A converted garbage truck garage in the far reaches of Harrisville, New Hampshire may be not the first place one would look for design breakthroughs. But here in what was once the garage’s oil changing pit something is going on that is making subtle, rather delightful changes in woodworking history.
An improvised rig comprised of a humidifier, a heater and a number of fans are slowly turning a cross-section of freshly cut oak into something not seen before: a perfectly stable veneer showing the concentric rings of the tree as it has grown over the years, as opposed to a veneer that simply shows its lengthwise grain. Glued and pressed onto a substrate, this particular beauty is destined to serve as a top for Sandback’s line of drum tables which retail from seven hundred to a thousand dollars each.
Just as the converted garage in the middle of the woods would seem like an unlikely place for innovative design work, the specific vocabulary of woodworking itself would seem fairly limited, even static –but that would be wrong. New techniques and technologies, changes in taste and artistic vision come up all the time. While many of the venerable techniques involved in fine furniture seem confined to predictable riffs on age-old themes: French polishing, marquetry, quarter sawing, distressing and so on, the truth is quite different. Masters of the trade such as Peter Sandback are creating furnishings never seen before every day.
“Most people in the business would say you could never create an end-grain veneer like this – a cross-section. When you cut a tree like this oak I cut down right outside, you get voids in the wood, pits filled with moisture that ultimately dry out and crack. But unlike other cross-sections on the market, this table top will not crack. As you see, the adhesive we use to fix it to the substrate has actually been pressed into its very cell structure.”
Sandback himself comes from a world where new and experimental is the operative word. Namely, the artist lofts of Soho in New York before Soho became a fashion mall. His father, Fred Sandback was a well-known minimalist sculptor, part of a circle that included Andy Warhol and Phil Glass. Sandback senior worked primarily with string and yarn, leaning vast trapezoids against his studio walls while his young son Peter caromed about on his three-wheeler. Greeting visitors at the garbage truck garage turned pristine workshop, it is very difficult to believe this young man is now a seasoned forty-six with three children, a wife and a successful business going on ten years. Fashion mecca Louis Boston, as well as architect and New England Home Hall of Fame Inductee David Hacin are part of a growing client base here in New England. Dennis Miller represents him in New York.
After studying sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, Sandback proceeded west to the Bay Area where he founded his furniture business in 1992. His light-weight, hollow concrete tables soon took off, though it is a line he tends to downplay in favor of newer work. “We just spent the entire summer making eighty tables for Oakland University outside Detroit. But back in ’08, just about all production had stopped. The repetitiveness had become soul-sucking anyway. So I said the hell with it, I will do something decorative.” Sandback’s frustration led ultimately to another breakthrough process, one that starts out smelling like a toasty campfire.
For the table in front of us and many other new designs, Sandback prefers a very common, highly sustainable and much-derided soft maple that has been baked, or in the parlance “thermally modified”.
“The wood’s sugars have been thoroughly caramelized. Therefore, when used outside, it is impervious to mold without having to resort to toxins such as copper sulfate. Kiln dried in the standard way, the wood goes into another kiln that is much hotter and heated to the point where it is just about to burst into flames. It then turns a rich brown color. None of these pieces are stained,” says Sandback. He then decorates the plank in a way mirrors old-fashioned picotage on fabric. He takes a fabric, has it Zeroxed at Staples into large sheets with which he pastes temporarily to the surface. He the uses a dentist-like instrument hanging overhead to drill hundreds of holes where he hammers nails. Once the shanks are cut off with a grinding disc and the surface sanded and finished. And voila: you’ve now got something akin to a frozen ballet of silver nail patterns, practically guaranteed to mesmerize anyone lucky enough to actually dine at one of his tables.
Like the end-grain oak drum tables, the nail patterns in baked wood are very new, products of innovation and imagination. If the art of woodworking appears at risk of drying up and cracking over time, the Peter Sandbacks of the world are setting all such fears to rest.