the wood top the legs were made in proportional widths to maintain a visual balance.

Recessed holes in underside of legs to receive acrylic feet.

Inserting the acrylic feet.

Antique bronze legs ready for mounting.

The finished wood top, ready to receive legs.

Mounting the legs to the underside of the wood top.

The finished table.

Detail of live edge.

Another view of table.

Corner detail of wood top.

Custom Furniture for an Executive Office – Case Study (Part 1) – Introduction

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2011 by johnwiggers

In 2005 we displayed our Gentleman’s Valet Stand in the “Studio North” area of the Interior Design Show in Toronto.


At one point the inlay work on this cabinet caught the attention of a visitor from the United States, and before long he and I were engaged in a lengthy discussion about design and the works of Art Deco masters such as Jules Leleu and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann.

Given this fellow’s extensive knowledge of furniture design and craftsmanship, I assumed he was either an architect or a designer. It turns out he was neither.

Instead, this fellow turned out to be an entrepreneur who owns a mid sized company located in a major American city. He said he was shopping for ideas on having custom furniture made for his executive office, although he was in no particular rush to have anything done.

In the ensuing years we stayed in touch, until last year when things finally progressed to the point where we were able to move forward with a tangible proposal.

This will be the first post of several that will become a case study of the creative process behind the designing and making of custom furniture for the executive office of our client – who will be referred to from this point forward as JLT.

Next: Custom Furniture for an Executive Office – Case Study (Part 2) – The Initial Site Meeting

Whale Tail Desk – The Story Behind its Creation

Posted in Artisanal, FSC, Furniture Making, Whale, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2011 by johnwiggers

In the Autumn of 2001 my daughter was working on a school project that had to do with whales. Her writings contained all the standard textbook information available on these creatures, i.e. “whales are the world’s largest mammals; they live in the sea; they eat fish or plankton, and they are endangered.”

After reading her project to me, she asked what I knew about whales. I told her that in the St. Lawrence River (which lies between Canada and the United States) when a dead whale washes ashore it’s carcass is so contaminated with pollutants that it has to be handled and disposed of as toxic waste. Needless to say, her eyes went wide as saucers and her whale project evolved along a whole new tangent.

That conversation made me wonder about what it is that our schools are teaching our children. Or, rather, what it is that our schools are not teaching.

My daughter and I ended up talking a great deal about whales, and out of those discussions came a promise that the following summer we would take a trip out east to see some real whales, up close and in the wild.

Not long after this discussion I received an invitation from World Wildlife Fund to build a showcase exhibit for the inaugural “Forest Leadership Forum” to be held in Atlanta, Georgia in April, 2002. Given that the show was focussed on protecting the world’s forests, I was challenged to come up with a cool idea for a piece of furniture made of FSC certified wood.

For several months I vascillated with the idea of whether or not to even participate in the show. The events of 9/11 were still very much fresh in my mind, and the thought of flying anywhere wasn’t holding much appeal for me.

By early 2002 I was still undecided on what to do, but now I was facing a deadline. I was stuck with the furniture designer’s equivalent to writer’s block. Nothing clever was manifesting in the way of ideas, although I had concluded that my furniture piece should be a desk of some kind.

Then one night I’m watching television and there’s a program on about saving whales, and I see the actor Pierce Brosnan speaking on behalf of the whales.

I was already familiar with Brosnan because at that time he was also a spokesperson for FSC.

The connection of Brosnan to both whales and FSC suddenly melded with my idea for a desk, and everything came together in a flash: FSC + Whale + Desk.

Grabbing a pencil and a thin piece of cardboard I scribbled out a quick rendering of a desk based on what a whale’s tail would look as it breeched in preparation for a deep dive. Cutting this out with scissors I then Scotch taped the pieces together into a crude scale model. The result was an actual miniature prototype, and the whole process probably took no more 15 minutes to do.

This model was then scaled into working drawings, and the woodworking process began. The main face of the torso and tail started as an oversized T-shape slab of 1-1/4″ veneer core ply that was cross laminated with Macassar Ebony veneer. Relief kerfs were cut into the underside for bending the curve. Plywood offcuts were used to make elongated L-shaped vertical gables, with the 1″ ply floor set into dadoes.

An anthracite grommet was inset into the top, to allow wiring to pass through to the vertebrae wire management column running vertically inside the torso of the desk. For stability the desk was engineered to be secured to the floor with lag bolts.

After a thorough sanding the exposed surfaces were finished in a high gloss low-VOC polyester finish to enhance the grain and give a glossy “wet look” to emulate a whale rising from the water.

The finished Whale Tail Desk was displayed at the “Forest Leadership Forum” in late April, 2002 along with a custom made Andiroba Credenza crafted from the same wood and finish. These pieces are both now part of a private collection in Moscow.

A few months later our family travelled east to New Brunswick and took a long ferry ride to a remote island called Grand Manan, which lies just off the coast of Maine. We arrived on the island on August 6th and had advance reservations to go on a whale watching tour the following morning.

As we travelled around the island I soon learned from the locals that whale watching was not an exact science. Even in optimal summertime conditions such tours are highly dependent on the weather, the seas and the fog. I was told that in the previous 2 weeks hardly any tours had managed to make it out to sea because of heavy fog. And even when boats did make it out, there was no certainty of even seeing a whale – let alone seeing one up close.

I now felt concern that expectations for the trip might not unfold as planned. We had a wedding to attend in a couple of days, and our only opportunity to see whales would be the following morning. My daughter in particular was excited at the prospect of seeing a whale, and I did not wish to see her disappointed.

That night I took a walk to a small rise of land overlooking the sea. I prayed for good weather and silently called out into the darkness – asking for a whale to make an appearance the following day.

We arose before dawn and made our way to the harbour where a small converted lobster boat took us into the Bay of Fundy, to an area where whales traditionally feed. Luckily for us, the weather, the fog and the seas were all working in our favour, and conditions were nearly perfect.

After a bitterly cold 2 hour ride, the boat’s captain spotted a pod of 6 or 8 whales on the horizon. He slowly eased to within about 1/2 mile of where these whales were, and shut off his engine. Now we had to wait, with cameras ready, scanning the horizon in anticipation of the whales coming to the surface. We didn’t know when, or where, these creatures might appear.

For the next 20 minutes we enjoyed sporadic sightings of whales in the distance. These massive creatures would suddenly and unexpectedly emerge from the depths, then crash back into the sea with huge plumes of water and spray. Everyone was crowded to the starboard side of the boat, methodically snapping off frame after frame of film.

Given the unpredictability of the whales appearing on the horizon, I was snapping through an incredible amount of film in the vain hope that one of these shots might yield an incredible photo. At one point I stepped back from the group to change film when the most amazing and magical thing happened. Unbeknownst to any of us a huge Humpback Whale had quietly surfaced behind the boat. This whale didn’t make a noise, and not one of us even noticed he was there.

As I busied myself with changing my film an odd feeling suddenly came over me. Casting a slow sidelong glance over the stern I found myself looking – no more than 10 feet away – right into one of eyes of this massive creature. In one brief moment I felt the whale say to me, as if telepathically, “you asked for me to appear. Here I am.” Needless to say, as soon as I announced the whale’s presence behind our boat everyone stampeded to the back for a better look.

The feeling of being small and powerless was overwhelming. Humpbacks can grow to a size of 40 tons, and if he wanted to this whale could easily have flipped our boat like a cork in the water. But this was not how things unfolded.

It was as if this whale had been waiting for us to show up, and he was floating patiently in the water until he was sure he had our undivided attention.

He slowly raised the top of his bumpy head out of the water, as if to confirm with his own ancient eyes that we were all watching. He then exhaled a huge, bushy spout of misty air with a sound not unlike that of an elephant’s trumpet. And let me tell you, after a lifetime of eating seafood that fellow could definitely have used a breath mint. Children were giggling at how bad his breath smelled.

But the best was yet to come, and the only way to describe it would be to say that this whale grabbed this moment to, literally, seize the proverbial stage and ham it up for our cameras.

It was a most amazing few minutes of time, during which this wild mammal – of its own accord – decided to approach our boat in a manner that gave us both the time and the angles necessary to take some absolutely phenomenal photographs. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this whale was probably posing for some of the shots.

On our long ride back to the harbour I considered what might have motivated such an untamed creature to behave in this manner. I know that whales are highly intelligent, so on some instinctual level this individual would probably know that the greatest threats to its survival (i.e. pollution, collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing nets, and slaughter by commercial industry) all come from humans.

In spite of this, this whale took incredible risk to reach out and connect with us.

Perhaps, deep down, it was because this whale also realises that as much power as Man has to destroy, Man also has the power to change – and to protect. And maybe through connecting with us, this whale is also trying to secure his own future survival by sharing with us that feeling of oneness with him.

It would be easy to dismiss this magical moment was an isolated incident, a coincidence, or a figment of my imagination. But I do not believe this to be the case.

When we arrived on Grand Manan the day before, there was a story circulating amongst the locals about a Humpback Whale and her calf which had become entangled in fishing nets earlier in the week. Such entanglement is a guarantee of certain death for a whale, especially calves. To the amazement of the locals these two wild mammals instinctively swam right up to a research vessel and waited patiently on the surface of the water while deckhands used knives to cut away the netting. Somehow these whales intuitively knew what they needed to do in order to survive.

Life finds a way, and we should never underestimate the magic at work in Nature.

The natural world is clearly speaking to us. But the question is: Are we listening?

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 6 of 6) – The Completed Desk

Posted in Artisanal, Canadian Woodworking, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

With the finishing process now complete the desk can be assembled.

The completed desk is shown as follows:

Front view of desk.

Front corner detail.

Rear view of desk.

(I love this) detail of where the drawer meets apron.

Drawer open, showing dovetails.

Inlaid grommet in desk top.

After the desk was delivered I received the following testimonial from the client:

We just finished building a custom home and had been searching for the “perfect” desk for our new home office. We wanted something that was original in style, made to last a lifetime and not too large. It was impossible to find something ready-made that fit all of our criteria. We contacted John and within a few days he had prepared detailed drawings for us to consider. After some fine tuning, we quickly settled on our perfect desk. The desk is flawless and looks exactly as drawn, down to the last detail.

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 5 of 6) – Finishing the Desk

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

Most woodworkers will tell you that the most tedious part of the furniture making process is the hours of final sanding required to prepare the wood for finishing.

In my mind this stage is actually quite exciting, because it helps me to anticipate more clearly what the finished piece will look like.

In the previous post the solid cherry received multiple coats of a vinegar and iron solution, which is the traditional way of ebonizing wood to a darker colour.


A black toner is then applied to ebonize the darker areas more consistently.


At this stage I am extremely pleased with the decision to add the beading details to the aprons and drawer fronts.

The Macassar Ebony looks incredible!

Next: Custom Writing Desk – (Part 6 of 6) – The Completed Desk

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 4 of 6) – The Making of the Desk Begins

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

With the drawing and finish sample now approved it is time to proceed with the actual making of this custom desk.

First the Macassar Ebony veneer is carefully cut and bookmatched, before being laminated to rigid veneer core Birch plywood panels.


The aprons are double laminated for strength, and solid corner blocks are added to receive the legs. The front legs (alongside where the drawers will be) are going to be mechanically secured with steel hangar bolts.


Pipe clamps hold the framework square while the glue sets up.


The desk legs are milled out of solid 12/4 Maple stock.


These solid cherry bead details will be added later to the underside of aprons and drawer fronts.


This view shows the pocket that will receive the dovetailed drawer boxes. The legs are also bolted in place.


The Macassar Ebony apron showing leg and beading detail.


With the woodworking portion nearly complete the desk is stood upright to verify proportions, fine tune the details and ensure stability.


Front corner detail showing drawer closed.


Drawer open.


At the intersection where drawers meet centre apron the beading detail helps accentuate the lines.


The desk is now disassembled and ready for sanding and finishing. At this stage a traditional vinegar and iron solution is applied to the solid cherry to naturally darken the wood. This solution reacts with the natural tannins of the wood to achieve the ebonizing effect.

Next: Custom Writing Desk – (Part 5 of 6) – Finishing the Desk

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 3 of 6) – Sample for Approval

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

In tandem with sending drawings to the client for approval I always like to make actual finish samples of the wood we intend to use. This helps clear up any misunderstandings that might take place regarding what the finished wood surface is going to look like.

For this particular Writing Desk a bundle of quarter cut Macassar Ebony was selected, and after confirming the yield a portion was cut and glued to a piece of plywood.

After sanding and lacquering the full panel was then cut into smaller squares, with the edges being sanded and slightly bevelled. The backs of the samples are then covered in felt, and a labelled to identify the project, wood species, type of finish, and date.


Two of the samples are then sent to the client, with copies kept as control samples in our shop.

Once we receive client approval on these samples, the woodworking on the desk can begin.

Next: Custom Writing Desk – (Part 4 of 6) – The Making of the Desk Begins