“The Best of Fine Working”
“Turning” Winter 2014
for “The Gathering” cocktail table.
“The Gathering” cocktail table
As I enter Thomas Schlack’s studio, nestled in the woods of the picturesque community of Glen Gardner, N.J. I’m greeted with a familiar symphony of power tools and machinery. Various pieces of Tom’s latest project, “The Gathering”, lie before me. It looks like he’s on step 50, with 950 more to go. Each stage has been a challenge in shaping, twisting and bending exotic wood, he told me over the phone earlier in the day. “You have to see this,” he urged. I’m glad he invited me-it’s amazing.
Tom doesn’t lament the number of problems he must solve when working with this ornery material-he relishes the struggle. Bringing each of his unique projects to life requires both a determined mind and physical skill.
Shutting off the bandsaw and dust collector, Tom describes The Gathering as a cocktail table with arms and legs spiraling from a hollow vessel made from a huge piece of Jarrah burl. “I want them to flow as if they’re in constant movement,” he says.
As he describes the hundreds of pieces that make up each leg, all bent into compound curves, Tom’s enthusiasm starts to take off. As he talks, my eyes dance around the studio. Tom and I have been fast friends since grade school, when our shenanigans kept our poor parents up late at night. But as we’ve grown older, I’ve become accustomed to only seeing Tom in his shop, hovering over a sea of clamps. All of the jigs and fixtures on the walls tell a tale of constant invention.
Tom pauses for a moment. Observing the excess of jigs and glue-ups from which he is methodically conjuring his latest piece, I jokingly suggest that he should buy more clamps. Tom peers up and retorts in the most serious of tones, “I can always use more.” He’s got a fire that keeps on burning.
At the prodding of an older sibling, Tom registered for wood shop rather than auto shop in high school. Early on, he was hooked. Each week, Tom would methodically hatch schemes to get signed out of study halls or other classes in order to work in the wood shop several periods each day. At one point, Dave Kinney-a proud instructor-showed Tom’s work to other students and predicted that one day they would see his pieces in high-class magazines.
But what seemed inevitable almost didn’t happen. Tom was offered a lucrative opportunity on Wall Street, but turned it down. Each time I’ve asked Tom about this turning point in his life, he’s had the same quiet reply: “I prefer to be happy.”
The wood that first fired Tom’s imagination, Purpleheart, is anything but quiet. I notice a huge piece of it sticking out of Tom’s woodpile. Some figured Australian Lacewood lies next to it. I just love the color and pattern of exotic woods.” says Tom. “but working them can be a real challenge.”
With a shared laugh, we both recall a commission that put Tom’s skills to the test. He frowned and became serious the way Tom tackles all projects. “My design called for a deep red in the main focal point of the piece,” Tom said. “I thought about using Padauk or Chakte Viga, but I decided on Bloodwood. It has a very tight grain, so it would produce a beautiful finish. But more importantly, Bloodwood would stand up to UV rays and hold its color better over time. Aesthetically, that’s what mattered the most.”
Trouble started early in the project. When he began to thickness plane a board with his drum sander, the wood’s gummy nature caused the sanding belt to clog instantaneously. “I had to take it to 36 grit before I could get it to cut without gumming up the paper.” Shaking his head, it was clear that Tom didn’t relish that memory. “But what I really needed was a helical-head surface planer.” His eyes lit up. “So I bought one”.
This hurdle paled in comparison to the next challenge cutting the Bloodwood and gluing it up into large panels. “After ripping my boards to width each piece looked like a Cherry Twizzler, Tom says with a wince. “They twisted and warped along their entire length”
Time to throw in the towel “No. I built a jig to joint each side of the boards. Their faces were totally uneven, but at least their edges were straight. This way. I could glue and clamp up the boards in their natural state After the clamps came off the panels had a reasonable balance of high and low spots. Tom ran them through his new planer. The result: beautiful, flat panel made of wood whose crazy tensions had already been released. “I think they’ll behave themselves for a long time to come Tom says.
Our long conversation moves from wood to design. Each of Tom’s pieces are totally original. Looking at any one of them, you couldn’t predict what he’d do next. He starts with a sketch and just lets it evolve.
This isn’t the easiest way to build furniture. “With each project, I feel like I’m trying to reinvent the wheel.” Tom says. Sounds frustrating to me, but Tom continues “Each piece is one of a kind, so it must be fully evolved when I’m done. Going from drawings to full-size prototypes is a long process. Sometimes I uncover problems in 3-D that I never saw coming.” Judging by the gleam in Tom’s eye. this is what he lives for. Problems aren’t frustrating they’re rewarding.
Back to wood again. “Working with expensive rare and exotic woods can really complicate this process. Each species has its own unique personality, Making a mistake may leave you with three options: Patch it, redesign it or remake it.” Tom’s painful expression makes it clear that all of these choices are unpleasant. He’s been there.
And he’s been there in different ways. “Long ago, someone told me that you could cut a piece of wood too long a thousand times, but you can cut it too short only once. I’ve learned to be patient. I’ll build a piece five times in my mind, and if there’s one thing off I have to go back and rethink it. I’ve spent many sleepless nights lying in bed, trying to solve a problem.”
It’s time to sit down and resume this conversation over coffee. Tom left off talking about generalities, and now he returns to specifics. He tells me about a dining table he was recently commissioned to make. Or is it a tall stand up table? I’m not sure.
The project needed to be functional for both intimate sit down meals and for parties where guests would be standing, tasting hors d’oeuvres and sampling wine. For dinning, the table would be 30″ high. For parties, an electric lift would raise it to 37″. Rings of curly sugar maple under the table top would telescope up, hiding the lift system.
The 6′ diameter tabletop would be made from Zebrawood veneer and have a solid Wenge rim. “I like to saw my own veneer,” Tom says. He’s rather casual about it, as if it were no big deal. “And cut it to shape. And lay it out. That keeps every aspect of the design in-house,” he says with an impish grin.
So, how much more complicated can this project get? A telescoping base, a motorized lift, shop-sawn zebrawood arranged in a sun burst pattern… “Oh, and let me tell you about the three-legged chairs.” Tom goes on.
I put down my coffee, shake my head and smile. “The table had to sit six, and I knew that six conventional chairs wouldn’t fit underneath it. Their front legs would argue with each other.”
Tom took a long sip and looked deep in thought. I could sense that more than a few sleepless nights were required to solve this puzzle. He recounts his long struggle with the design as if it were happening all over again.
“OK, let’s say that the chairs will have only one front leg. That works. But what would the leg look like? Let’s see…. I’ll make the leg from Maple, like the base, so that the legs blend into the base when the chairs are pushed in.”
Tom puts his cup down, too, and starts talking with his hands. “The backs of the chairs will be Wenge, like the table’s rim. I’ll notch the rim to fit the chair backs. When the table is raised, the backs will blend together
and look like a large pedestal supporting the top.” Tom races along, I’m having trouble keeping up. But be stops to say, “And it all worked out Except for one thing The table needed a brain?
A what? “brain.” What if someone pushed the button to lower the table while a chair or two were still beneath it? The chairs could take the pressure, but the machinery would destroy itself by trying to lift the heavy table off the floor. So I designed and built an electronic sensor system that knows when the chairs are present and cuts off the power disabling the lift.”
As Tom stops to refill our cups, I need a few moments to take this all in. Although he sounds like a mad genius, he’s really rather shrewd. “I call it a smart table, he says. “The electronics add a new dimension- a cool factor-to the table and chairs.” But then he gets philosophical “Wood is alive, and my furniture is alive. This project took me a step further along that path.
As we walked back to Tom’s shop, I wondered about the client whose request for an unusual table grew into such a huge project. Did he go along with it? Did he appreciate it? What kind of a person was this?
“His name is Tim Andrews,” Tom explains. “He’s much more than a client I should really call him my patron. I first met him about 15 years ago when I visited his house to repair a dining table. We got to talking about art and design. Soon after wards, he asked me to design and build a large wet bar.”
Tom went all out. The piece was done in solid, quartersawn Australian Lacewood, Curly Sugar Maple and African Ebony. Multiple bending techniques were used to create the 17 separate curved components that give the piece its signature look.
Later on that day, I would meet Andrews at his home to get his side of the story. He said that he had been delighted by Tom’s work, describing how visitors to his home generally react upon seeing it with “awe and disbelief.” He says Schlack is a “creative genius” with the skills of a “designer, architect, woodworker, artist, mechanical engineer and electrician, and cites as evidence the amazing and unique dining table that Tom built for him later on.
Andrews says that his guests often wonder what it’s like to work with such a passionate craftsman. “After they hear the stories about the process, my blind engagement, the time that elapses, the sheer amount of work and all the patience required, most people say we’re equally crazy.” But he is quick to point out that “the furniture fits my aesthetic. It’s unusual enough to be interesting, but not odd enough to be weird.”
It’s clear that both patron and artist cherish the relationship. Tom says that he is grateful for the opportunity to build furniture my way and enjoys raising the bar on each subsequent commission.
As I take a last look around Tom’s shop, I ask him about the source of his designs. His answer reveals a lot about how Tom sees himself. “I’ve purposely stayed away from studying furniture styles because I don’t want to be influenced. I don’t look at too many magazines or books either. I want all my designs to come from within.”
We walk down the leaf-covered driveway to my car. All around us, there’s nothing but Huge, old-growth Tulip trees. No straight lines. I can’t help but wonder if nature herself isn’t Tom’s true inspiration.
Deep thoughts, those, but as Tom’s wife, April, steps out to say goodbye. I’m yanked back to the everyday world.
“Maybe someday he’ll make us some furniture,” she says, laughing.
Growing up in the middle of nowhere. Tim Andrews stumbled upon many of the icons of modern art and architecture. And was promptly introduced to the world beyond Indiana.
About the time Tim Andrews was born in a tiny, rural Indiana town, another birth was taking place in a nearby, slightly larger, slightly less rural town called Columbus. There, a man named J. Irwin Miller was laying the foundation for perhaps the most ambitious public art and architecture initiative this country has ever seen.
In an effort to hire promising, young corporate-types to little Columbus to work for his company, Cummins Engine Company, Miller volunteered to cover the architecture feel for the construction of any new public buildings. He celebrated the opening of each with donations of art by people with names as foreign to the humble residents of Columbus as the architects suddenly vying for their attention.
Several years later, Andrews stepped away from his second-grade classmate who were touring the new Columbus library, and walked up to a large sculpture planted just outside the building. He stood, peering through an opening in the Henry Moore creation toward a church designed by Eero Saaremin. After a moment, he returned to the library, an I.M. Pei product, knowing, even if he wasn’t sure how, his life was forever changed.
Today, nearly 40 years later, Andrews is in his second year as the president of the Board of Trustees for the Arts Council of Princeton, a nonprofit organization that works though various Avenues to increase awareness and participation among the community in the arts.
Andrews, whose youthful features complement his excitable manner, lives a couple of miles across Princeton from the council’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. Within the cozy confines of his four-bedroom home, few walls escape his ample art collection, a diverse assortment of photography, paintings, mixed media, glass and sculpture. The lone binding quality: Andrews likes it. Art rules his life, but he’s humble and honest in his passion for it. He tends to favor often emailing, or calling or meeting in person to discuss what they were thinking when they created a particular piece.
Far smaller in quantity, though every bit as impressive in quality, is Andrews’s collection of custom made furniture, each meticulously-constructed piece of which was created by Hunterdon County, NJ, craftsman Thomas Schlack. The relationship that’s evolved over the last decade-plus is an interesting one. Every piece Andrews commissions comes with a number of caveats– an Entertainment Center with no exposed wires, for example. Schlack responds with furniture that is at once the most striking and practical you’ve ever laid eyes on.
By Thomas Schlack
The piece was recently retrofitted to accommodate a flatscreen TV Simplistic in appearance, it’s amazingly intricate and thoughtful “We establish a problem. Andrews says, and he solves it. With this, I said I want no wires showing, I want the TV hidden and I want it not to be square