Asian Influences Inspire Designs

North Carolina woodworker J. Speetjens' interest in Asian philosophy makes its mark on his custom furniture and millwork.

By Hannah Miller
The simplicity of this mahogany and ash Tansu Bed reflects Speetjens' interest in Asian design and philosophy. The overhanging caps on the headboard and footboard are reminiscent of Asian temples. One section of the bed offers

storage underneath. Another accommodates a trundle bed.

When a Greensboro, NC, public library with an ecological bent cut down a large oak, it had the tree cut into lumber and distributed to local craftspeople as material for their art.

Furnituremaker J. Speetjens, who turned his portion into a wall-hung drawer unit to be auctioned to benefit the library, was pleased by the whole concept.

"If [furniture is] going to last longer than it took the tree to grow, then I think that's justice," he says.

The longevity of what he makes is a big goal for Speetjens, a woodworker for 25 years who has had his own shop, J. Speetjens Inc., for 13 years. "I want my pieces to last centuries," he says.

The pieces can be either architectural millwork or studio furniture. He applies his high standards of design and construction to both, saying the big difference is in scale. "I think of millwork, cabinetry in particular, as built-in furniture," he says.

Millwork for homes costing $1 million and up accounts for 65 to 70 percent of what Speetjens makes in his 2,700-square-foot shop in the basement of a Greensboro, NC, commercial building. Undaunted by the fact that his is a one-man operation, he takes on the bigger jobs, hiring extra help for sanding and installation.

He is not pinched by deadlines because his niche is expensive custom-built homes, where ample lead time is set aside for millwork, he says. The reality is, customers of his work must be "the people who can both appreciate it and afford it," he adds.

The rest of Speetjens' work is furniture that he designs, makes and sells on commission and through Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, NC, the Ironwood Gallery in Ridgefield, CT, and the Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia. A majority of this work currently comes from custom commissions.

His furniture has won several CWB Design Portfolio Awards over the years and first place in a museum-sponsored chair contest judged by artist Bob Timberlake. Speetjens says he prefers to use solid wood in his pieces.

"The veneers today are just so thin," he says. "It's a modern miracle how much veneer can be sliced out of a log…and how the major manufacturers can lay the pieces down, make a piece of furniture and not sand through them.

The uneven surface of this Lakota Table mimics the slot canyons of the South Dakota Badlands, ancestral home of the Lakota Indians. The peaks and indentations inspired the drawer handle. A cherry band and cherry legs contrast with the ash tabletop and drawers.

"But these thin veneers are not going to last more than a generation," he fears. "How will anybody be able to refinish a piece when the veneer is 1?32 of an inch or less in thickness?" As for solid wood, "you can ding it and nick it," he says, without destroying it.

For curved panels or other specialty pieces that do require veneer, he does his own layup in a vacuum bag.

Speetjens is adamant about not using MDF as a substrate. "Despite its beautiful surface, it is extremely dusty to work with and so far removed from real wood that I can't stand to work with it," he says.

"For door cores and drawers, I prefer to use solid wood," he adds, but admits, "You can't do everything out of solid wood." He compromises by using Finnish and Baltic birch plywood. "It is far nicer to work with and it just feels real," he says.

Nearly all of his joinery is dovetail and mortise-and-tenon, methods that require an intimate knowledge of wood and its properties. "I have to design pieces so all parts work together," he says.

"I don't believe in nails and hot glue," he says, though he sometimes uses nails in a millwork piece to hold mouldings in place until the glue dries.

On one of his pieces, "Flame Bench," where the bench and its hand-carved ends are at cross-grain, he uses floating mortise-and-tenon construction. The center tenon is fixed, while the two outer tenons are pegged, with a small space left around them for wood movement. "All of this (wood) will shrink and grow," he points out.

Though he prefers traditional joinery and has taught himself hand carving, he uses modern tools without hesitation. "I have no interest in making things more difficult than they have to be," he says. "If I can cut something using a machine, I'll cut it with a machine."

His shop equipment includes an SCMI jointer, a Delta Unisaw, a General mortiser and a Woodtek bandsaw.

Speetjens likes to use native American hardwoods and, he says, "When I see good wood, I'll grab it." He finishes most of his furniture himself using lacquers, shellacs and oil finishes that include WATCO Danish oil and Minwax Antique Oil. For millwork, he farms out the finishing to a craftsperson he trusts or leaves it to the customer to hire a subcontractor.

Prize-Winners and an Asian Touch

Sometimes, a wood's grain inspires the furniture's design, as in the feet of the figured maple Momiji chest. ("momiji" means maple in Japanese). Scalloped edges conjure up images of clouds. "It's nice wood, and I think that curling grain matches that detail," he says.

In Squeeze Box, a piece accepted for the Furniture Society's upcoming "Show Us Your Drawers" June 2006 exhibit, the drawers each contain a reed that vibrates when the drawers are shut, creating a note on a musical scale. "I can't see anybody sitting down and playing the piece as an instrument," Speetjens says, "but you can't help but smile when you push in a drawer." The cabinet is made from figured rock maple and American black walnut.

A Biedermeier-influenced home office designed by Speetjens won first place in the architectural millwork category in CWB's 2002 Design Portfolio Awards competition, and a lingerie chest won an honorable mention. In 2003, his Ancient Dogwood Table won honorable mention.

For years, Speetjens has studied and taught aikido, a martial art. His interest in Asian philosophy shows up in many of his pieces, in their simplicity and in specific details like the caps that extend from his Tansu bed headboard and footboard. They resemble a roof detail in Asian temples. "It's an affinity I have always had," he says.

The seat and back of the curly maple Morning Sun Stool, which won the museum-sponsored chair contest, are connected by a mitered mortise-and-tenon joint, a Chinese feature. The slightly curved back is slotted, and slots are a common detail in Chinese household furniture, Speetjens says.

One version of his Flame Bench is slotted down the middle, but for a different reason from the Morning Sun stool. An oil finish over mahogany makes the bench weather-resistant for use in a sheltered outdoor area, and the slot allows rain to escape. He has built other non-slotted versions in ebonized mahogany (selling through Ironwood Gallery for $2,400) and walnut and ash.

Speetjens incorporates the Asian yin/yang symbol, signifying a coming together of differences into a circular design, which he paints with India ink on various surfaces - a hanging wall cabinet, wooden tiles atop his Harmony Table, and a favorite T-shirt. He sometimes includes a Southwestern element: lizards with curving tails that mimic the flowing lines of the circle. "The forms grabbed me," he says.

Speetjens says he learned his craft by working in other woodworkers' shops, by building electric guitars, and by reading and talking to other woodworkers. "There is a lot of good reading out there," he says. He has contributed to that bank of information by writing articles on sharpening chisels, hanging exterior gates, and carving brackets for Woodwork magazine and on fitting cabinet doors for Fine Woodworking.

His roles over the years - guitarmaker, cabinetmaker, designer and builder of architectural millwork and furniture - are all alike in one respect, he says. They all have been about "taking wood and turning it into something else."

He says a woodworker is ahead of the game, "if you know what you want it to look like when you are finished." Then, he says, all you have to figure out is how to get there.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.