The Story of my Vanity I

After a stint teaching timber framing at the College of the Rockies in B.C., I returned to Massachusetts in late spring to spend the summer with my girlfriend (who’s now my wife). A month later I was back in B.C. doing some timber work on my program manager’s house in Kimberley. A 220 hour month of work later, I went back to MA looking forward to a little time off. This time, good old Homeland Security decided that they didn’t like all my ‘coming and going’, and determined that I was a ‘risk’, and gave me 30 days instead of the normal 180 days Canadians are supposed to receive when visiting the US. Though my plans for the fall had not been solidified at that point, suddenly everything changed of course, as I had to pack my stuff and flee. A month to the day later, I was in a heavily overloaded Mazda 323 hatchback with a ropey transmission, crossing the Canadian border at Cornwall Island, south of Ottawa. There I was hassled for several hours for having a couple of planks of Swiss Pearwood in my vehicle, by good old Canada Border Services. After extended pleading – and near tears – on my part, they finally relented, classifying my planks as ‘charred wood product’ (since they were kiln dried) and let me in with my dangerous contraband. Then I drove back across Canada- I was thankful to that Mazda just getting me across the border, and amazed that I managed to nurse it right across to and over the Rockies, not always at what might be called ‘highway speed’ however!

Returning to Vancouver Island, though a few happenstance personal contacts, I managed to land myself in a small woodworking shop run by KMC ( names have been abbreviated for privacy). His shop was a home-built timber building, located in a lovely garden, with a bounty of grapes and apples ripe for the picking just outside the shop door. K was in a relaxed and expansive state of mind, having just returned from a few years ‘sabbatical’ from the shop. It seemed idyllic – little did I know then! I should have asked a little more about why he had taken that break….

The arrangement was that I would have a bench in the shop, use of all machines, and would be free to work on my own projects – and if I had a space here and there, K might be able to slide me a bit of work, ‘now and then’. Well, being fresh on the scene (the story of my life), I had no clients lined up quite yet. K mentioned that he was getting started on the millwork for a condo re-model, for a ‘personal friend’, a pharmaceutical company CEO who apparently spent most of his time in a private jet. The clients had recently purchased the entire upper floor of a condo complex in a trendy section of Vancouver, and were definitely people of means. The clients brother, another ‘personal friend’ of K’s, was acting as General Contractor for the project. It all seemed pretty chummy. I had warm fuzzy feelings, and when K asked me if I would be interested in taking on a ‘very special piece’ for that project, I enthusiastically assented. Not only had I lucked out to find a shop, but I even had work to tackle right away – it seemed perfect.

K’s shop specialized in veneered MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) casework, and K’s son, M, worked in shop all day every day doing nothing but running an orbital sander, with no dust extraction. This was incredible to me, never having witnessed this sort of thing before.

Now, they did use ‘high end’ veneers in the KMC shop – and in the case of the project for the pharma CEO and his wife, the veneer of choice was Walnut, figured Claro Walnut to be precise. The piece K wanted me to make was for the client’s wife, for her bathroom, was to be a vanity. A small dressing table in other words. This vanity was to be in Claro Walnut if possible, and was to take a granite top and wash basin. Additionally, I might need to make a mirror frame to go with the piece.

K showed me a preliminary sketch he had made, saying, “take this where you want” and then asked me for a rough idea how much the piece might cost. This is an impossible question to answer before design has been finalized. For some reason, I chose not to take heed of lessons I had learned in regards to pricing before design, and I foolishly said, “oh, well, maybe $3000, or possible $4000”. Mistake number one. K told the GC about the preliminary estimate, and he said, “oh yeah, that’s fine”.

I was feeling quite good about the whole situation, and had a decent cushion of money in the bank so I didn’t bother pressing for any sort of deposit. K seemed to have great faith in the client and GC, so that was good enough for me. Mistake number 2.

So there in from of me was the design challenge: a piece in black Walnut, designed to carry something heavy, which had to express a certain amount of ‘femininity’. While one could debate the meaning of ‘femininity’ until the cows come home – indeed I did indulge myself in this regard – in the end I thought it best to go with the commonly accepted view of Black Walnut as a ‘serious’ and ‘masculine’ wood, typically found paneling old boys clubs and lawyers offices. So, how to turn a ‘masculine’ material to good advantage in a ‘feminine’ piece, especially given the fact it needed to be stout enough to support a slab of granite? Hmmm.

The original sketch K showed me was a bit Art-Deco-esque, and not really to my taste. My first re-interpretation of that sketch looked like this:
As you can see, the legs look pretty similar to what I had on Client C’s pentagonal table, sans backing cuts, in overall profile. I thought the legs looked a little too chunky at this point. I wasn’t too happy with the way the doors looked, and the generally tapered appearance of the piece was not quite what I was after. I had early-on settled upon using a shoji-like grillwork for the upper section- this was in harmony with some shoji-like grillwork that K was to do elsewhere in the suite. I won’t call them shoji, just shoji-like. In this first version, I had the horizontal kumiko of the shoji in a progression of radii, which I later rejected.

The next iteration of the design looked like this:
I had removed the tapered overall form, and had moved from frame-and-panel doors to a different construction, which I will detail later. This allowed the figured walnut I was to use to flow uninterrupted through the piece. At this point, I was still looking at various patterns for the upper grillwork, and had not settled upon a shape for the ‘feet’ at the base of the legs. I consulted my Chinese furniture books for ideas on feet, as they are a highly-elaborated detail in Chinese tables, cabinets, and chairs.

In, all, it took 6 or 7 revisions until I had created the look I was after. Compared to earlier versions, the piece took on ever more curves with each revision. Curves, as many would agree in our culture, suggest ‘femininity’. Curves also equate, when making furniture or other structures, to increased difficulty of fabrication and therefore cost.

In this drawing, I was still undecided about the lattice pattern for the upper section, so I simply left it blank. I had been keeping K appraised of the various design revisions I had gone through, and he had found also that the more curvature, the better the piece looked. At that point, he clients actually dropped by the shop, and I had the chance to show them the drawing, which I had rendered full scale upon a piece of MDF. They liked it. Or, I should say, SHE liked it, and that was all that mattered.

A few days later, I started working upon developing templates for the various curved components in the piece, and began to consider how long it might take to actually build the cabinet. I realized that my previous estimates for price were a little low – I could easily see 2 months of work to make the piece – and I often underestimate for time. I told K that I thought the final price would likely come in a little higher than my initial (completely ignorant) estimate, in the range of $5000-5500. K said he thought that would be fine. Unfortunately, little did I know, K did not communicate that revised price to the client’s brother, the GC. Mistake number 3 was leaving such communications in K’s hands. He often had his mind on ‘other things’.

I’ll detail in subsequent posts on this thread how I went about building this cabinet, so the whole story can be laid bare. It was quite a process, and a good learning experience for me.

For a follow up to this post, click here.

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