Category Archives: Buying local

Interdisciplinary Crossover

As a cabinetmaker with an academic background in religious studies,* I’ve been asked more than once whether I specialize in building church pews.

Interdisciplinary crossover has occurred on just three occasions. Once I was asked to turn a part for a ceremonial scroll at a local synagogue. Then I built a display cabinet for a Presbyterian church.

The most recent coincidence of woodworking and religious studies is the sound booth I designed and installed for Bloomington’s First United Church.

Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio of Photography & Design

Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio of Photography & Design

The booth consists of a platform built by congregation member John Turner, a retired union electrician, who engineered the wiring plan.

I slept well for the first time in days after that 9' monster was finally set in place.

I slept well for the first time in days after that 9′ monster was finally set in place. I couldn’t have done it during this exceptionally rainy summer without the help of a strong and careful crew from A Better Way Moving & Storage.

I had the simpler task of designing and building the cabinetry that would go inside the booth–the three-drawer base seen here through the glass and a two-door base at the opposite end–along with the exterior assembly.

The panels  enclosing the booth are built from 1-1/4″ (net) solid cherry with custom-veneered, sequence-matched cherry panels laid up on a 1/2″ m.d.f. substrate by Heitink Veneers. In other words, heavy. Complicating matters was the decision to have the solid framework stained to match the glass and wood wall between the entryway and the sanctuary, while leaving the panels “natural.” Fun. (I’ll share that technique in my next post.)

Veneer flitches at Heitink. I chose the cherry with "bubbly" figure because the effervescent connotation seemed fitting for this church.

Veneer flitches at Heitink. I chose  cherry with “bubbly” figure .

John Dehner and I after the traumatic glue up of the 9' x 5' panel with seven sections

John Dehner and I after gluing up the 9′ x 5′ panel with seven sections: a stressful experience, to put it mildly. Immediately after this (I know…it should have been before), I invested in a half gallon of Titebond Extend.

I designed the lattice pattern on the north section of the booth to echo a latticework wall far across the church, which is visible in person but impossible to capture adequately on camera because of the distance.

I designed the lattice pattern on the north section of the booth to echo a latticework wall far across the church, which is visible in person but impossible to capture adequately on camera because of the distance. The pieces are simply glued and pinned in place. To locate them accurately, I used spacers cut from waste plywood.

The left section of the north wall is actually a lockable door.

The left section of the north wall is actually a lockable door.

The completed audio booth from inside the sanctuary. Some of the pews may be removed in the future. For now, the booth had to occupy precisely this footprint.

The completed audio booth from inside the sanctuary. Some of the pews may be removed in the future. For now, the booth had to occupy precisely this footprint. Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio of Photography & Design

*specializing in aesthetics and ethics, not religious history or comparative religions, etc.

Behind the feathery crown

Whether or not you find a piece of furniture attractive at first sight, your opinion of the piece will certainly be enriched by insight into how it was made.

For years I’d seen a grouping of pieces made by the Showers Furniture Company prominently displayed at the Monroe County History Center:

Showers 2 Showers 1

I thought them grotesque: gaudy, cheaply made, masquerading as something of higher quality than the ample signs of their factory production revealed. But in the course of researching and writing my book about Hoosier cabinets I developed a surprising appreciation for such modest furnishings, which, precisely because of their factory production, were affordable for millions of families during the early 20th century.

So when you look at the odd piece in the snapshot below, where my friend Mary Beth and I were hamming it up for the camera at the opening of a furniture exhibition, I hope you’ll see beyond the goofy, two-dimensional “crown,” the overwrought legs, and the busy mix of wood species to the solid materials, traditional craftsmanship, and scholarship I invested in the piece, which I produced as part of an educational project funded by an Indiana University arts grant.

State Museum Opening w MBR


This page from a 1933 edition of the Sears & Roebuck catalog shows the china cabinet pictured above. This model and the other pieces in the suite were sold for several years, into the '30s.

This page from a 1933 edition of the Sears & Roebuck catalog shows the china cabinet and sideboard pictured above. This model and the other pieces in the suite were sold for several years, into the ’30s.

This magazine advertisement shows another popular Showers product: fancy cabinets for radios.

A magazine advertisement shows another popular Showers product: fancy cabinets for radios.

My design followed many hours at the Indiana State Library researching Showers pieces from the early 20th century. It’s a riff on the mass-produced treasures of the 1920s that flaunted the day’s most popular trends for everyman. What’s contemporary about my take is the use of materials that were locally grown or salvaged{1}, with traditional joinery in place of fabrication processes designed for mass-production.

To wit: Traditional mortise and tenon joinery for the drawer section of the three-part ensemble…

Corona 039

… and dovetails, of both the sliding (a.k.a. “French”) variety, as seen below, and the socket variety, cut by hand, in the making of the drawers.

Here’s a shot of the drawer case’s framework–what you see here is the front, where the drawer face will eventually go–routed with a dovetailed slot that will hold the decorative bracket at the left side of the front. The decorative bracket destined to be glued into this dovetailed slot lies on the bench.

Corona 040

To make the legs for the base framework I turned the rounded sections on the lathe, then carved the flutes by hand with a gouge and mallet.

Corona 042

Here’s the base assembly with its front and back rails and center stretcher:

Corona 044

and now the base frame with the drawer case and drawer:

Corona 007

For the solid walnut top of the base ensemble I wanted to carve a gadrooned edge similar to the one on this Mission style library table I’d seen at a junk shop, but without the intermediate veins:


My first attempt resulted in this simple version–carved, to be sure, but not what I was aiming at:

Corona 038

After a carving course with Mary May and before the opening of the State Museum show, I made a new top with better carving that looks more “rolled.”

corona edge carving

The door, like the carved top of the drawer assembly, is made from walnut with traditional mortise and tenon joints designed to fit a rabbeted frame. Here’s the top rail with its tenon partly cut:

Corona 020

and here’s one of the mortises with apologies for the fuzzy shot:

Corona 015

The door is hung on traditional non-adjustable butt hinges:

Corona 024

Next came the scrollwork, my favorite feature of the original Showers pieces that inspired Corona Plumosa. Hands-on investigation of the Showers suite at the Monroe County History Center (with kind permission from then-director Diane Ballard) revealed that the original scrollwork was cut from a material not unlike our contemporary medium-density fiberboard (mdf). Armed with this precedent I chose a sheet of discarded 1/8th-inch-thick mdf that had come to my shop as protective packing for an order of custom-veneered panels. Once I’d calculated the dimensions and layout of the scrollwork, allowing for the parts that would be concealed behind the rabbet, I made a full-scale pattern in 1/4-inch plywood and checked everything for size:

Corona 026

… then cut it out using a jigsaw, spokeshave, and files. I actually preferred the unstained version of the scrollwork shown here:

Corona Negra 4, 4.30.12

… but knew that it looked too contemporary for my piece.

Looking through the door in the image just above, you can see one of the animal faces formed by the burly maple when I bookmatched the panels for the back. I didn’t even see the faces until months after I had completed the piece, when I was showing the maple to a client who was considering using the remaining boards I had in stock for a dining table top. He pointed out the faces.

The finished upper cabinet:

Corona 046

{1} Burly silver maple from Joe Davison of Davison Hardwood Quality Specialists in Spencer, Indiana; quartersawn red oak salvaged from a tornado-felled tree that had once grown on the site of Indiana University’s first home; and walnut from a tree that had lived on my husband’s property in western Monroe County.




Maker’s Mark

An early L.&J.G. Stickley furniture mark (

Over the years I’ve used various methods to mark my work. Branding irons are fine, but it’s all too easy to leave an uneven impression or  char the area around the mark. A black Sharpie works for a signature, but who knows just how long that “permanent” ink will endure?

For many years I marked special commissioned pieces with custom-engraved brass plaques from one of my favorite local businesses, The Engraving and Stamp Center, at a cost of $15-$25, depending on the size. But a few months ago my friend Adam Nahas, an accomplished sculptor and metal artisan who now works in sales at Indiana Metal Craft, offered me an irresistible alternative.

Does this guy look like a salesman or what?

Does this guy look like a salesman or what?

Adam proposed a couple of options, each more elegant than the plaques I’d been using, as well as considerably more affordable–at least if I ordered a sufficient quantity. I decided on a die-struck medallion 1-1/2″ in diameter.

The management at Indiana Metal Craft kindly allowed me to document key parts of the process, which I think others will find as compelling as I have.

oak leaf

I sent over a snapshot of one of my Lie-Nielsen hand planes, requesting that it be laid over an oak leaf encircled by some text I’d used for business t-shirts in 2006.* After I had signed off on the design, it was cut into an acetate pattern several times larger than the size of the final piece.  Omer Hutto, the pantograph operator for my job, transcribed the pattern onto the die blank using a formidable machine that’s American made and some 40 years old.

Acetate pattern and drawing

The printed design is clipped in the background. The acetate pattern lies on the pantograph table, ready for tracing.

Omer at the pantograph

Not your grandchild’s pantograph

The pattern is incised in the steel die blank using a custom-ground cutter.

Here's Omer poised to grind the cutter.

Omer at the grinder, ready to shape the cutter

The newly ground cutter

The newly ground cutter

Acetate pattern

Close-up showing the stylus Omer will use to trace the pattern

Progress shot after several hours of cutting

A progress shot of the die blank after several hours of cutting

Once Omer had inscribed the entire pattern in the die blank it was time for another customer sign-off before the die was shipped to Indianapolis for hardening.

The die before hardening. At right are a couple of sample strikes in soft tin.

The die before hardening.
At right are a couple of sample strikes in soft tin.

Next, the hardened die is clamped into a hydraulic press.  Doug, the press operator, will place one brass blank at a time on the die and produce two strikes at 350 tons (yes, you read that correctly!) of pressure to produce the relief visible two images down. This particular hydraulic press can reach a maximum pressure of 1200 tons for use with larger dies.

NAME ready to strike

Doug, ready to strike

First strike in brass

First strike in brass

The excess “trim ring” material will be removed, and a black antiquing patina will be added before the finished medallion is polished.


The finished object

One-off brass plaques will always come in handy for the occasional customized inscription. But I’m delighted to have this lovely and enduring object bear my new maker’s mark.

Thanks to all at Indiana Metal Craft and especially to Adam, Omer, James, and Mike for allowing me a glimpse into the technical skill, artistry, and awe-inspiring equipment  that went into producing this object.

James Zavala in accounts receivable with Mike SURNAME in DEPARTMENT

James Zavala in Accounts Receivable with Mike Davis in Inside Sales Support

To finish, here are a couple of soft metal dies that illustrate other quality work by Indiana Metal Craft. (The blue material is residue from a clay dam that holds resin used to make  a casting for producing master copies or a production mold.) It’s astonishing how much depth can be conveyed in about 1/16″ relief.


Historic building

*”Non nova sed nove”  translates roughly to “not new, but newly done.”

Futuristic vision

View to north

Most recently completed job: a 22-foot-long wall paneled in custom-veneered oak for our customer, architect Larry Phelps. The credit for this thrilling vision goes entirely to Larry, who had waited quite a few years to see this idea brought to life in his home before he called me last fall. 

A 3/8-inch ground veneered in straight-grain red oak is scribed to the ceiling, wraps around the wall’s ends, and returns at the rear. The panels were veneered by Heitink Veneers with sequence-matched plainsawn red oak, then cut to precise dimensions and edgebanded in my shop. (I like that use of the passive voice, as though the work was done automatically.)

A key component of Larry’s vision is an ingenious treatment for a flat-screen TV. He fabricated a compartment behind the paneling, painted the interior black to make it invisible, and concealed it all behind a tinted screen. It’s deeply rewarding to see a customer so pleased by the realization of his own dream. As Larry writes, 

I find myself accepting that it is a magic piece of glass.  So I guess the illusion is complete, because I know what’s going on and it doesn’t matter.   I have enjoyed it for a few days now and it still amazes me.  It is like looking at something from the future.

Now you see it...

Now you see it…

now you don't

and now you don’t.




Simple and easy are not synonymous


Photo by Anna Schink, WFIU. (Click on image for related web page.)

During a recent bookcase installation for the Monroe County History Center, one of the organization’s volunteers happened to walk through the room. He stopped for a moment, leaned back, and shared his assessment:

“Your basic wooden bookshelves.”

Not so fast, I wanted to reply. Granted, the bookcase is simple and made from wood. But getting the piece to look so right in its place–so unpretentious and natural that it would inspire this distinctly “underwhelmed” response–required a level of sophistication in space  planning, period design, and carpentry that “your basic wooden bookshelves” doesn’t quite capture.

The design maximizes storage capacity while respecting the room’s spatial constraints and architectural character. What you cannot see behind the finished bookcases are the metal conduit, surface-mounted to the old brick walls and protruding approximately 1-1/2 inches; an electrical receptacle and junction box that needed to remain accessible; the fabulously irregular surfaces of the walls; and a floor that slopes dramatically from one end of the space to the other, in addition to presenting a large hump near its center, where another wall once stood.

Working with these site challenges was just the beginning of the design. The new bookcase also had to fit the room’s aesthetic. Although it would be installed in a Beaux Arts Carnegie Library, the primary public space of which is ornamented with cast acanthus leaves, elaborate crown molding, etc., the room for which I was designing is in the basement–a space that was never intended to be on display. Here, in contrast to the main floor, windows and doors are trimmed with plain square-edged fir casing. No crown molding, and certainly no fancy columns. To deck out this space with ornate built-ins would, in my view, have been an affront to the building and its history.

I designed the bookcase in seven sections that would fit together on site to become a single unit. Wherever possible, the face frames are “shared” to avoid the appearance of modular built-ins:

Clamping two sections together so that they appear to be one.

The  backs are faced in oak and finished to match the rest of the bookcase. Shelves have solid edges to discourage sagging. The faces, counters, and trim are riftsawn red oak, finished to match the room’s original fir trim. (We considered using fir, but the cost was far higher than that of oak, which grows plentifully in our region.)

The bookcase had to be shimmed out from the wall by approximately 1-5/8 inches to clear the conduit. I used finished end panels, as well as the counter on the horizontal section, to conceal these gaps. Every piece of the bookcase that abuts a wall or part of the floor in this wonderful old room had to be scribed (cut or planed) to conform to quirky irregularities of the surfaces.

Here, I used a small piece of shim material to transfer the wavy surface of the wall onto the cabinet side so that I could plane it to fit.

This photo shows the finished side, now fitted into place, conforming to the surface of the wall. The short piece of baseboard also had to be scribed to fit, as illustrated in the photo below.

The return baseboard at the left of the bookcase had to be scribed–not only to fit the floor, but also to fit seamlessly against the room’s existing baseboard, which was neither flat nor plumb.

The dramatic bulge in the floor where a wall once stood shows up in the scribe marking on the long baseboard. Carefully cutting the bookcase parts to conform to such irregularities makes the whole look perfectly at home in its setting.

Details make the job. This one is a tiny mitered return below the counter that notches over the face of the tall section.

The completed bookcase, filled with beautiful old clothbound volumes, city directories, and colorful yearbooks from Bloomington High School and Indiana University, looks as though it might always have been where it now stands. “Your basic wooden bookshelves,” indeed. Yet the simplicity of this ensemble was anything but easy to achieve.

Thanks to Mark Longacre, who helped me deliver the bookcases on a Saturday in order to stay ahead of an approaching autumn storm, and Adam Bonney, who helped with the first day’s installation.

New desk for an old building, Part 2


View of trees at Seminary Park. (Photo courtesy of City of Bloomington Parks Foundation)

The Lumber: Counters

The desk is built almost entirely from solid wood, most of which grew within 100 miles of Bloomington, Indiana.

The counters were made using quarter-sawn red oak from a tree that grew in Bloomington’s Seminary Park, original site of Indiana University. Construction of the seminary began in 1822, and classes were first held three years later. In 1883, after a devastating fire, the campus was moved about a mile north to Dunn’s Woods, its present location. Since the 1960s, the site has been a park.

On May 25, 2011 severe storms ripped north-eastward along the Bloomfield Road, felling numerous trees, among them the Northern Red Oak from which these counters are made. The next day, crews from the City of Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department were at the park to clean up the mess.

The massive root ball (May 26, 2011). Photo courtesy of City of Bloomington Parks Foundation.

The Parks and Recreation Department operates a lumber recovery program that urban forester Lee Huss humorously refers to as “No Log Left Behind.” Instead of sending usable logs to landfills or chopping them up for firewood, the department has them sawn and kiln dried by Robert Woodling of Good-Woodling Woods in eastern Monroe County.

Old friends Robert Woodling and Mark Longacre with the log, summer 2011

Sawn 2 inches thick, the boards from the Seminary Park oak were first air-dried, then spent two months in the kiln. After reaching the desired moisture content of 8 to 10 percent, they emerged from the kiln the Sunday after Thanksgiving.


Robert Woodling, left, with Lee Huss, City of Bloomington Urban Forester, with oak fresh from the kiln (November 27, 2011)

Each of the taller counters is made from a single board with the grain following in an unbroken line along its entire length. The rough-sawn boards were a little over 12 inches wide, though they had a few knots on the pith (the center of the tree) edge and some stretches of inner, or living, bark at the outer edge. After judicious sawing, I left a couple of minor knots (facing the working area) and inner bark (facing the public), because I wanted to honor the tree with a visible record of its size. It is relatively rare today to find a board of quarter-sawn oak 12 inches wide.        

12-inch wide board, planed. The freckle-like figure is typical of quarter-sawn red oak.


The lower counters are made from the same tree, but for these I joined several narrower boards to obtain the necessary width.


The Lumber: Main desk

The frames and pilasters are made of plain-sawn white oak from Joe Davison’s Spencer mill. Joe sources hardwood logs within a 100-mile radius of Bloomington and specializes in highly figured hardwoods such as curly cherry, fiddleback maple, etc.

The boards I used were narrow and rather rich in defects. Joe considered them too poor to sell, so he threw them in for free with a load of poplar I was buying. As with much of the material in this desk, using these boards required considerably more labor than would have been required with graded lumber. But the frame parts are relatively narrow, and I was able to use them by carefully planning each board’s use, concealing characteristics such as spalting and knots, which are typically considered defects, in inconspicuous places.

Joe Davison in his shop

The panels are all made of quarter-sawn oak from veneer mill backer boards purchased through Brown County-based Quarter-Sawn Flooring. The panels are housed in grooved frames, which allow them to expand and contract with changes in relative humidity (though quarter-sawn lumber tends to expand and contract only minimally across its width and length). I applied the decorative moldings, which were made by Martinsville-based Indiana Hardwood Mills, after most of the finishing steps were complete.

With the exception of the section facing the west staircase, which is made of quarter-sawn oak from Robert Woodling’s own woods, the baseboards and plinths are made of scrap from other jobs. Most of this stock originally came from the Frank Miller Lumber Company of Union City, Indiana, an internationally respected supplier of quarter-sawn oak. Frank Miller Lumber buys 99 percent of its hardwood lumber from privately owned lands within a 500-mile radius of Union City.

The drawers are made of red maple from Good-Woodling Woods, a hundred-acre stand that Robert Woodling and his wife, Linnea Good, keep in FSC-certified classified forest, managed for timber and wildlife.

WTIU Weekly Special segment on the desk

See the Weekly Special program “A Walk in the Woods” in its entirety

Next time: Building the desk

New desk for an old building, Part 1


“Did you restore it?” asked a friend, on hearing my name in connection with the desk standing beside her. We’d just run into each other for the first time in several years.  I had not restored the desk; I’d designed and built it.  Some woodworkers might have resented her question, but I took it as a compliment: evidence that my work had fit right into place.


Part 1: Design

The project began in the fall of 2010. When a full-time security guard was added to the staff of Bloomington’s Ivy Tech John  Waldron Arts Center, it  became apparent that the lobby would need a larger reception desk. Paul Daily, the center’s Artistic Director, hoped to find a desk that would fit the period architectural character of the lobby in the 1915 building, originally constructed as City Hall.

In addition to this aesthetic directive, there were a few other requirements.

  • The desk would need to occupy a minimum of space, since the floor of the lobby is relatively short and narrow, with staircases at each end.
  • Its finish would have to be durable, since the center hosts frequent receptions.
  • The desk would have to be constructed in such a way that it could be disassembled and moved out of the lobby if necessary.
  • It would also have to comply with various ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.

Since the desk was for an educational institution, I decided to view it as a project that could educate members of the public about using locally produced and repurposed lumber, along with other aspects of the contemporary artisanal furniture business.


Elizabeth Schlemmer, Genealogy Library Manager at the Monroe County History Center, searched for records of the lobby’s original appearance. Although she could not find images, her volunteer assistants, Lee Ehman and Randi Richardson, discovered an article in the Bloomington Daily World from 1915 that includes a general description of the space.


Elizabeth also searched for images of reception desks in other local municipal buildings of similar vintage but found none.         

Lacking a local model, I searched online for “1915 reception desk” and came across a site specializing in pictures of early 20th-century offices. I printed out a variety of images from 1915 to 1917. To my eye, only one was right for the Ivy Tech John Waldron lobby, the original use of which, as City Hall, would have called for restrained dignity rather than humble functionality or pretentious display. At a meeting with Ivy Tech staff members Paul Daily, Julie Anne Roberts, Trina Sterling, and Eric Reynolds, there was consensus (even before I voiced my preference)  that the desk at the left side of this French image had just the right aesthetic:


Of course, this new desk would require a few changes to make it practical for 21st-century use–a pair of gates to keep out curious children; angled ends to ease the flow of between-class traffic in the lobby’s limited space; and some type of structural element at the outside corners to signal the counter’s protrusion to visually impaired individuals who rely on a walking stick for guidance.



Coming next: The Lumber

David: 1, Goliath: 0.

Terry and Rob at Black Lumber

Do you like the idea that your friends and neighbors can have gainful employment instead of spending their days at the local branch of Work One–or worse, rioting in the streets? If so, before pressing the Checkout button at Amazon or some other online retailer, pick up your phone and call a local store to compare price and availability.  You may be in for a nice surprise.

The notion that buying local costs more than buying online or from big-box retailers has  such a grip on our national consciousness that few of us even bother to give locally owned businesses a chance.  Some even use stores as a convenient means to check out a couch, try on a dress, or test a tablesaw before making the actual purchase online.


Who do you think your local retailers are–fat cats preying on unsuspecting rubes? Local stores charge what they do to cover the costs of being in business–rent, taxes, employee wages, utilities, and insurance, not to mention the investment necessary to keep that precious inventory on hand.  Whether or not they make a profit at the end of the day, many of them–many of us–stay in business to keep dedicated employees in jobs.

An especially repugnant innovation is an i-phone app allowing instant price comparisons between inventory at Amazon and, say, Kleindorfer’s Hardware and Variety Store in Bloomington, Indiana. Standing in the tool aisle  (hopefully without Brian, Andy, Victor, Scott, Geno/Luigi or Calvin looking over your shoulder–and you’d better pray it’s not Pork himself waiting on you), you can scan the product’s code and find out whether it’s cheaper online. If all you care about is getting the lowest price, by all means, buy that product through Amazon. But don’t be surprised when you next show up to check out a snow shovel or a sander only to discover that your favorite store has gone out of business due to lack of sales.

Yesterday I had the heartening experience of paying less at a local store than I could have if I’d bought online. Amazon’s best price for the sliding compound miter saw I needed: $549 plus shipping.  Price at Black Lumber : regularly $549 plus sales tax, but currently on sale for $499.  Heck, I would have paid the regular price or even somewhat more just to support a local business, but I was thrilled to get a bargain.  Sure, I had to pay sales tax on top of this, and by so doing I made a modest contribution to some of the state-provided services I take for granted. 

I’d like to see Black Lumber–family-owned since the 1920s–stay in business, along with Kleindorfer’s, Bloomington Hardware, Bender Lumber, and many other locally-owned purveyors of goods I could just as easily buy online. The people who own and run these stores are my friends and neighbors, integral members of our community. Knowing that I actually paid less by buying local in this case was the icing on the cake!