Our Collaborative Process
The pieces we have built and restored over the years vary dramatically, but the process of designing and building is similar. We design each piece to the client’s particular taste, informed by the best woodwork in the tradition.
When we meet with the client first, we get a sense of his or her ideas and sketch several rough designs. We draw much inspiration from traditional forms, so to develop these ideas sometimes we turn to our library of heritage books. Other times we work exclusively from our client’s samples or ideas. Still other occasions involve working with an architect or within this framework. This was the case with the Ward’s Mantle.
In choosing the wood and colour with the client, we consider the features of the place and other furniture nearby. The most critical aspect of this process is to design a piece with a style that expresses the customer’s taste. During this process we do a considerable amount of historical research and this knowledge is built into each piece from the beginning. We make design decisions to accommodate the seasonal expansion and contraction of each piece of wood, ensuring strength and beauty of proportion, and preventing cracking and broken joints.
Designing for Your Home
The art we practice often requires meticulous coordination with architects, chief masons, floor layers, and tile setters. This piece was part of a whole house restoration in downtown Ottawa, overseen by Julian Smith – a specialist in historical architectural restoration. Consulting his sketches, we incorporated our research and design expertise to design the mantle.
For this project we needed a full mantle built for one of the main rooms of the house. As a focal point in the house this piece had to be at once opulent and tasteful. He needed a mantle with a traditional Victorian design. These were usually built shoulder high with very dark wood. The complication with this specific piece was that the flue – the chimney – for the fireplace was being installed in the small space between this building and the next. This meant that there would be a jog in the wall rising from the fireplace all the way to the ceiling. After some thought and consultation with both the architect and the Wards we decided that the mantle should be vertical to complement the ten foot ceilings. To keep the voluptuousness of Victorian style an outward swelling of the mantle shelf and the whimsical candle sconce were incorporated into the designs.
The room’s design called for the mantle to be made in natural Maple, a much lighter wood that what would have been used traditionally. Maple is among the most solid and durable of the local species. This wood allows the mantle to orient the room without overpowering it.
The Building Process
From our technical drawings, we prepared a list of materials, labour costs, and projected the timelines. When all were satisfied, we proceeded.
When we build we always build from rough planks that we buy from local lumber mills. This supports local business as well as good forest management practices. We mill the rough planks and select the best by their grain and colour.
We measured the room, wrote our cutting list, and selected materials from our dried stock (which were later replaced). The we worked these pieces to meet our cutting list requirements. To make the panels and the mantle top we fit the appropriate planks. We sanded and scraped smooth every surface to prepare them for their finish. We prefer to use natural tung oil finish, as was done on this Mantle, but some people prefer stain and varnish.
The Wards visited us to see the large cove worked by hand on the mantle shelf. This construction phase took two weeks. We packed the assemblies, wired them and installed them in one day. We had prepared openings for the insertion of beautiful green tiles by the tile setter.
In part through this project, the Wards have become close friends. It was a privilege to train their son as an apprentice. They took my children in for a home stay during summer University courses and have acted as mentors to them.
Good furniture will normally last about one hundred and fifty years. A successful piece makes a room. Drawing on tradition and expressing your taste, it lends strength, beauty and the sense of belonging to your home. More than this: for us the right chair is the one that you love to sit in; the best table is the one you use. Place it in its room and it will be elegant, unobtrusive, and useful for generations to come.