I recently designed and built an African Bloodwood front doorway for David and Pamela W.
It was project #21 in a long association with them. Although collaboration has always been at the heart of many pieces that I have built,
this door was even more so, as mutual suggestions led to the creation of the ultimate piece.
The original idea of the design came from a previous pair of African Padauk Stereo Cabinets that I had designed and built many years ago;
it provided the initial motivation for the design process that we went through. In the original Padauk cabinet design,
the reverse tapered slats brought the eye away from the center to the outer space around them, like how music emanates from a speaker.
A front door has different dynamics that it demands from a design though.
My first drawings, mostly full-scale, were quite symmetrical, similar to the stereo cabinets, but more singular;
I also used the same tapered sunburst slat design. I brought them to the site and David suggested two brilliant changes to the design.
Firstly, he wanted to see more of an organic offset in the separate sections and how they traveled from top to bottom.
So, I tried staggering the sections from left to right, as they traveled towards the ground, to mimic the asymmetry of curving tree branches.
Secondly, instead of the tapered slats acting as a sunburst pattern, where they went from narrow to wide towards the outside of the circles,
he asked me to draw the tapers in the exact reverse.
Because the tapered slats on this new door went from small in the middle, to wider as they progressed to the perimeter,
it actually served in directing the eye to focus in on the center of the door, instead of the edges.
This fits what I believe an entry door should be; to invite you into the center of the home inside.
The final results of our collaboration were stunning.
The South African Bloodwood that I used is a remarkable species. It bleeds blood red sap when it is first cut and has several medicinal qualities
like curing blackwater and dengue fevers. As a furniture wood, it is one of the best and most dramatically-pigmented exotic hardwoods I've worked with.
The colour you see in the final piece is the true natural colour of the wood; it is unstained with only a clear lacquer over it.
The surrounding frame, threshold and casing details are built from a very open-grained black-stained Eastern White Oak.
Some designs lead you to places in the building process, that you never envisioned.
I decided to build a design of a Bombe chest as a gift to my parents, something that would fit in with the beautiful environment of their home. My mother had a wonderful gift of creating interiors that were warm and exciting to live in, with lots of fine art. Most of the paintings on the walls were by my well-known grandmother, Ina D.D. Uhthoff, who was a highly-trained artist.
In this piece I wanted to accentuate the bulging aspect of the Bombe lines. In the chests that I had seen, I felt many of the curved lines are rather flat, needing a bit more bulge and flair. Part of this occurred because of the tallness of many designs; you can only bulge so far out. So, I went with a low chest design, which would free me up to go as far as I wished with the curves. From both front and side views, I drew the cyma curves that I liked and also a very tight little curl at the foot, that added quite a bit of extra flair to the curves above; perhaps this qualifies as a double cyma curve.
As is so often the case in my designs, the first intuitive drawing that I produce ends up becoming the final shape, although I will stray away and experiment before getting there.
I wanted the curved sides in particular to be cut from a solid block of wood. Honduras Mahogany was what I chose, due to its even and predictable grain and beauty. If you look at the amazing effects of the grain on the sides of the chest, you will notice how beautifully the grain goes from parabolic to hyperbolic.
I acquired a 5" thick board and began the long process of cutting and milling, hand rasping, filing, chiseling and coarse and fine sanding to finally get down to the finished shape. The two drawer faces were shaped, one being convex, the other concave. During this whole shaping process, I had to be very careful to not go beyond the finished line; one wrong chisel swipe or too much rasping could destroy it.
While I was working on the outer structure of the chest, I considered the options of what type of drawer side joint I was going to do. Dovetails would be the most beautiful of course, but risky and difficult to pull off in this case, because of the compound curved element. I decided the piece deserved dovetails, so I proceeded believing that the demands of the form should dictate the construction of said form.
These dovetails were more of a carving exercise than a mathematical laying out of intersecting lines.
I began the cutting and gradual intersecting of the dovetails, in a step-by-step process, to finally meld into a finished line.
I will never forget that moment when the first two pieces slipped together like a tight glove!
I could never really describe how those eight sections progressed; it was more of an intuitive exercise than anything else.
The Honduras Mahogany that I used is one of the old standards of fine-furniture building. Unfortunately, high quality boards are hard to find due to overproduction and harvesting, thus causing a diluting of the fine qualities of the original species.
I chose Malaysian Jelutong for the drawer sides because it has a similar density and expansion/contraction rate to Mahogany, which is important in the marrying of two woods and for their dramatic colour differences that would show off the craftsmanship of the dovetails to their greatest effect.
Sometimes within a half hour of meeting a client, you know you have something very special to design in the days ahead. I was initially commissioned by Road's End Contracting to build the curved wall panels at the bottom of a spiral staircase in a seaside home on the Saanich Peninsula, on Vancouver Island.
Not only was the bottom wall of the spiral staircase an asymmetrical curve, but the client also wanted to incorporate a full-sized completely secret door into the wall space that would lead into a concealed area where the vault for valuables was hidden, along with the control centre for security cameras and software for the home.
A secondary function of the hidden entry was that it would give access to the "Castle Keep" where the occupants could retreat to in the event of any type of home invasion. (Don't ask any questions as to who the clients were; suffice it to say they'd been around the block when it came to such invasions of their personal space in the past.) This was an exciting and demanding project by any standards.
The basic requirement was to clad a plastered, asymmetrical curved wall, at the bottom of a spiral staircase, with matching Edge-Grain Fir curved wall panels, stiles, rails and mouldings, and then to incorporate a full-sized matching panelled 'secret door' into the wall.
There are traditional techniques for doing such curved work, that include producing labour-intensive block forms in order to laminate layers of wood and glue with numerous clamps to form each panel. I had an idea to do things differently and much more quickly.
Using a technique of laminating several layers of 'flex ply' glued with spray contact cement, I was able to lay some 43 curved panels, of different arcs, directly on to the plastered wall on site, thereby using the wall itself as my forming block. The same method was used for the baseboard and the spiral facings following the staircase upwards.
All of the panel blanks were then taken back to the shop to be veneered and also to act as forming boards for all the solid wood mouldings. Then the vertical stiles were 'dished' to match the wall curve as well as the horizontal rails. The rest of the techniques, especially for the secret door are, well, secret.
I have a great advantage of knowing, and working with, one of Victoria's finest furniture and on-site finishing specialists. My collaboration with Gregg Sagmoen allows me to do my work 'in the raw' on-site, and then for him to come in afterwards to work his magic on top of it. Not only are the results of high quality because of the absence of having to install previously finished pieces, but it also saves a lot of time and cost to produce things this way.
This was a magical project, both in design and production; I think the pictures tell the rest of the story.