Ben's Tryptich Boxes

This piece came about at the request of a client who asked me to make him a box with the instructions to 'go be creative.' He rarely uses the boxes I make, instead preferring them to be adornments in his home. Knowing that the piece didn’t really need to function gave me great creative freedom with the form. The wood is a mystery burl from a veneer mill that had gone out of business about a decade ago. My best guess is that it is some type of softwood burl, perhaps redwood.


I started this project in my typical fashion by sketching ideas as they came to me. I noticed that all of my designs were more like vessels than boxes. I eventually started creating full-sized models of my ideas using rigid foam insulation. This allows me to visualize my ideas in 3D and start to refine the shape. I eventually decided to make a triptych, three small boxes that relate to each other because of their similar forms and surface embellishments.


Because the boxes were so small this project was an exercise in developing strategies and techniques to help me machine and process such small parts safely. This was accomplished by creating jigs specific for each operation. A jig is a shop-built device that holds a part securely and allows me to have my fingers clear of any cutter or blade. Jigs keep me safe and they ensure that I get consistent, identical parts.


Although I love the forms of the boxes I was most excited by the embellishments. The interiors of the boxes were gilded with copper leaf. Gilding is a decorative technique that goes back to the ancient Egyptians. In short, the substrate is prepared, a special adhesive known as 'sizing' is applied, followed by the thin metal foil. The metal was traditionally 23K gold but copper, silver, palladium and other metals are often used today.


For the exterior I decided that I would use pyrography detailing on the sides of the boxes and that each box would have a somewhat similar design. I also wanted to bring a bit of copper gilding to the outside of the boxes. I used the grain to determine the upper and lower boundaries of the pyrography work. The end result is a lovely organic band of texture that flows around the boxes. Each box has hundreds of individual dots burned into the surface and deeper cavities that were gilded using the same technique I used to gild the insides of the boxes.


For the finish I chose Tried and True Original Wood Finish. It is a non-toxic blend of polymerized linseed oil and beeswax. It leaves a lovely satin sheen that I find particularly pleasing and touchable. I want my work to be a delight to the fingertips as well as the eyes!

Helix Bench

This bench was created at the request of a client who wanted a bench to fit into a small area in her entryway.  Since the walnut had been harvested off of her property I knew that the wood had special meaning to her.   

I started the ideation process in my typical way — sketching then making quarter-sized models.  Fairly early on in the process I decided that the bench seat would be made of five nested, tapered curves, each one getting successively shorter.  As I played around with designs for the structure of the bench I was intrigued by curved elements and ultimately decided to create curved stretchers that would connect the legs diagonally.  As I modeled this I fell in love with the twist that was created and the way the stretchers looked when viewed from the end of the bench.  This relationship of the stretchers is why I call this piece Helix.  Because the piece is asymmetrical you get a different view from each side of the bench. 

The major technical challenge for this piece was the creation of the bench seat.  I mocked it up in construction lumber so that I could understand the geometry of it and figure out the process for making perfect curves that would mate precisely with their neighbors.  Another important element of this piece is the curved stretchers.  To create them I first steamed the walnut 'blanks' then bent them around a form and allowed them to dry.  The steam-bent stretchers were further sculpted later in the process.  I love the aesthetics of steam-bent parts because the grain follows the curve.  Also the stretchers are much more structurally sound as steam-bent parts.  Had I cut this shape out of a wide board it would be weak where the grain ran roughly perpendicular to the shape.  Since the legs curved I wanted the stretchers to match that curve where they joined.  I created a special jig that allowed me to use each leg as a pattern.  I was able to run my router against each leg to create the opposite shape on the ends of the stretcher so that the convex arc of the leg would be identical to the concave arc of the stretcher. 

The legs and stretchers were all hand sculpted to include hardlines.  I feel that furniture should be explored as much with the fingers as with the eyes and I find hardlines to provide a tactile element to the piece.  The bench seat also has tactile elements as part of its design.  The piece was finished with a blend of boiled linseed oil, turpentine and spar varnish and hand rubbed to a soft luster. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the creative and technical challenges of this piece.  I hope it brings enjoyment and delight to those who see it. 

Ben's Triad Box

The Triad box was created at the request of a client who wanted a box made with lumber that was salvaged from a building in North Kansas City.  The boards would have come from one of the mills owned by Robert A. Long, a prominent businessman and philanthropist in Kansas City in the late-1800s to early-1900s.  The boards are old-growth southern yellow pine.  It is a very dense, very resinous wood.

My initial sketches for the box were vessel-like and had a quality more like thrown pottery rather than a traditional wooden box.  I experimented with a couple of different ideas in rigid foam, shaping them so that I could see my ideas in 3-D.  Once I settled on the form I set about milling the lumber.  This was the first time I got to see underneath the patina of age and uncover the beautiful grain.  

Although the sides of the box curve they came out of straight parts.  I cut each part sequentially out of the board so that the grain travels seamlessly around the box.  To pay homage to the wood I included the cracks, splits and nail holes that were present in the board.  Next, I had to  figure out how to cut the miters on each end of the box sides.  I created a specialized jig for my miter saw to do this.  Once the miters were cut I drew the curved sides on the rectangular pieces and cut them on the bandsaw.  To further shape the sides and lid I used a variety of tools including an angle grinder, Shinto rasp, pattern maker’s rasp and profiled sanding blocks.  The resulting shapes are continually changing compound curves on the box sides.

The box is a study in contrasts — smooth vs. textured, dark vs. light, a geometric form described by curves rather than lines.  Once the box was shaped I created the texture on the outside surfaces.  To do this I first raised the grain by applying water to the surface.  I then sandblasted the box using glass blasting media.  Because the density of the early wood and late wood differs so greatly I was able to get a really dramatic texture.  I further enhanced this texture with a wire brush.  In contrast to the texture on the outside surface, I wanted the inside and the lip of the box to be satiny-smooth.  These surfaces were shaped, gently rounded then sanded.  To create even more drama I decided to char the bottom, the lid and the pull using a hand-held propane torch.  These parts were also detailed with a wire brush.

The box was finished with a 3-part wiping varnish and hand-rubbed to a soft luster.  The satin finish over the sandblasted texture invites you to explore the surfaces with your fingers as much as with your eyes!

octagon box

This box was created at the request of a client who wanted an octagonal box made from two different types of wood that he had given me — blistered big leaf maple and a redwood burl.  I recently learned that he didn’t use the boxes I made for him and that they were purely decorative.  Knowing that the box wasn’t going to hold anything opened up more design options for me.

The design inspiration for the box came from some triangular off-cuts from another project.  I was idly playing with the pieces on my bench one day and I randomly put them together so that they looked like a pinwheel.  I loved the kinetic nature of the shape and wanted to capture that in the box.  So I elongated the proportions, tapered the pieces and made the sides parallelograms rather than rectangles.  What I ended up with is a box that has a lot of implied movement and a bit of playfulness.

The sides of the box are made of blistered big leaf maple.  Since the box was more decorative than functional and didn’t have to contain its contents I kept all of the sides separated from their neighbors by about 1/8″, allowing you to glimpse inside the box.   The sides are connected with aluminum dowel.  I love the contrast of the warm, natural wood with the cooler contemporary feel of the aluminum.

For the lid, I chose a section of burl that had an intriguing bit of live edge on it.  I de-barked it and cleaned it with a wire brush.  I left all of the cracks, fissures, bore holes and other features of the wood unaltered as I wanted it to be as close to its natural state as possible.  The live edge provides a handle and another opportunity to glimpse inside the box.

To embellish the box, I inlaid small decorative ‘dots’ of burl in each of the side pieces, creating a rhythmic pattern that pulls your eye around the box.

The box was coated with a 3-part oil finish and hand-rubbed to a soft luster.  The resulting surface is satiny-smooth and invites one to explore the surfaces with your fingers as much as with your eyes!

frustum box

This box was created at the request of a client who recently had some lumber milled.  He wanted something pretty to look at while I was working on a longer-term project for him.  This is a design I had been wanting to try for awhile so I was pleased to have the opportunity to make it. 

The box is a bit of an inverted pyramid with all of the sides tilting out at 15o.  Working with angles is tricky since tools are typically used in a 90o relationship to the material being cut, bored, routed, sanded, etc.  Because I wanted the sides to tilt I had to make specialized jigs to hold the parts for all of the tooling operations.

Learning how to work with both of the woods was a bit of a challenge as I had not worked with either of them in the past.  The blistered big-leaf maple came out of the planer looking fuzzy so I ended up sanding it to final dimension rather than planing it.  As it turned out both woods responded better to abrasive tools rather than cutting tools.  Once I figured this out it was quite enjoyable watching the wood come to life as I sanded with finer and finer grit paper.

Another tricky bit was the lid, specifically how it opened.  Because the sides of the box tapered in, I had to remove material from the back of the lid so that it could actually pivot open.  There was a lot of back-and-forth as I removed a little material and tested the fit, then removed a bit more, and tested again. 

The bottom of the box and the lid are both made of redwood burl.  For the lid, I chose a section that had a bit of live edge on it.  I just cleaned up the edge with a wire brush but felt no need to alter it in any way.  I love to use these types of natural features in the wood I work with because I feel they speak to the history of the wood and help tell its story.  This wood is particularly striking in its grain and the beautiful black cracks that run through it.

To embellish the box I chose to add delicate little cove details to the lid and sides.  These details helps soften edges and also gives the piece a bit of visual and tactile interest.  This was also the first time that I used mother-of-pearl inlay.  The pearlescent white contrasts nicely with the richness of the bottom and lid.  This material has a long history of being used to detail fine furniture and musical instruments.

pyramid box

This box came about at the request of a client who asked me to make him a pyramid.  The wood is a mystery burl from a veneer mill that had gone out of business about a decade ago.  My best guess is that it is some type of softwood burl, perhaps redwood.  I knew I couldn’t make ‘just’ a pyramid so I decided it would have some surprises that are not obvious at first glance.  Once you start exploring the pyramid you will discover that I built in two drawers and a secret cavity that is revealed when the tip is rotated.

I started out this project doing some research on the proportions of the Egyptian pyramids and the geometry of pyramids in general.  I chose a pyramid that had proportions that I found particularly aesthetically pleasing.  In order to build up the mass of wood needed to make a solid object of this size, I used a technique called ‘brick lay’.  This allowed me to build the pyramid a layer at a time.  This layered approach was also necessary to build the drawers and the secret cavity. 

To begin with, I made each layer a solid square.  I then stacked the squares on top of each other, hot glued them together, tilted the table on my bandsaw and cut each of the four sides.  This turned the project from a stepped pyramid into a pyramid with smooth sides.  Once I had the basic pyramid shape I started to address the features that each layer would have.  Two of the layers have drawers.  The drawers have dovetailed sides made of cherry.  I routed grooves into the sides of the box which would limit the amount of travel of each of the drawers and keep them from being pulled all the way out.  Pins through the sides of the drawers run in the grooves and allow the drawers to open and close smoothly.  Another layer has a secret cavity that is revealed when the very top of the pyramid is turned.  This layer is also embellished with mother-of-pearl inlay.  As a final embellishment, I added horizontal and vertical v-grooves, much like the detailing seen on structures made with large blocks of stone.

dichotomy table

This table came about at the request of a client who asked me to make him a table with some wood he recently had milled.  The wood was a mystery burl from a veneer mill that had gone out of business about a decade before.  My best guess is that it is some type of redwood.  The ultimate design was the byproduct of a mistake.  I started the design process in my usual way — sketching ideas then taking my favorites and making quarter-sized models so that I could start to visualize the piece in 3D.  I had settled on a design and was starting to look at the wood that I wanted to use when I realized it wasn’t long enough to create the table I had designed.  Oops.  (Note to self… know the dimensions of your raw material before you start to design.)  Ok, so back to the drawing board.  I scaled the table down making the top as big as the lumber would allow.  The new proportions were not pleasing so I knew I needed to keep designing.  As I continued to think about ways to use the material I had, I stumbled upon the idea of a split-level table.  This design is much more engaging than my original idea and I would never have come up with it had I not been forced into it because of raw material limitations.

As I started looking through the slabs that would eventually become the top I was really intrigued by a portion of live edge.  As I debarked it I was delighted to find all of these great little protrusions that were the starts of baby branches.  I decided this was a feature I definitely needed to keep.  In fact, I did my best to maintain all of the features of that end of the boards, including the chainsaw marks.  I felt that these beauty marks told the story of this wood’s previous life.  I chose consecutive slabs out of the burl so that the grain, cracks and other features would be as similar as possible.  I book-matched the slabs and overlapped the live edge portions, creating an engaging negative space between the upper and lower shelves of the top.

This gorgeous wood was a challenge to work with.  It was very dry, had numerous cracks running through it and was quite fragile.   If I just looked at it crossways parts would break off!  But those black cracks were so beautiful and were part of the story of this wood.  In order to work with it I knew that I would need to stabilize it first so I decided to fill the cracks with black epoxy.  Aesthetically it matched the original cracks and structurally it gave me the stability I needed.

Another challenge of this piece was the serpentine curve down the center.  I wanted the curves to match perfectly when you looked through the space of the upper shelf to the lower shelf.  I was able to get the look I was after by a combination of careful layout to registration marks and a single router jig that was used to create the space between the pieces for both the upper and lower shelves.

I love to play with the illusion of parts hovering away from each other making you wonder just how the table is holding itself together.  For this table I decided to use clear acrylic dowel to connect the parts because I wanted the dowels to ‘disappear’ as much as possible.  Acrylic dowel is also used to connect the upper and lower shelves.

The leg shape is a new one for me and I designed it specifically for this project.  I wanted the table to have more visual weight towards the bottom and I wanted to create a volume of space inside the legs.  They are made of mulberry that was rescued from English Landing Park in Parkville, Missouri.  I finished the legs by ebonizing them.  This is a process that causes a chemical reaction in the wood to make it turn black, much the way a rusty nail leaves a black mark around it in old wood.  I used a product from the leather tanning industry to add extra tannins to the wood.  Then I took a solution of vinegar in which I dissolved steel wool and applied this to the wood.  The vinegar solution reacted with the tannic acid solution and caused the wood to turn a lovely, deep black color.  I love this particular finish because it allows you to see the wood grain through it.

I honestly feel that this is my best work to-date.  It met all of my requirements as a maker: it challenged me, I learned new techniques and I feel like I have created an engaging piece sculptural furniture that encourages exploration.

hickory #3

For me as an artist, the story behind a piece is almost as important as the piece itself.  I believe it creates more of a bond between the owner and the object if the backstory of a piece is known.  This is the story of how this mirror came into being…

I work exclusively in native hardwoods and get my lumber from sustainable sources – small mills, ‘found’ trees, urban sources and companies that sell reclaimed lumber.  The hickory used for the handle came from a small, family owned mill in Butler, Missouri.  I personally selected the boards I wanted to create my mirrors.  The walnut used for the back was cut down in 1985 by two brothers clearing some family land in Lathrop, Missouri.  It was milled and air dried in their barn until they decided to sell it in 2010.

The overall shape of the handle is achieved by a process known as steam bending.  I love steam bending wood because it produces beautiful curves which the grain follows.  Check it out for yourself by finding a grain line at the bottom and following it all the way up and around the handle.  Cool, eh?  Although the handle could have the same shape if it were cut from a big piece of wood it would not have the structural integrity or the beautiful aesthetics that steam bending produces.  The process starts by cutting ‘blanks’ for the handles — long, narrow, tapered pieces of wood.  The blanks are then placed in a steam chamber for about an hour to soften the lignin, the ‘glue’ that binds the wood fibers together.  Once the blank has steamed, it is clamped into a bending strap that has a long lever attached.  As I slowly pull the lever I ‘wrap’ the steamed blank around a bending form so that it takes on the oval shape of the mirror and the slight back bend found in the lower part of handle.  As I wrap the form, I am causing the wood fibers to compress and slide past each other as they take on a new shape.  You may sometimes see evidence of this compression on the inside face of the bend where some localized wood fibers are much more dense than their neighbors.  Once the wood has been fully bent around the form it is allowed to rest in its new shape for about 10 days before I start the sculpting process.  I call steam bending ‘controlled chaos’ as it requires the rapid application and removal of many clamps during the bending process and it would be much easier if I had 4 arms.  Fortunately my husband contributes both of his and manages the clamps while I do the bending!

I need a bulky blank to withstand the pressures of bending but the finished handle is much more delicate.  I taper the handle in two directions — it is wide and thick at the bottom but becomes narrower and thinner where it cradles the bottom of the mirror. I remove much of the extra wood using a bandsaw and rotary carving tool.  Once the handle is roughly to shape I do all the final sculpting by hand using rasps, files, card scrapers, sandpaper and a whole lotta love!  I like to include ‘hard lines’ during sculpting because I think they add interesting visual and tactile elements to the final shape.

To protect the wood and enhance its beauty, the back is finished using a water-based acrylic and the handle is finished using several saturating coats of Danish oil.

~kelly

ash #2

For me as an artist, the story behind a piece is almost as important as the piece itself.  I believe it creates more of a bond between the owner and the object if the backstory of a piece is known.  This is the story of how this mirror came into being…

I work exclusively in native hardwoods and get my lumber from sustainable sources – small mills, ‘found’ trees, urban sources and companies that sell reclaimed lumber.  The ash used for the handle came from a small, family owned mill in Butler, Missouri.  I personally selected the boards I wanted to create my mirrors.  The walnut used for the back and decorative plugs was cut down in 1985 by two brothers clearing some family land in Lathrop, Missouri.  It was milled and air dried in their barn until they decided to sell it in 2010.

The overall shape of the handle is achieved by a process known as steam bending.  I love steam bending wood because it produces beautiful curves which the grain follows.  Check it out for yourself by finding a grain line at the bottom and following it all the way up and around the handle.  Cool, eh?  Although the handle could have the same shape if it were cut from a big piece of wood it would not have the structural integrity or the beautiful aesthetics that steam bending produces.  The process starts by cutting ‘blanks’ for the handles — long, narrow, tapered pieces of wood.  The blanks are then placed in a steam chamber for about an hour to soften the lignin, the ‘glue’ that binds the wood fibers together.  Once the blank has steamed, it is clamped into a bending strap that has a long lever attached.  As I slowly pull the lever I ‘wrap’ the steamed blank around a bending form so that it takes on the oval shape of the mirror and the slight back bend found in the lower part of handle.  As I wrap the form, I am causing the wood fibers to compress and slide past each other as they take on a new shape.  You may sometimes see evidence of this compression on the inside face of the bend where some localized wood fibers are much more dense than their neighbors.  Once the wood has been fully bent around the form it is allowed to rest in its new shape for about 10 days before I start the sculpting process.  I call steam bending ‘controlled chaos’ as it requires the rapid application and removal of many clamps during the bending process and it would be much easier if I had 4 arms.  Fortunately my husband contributes both of his and manages the clamps while I do the bending!

I need a bulky blank to withstand the pressures of bending but the finished handle is much more delicate.  I taper the handle in two directions — it is wide and thick at the bottom but becomes narrower and thinner where it cradles the bottom of the mirror. I remove much of the extra wood using a bandsaw and rotary carving tool.  Once the handle is roughly to shape I do all the final sculpting by hand using rasps, files, card scrapers, sandpaper and a whole lotta love!  I like to include ‘hard lines’ during sculpting because I think they add interesting visual and tactile elements to the final shape.

To protect the wood and enhance its beauty, the back is finished using a water-based acrylic and the handle is finished using several saturating coats of Danish oil.

~kelly