The 'Poetry and Prose' of Making Fine Furniture and Cabinets

Custom woodworker Michael Barba combines building fine furniture with producing more profitable built-ins to sustain his one-man shop.

By Henry Stimpson

Michael Barba, a furnituremaker and cabinetmaker in Doylestown, PA, dreamed of becoming a poet when he was studying English literature in college. Today, he expresses his visions in wood, not words.

Using traditional joinery and construction methods, he works in fine wood like cherry, claro walnut and mahogany -- all polished to a rich, luminous finish. His eclectic designs include an updated version of a 1790s lady's writing desk, Arts & Crafts-inspired computer tables and a functional replica of Thomas Jefferson's lap desk.

If designing furniture is considered poetry, Barba's business also includes at least as much "prose:" making and installing built-in units for clients. Together, the furniture making and built-in business make M. Barba, Cabinetmaker, a successful one-man shop.

 

Examples of some of Barba's reproduction pieces include this cherry and claro walnut hutch, 4-foot by 7-foot, featuring glass shelves and interior lighting, and a tambour desk in cherry and claro walnut, featuring a 33-inch by 43-inch work area.

Before going into the woodworking business, Barba worked as a bus driver, transcendental meditation teacher, paid peace activist and lumberyard laborer. The latter is where he got some experience in millwork and learned how to use big equipment.

Barba is entirely self-taught. Catching the bug for furniture and antiques in his mid-20s, he tried making the furniture he admired, using woodworking books for guidance. He honed his skills as a hobbyist for 10 years and, along the way, discovered he has a good eye for design and proportion.

"I made things for friends. They paid for materials and had me over for dinner," he says. That work was without pressure, and he could make mistakes and learn from them, he says.

He quit his job with the peace group and set himself up as a professional woodworker in 1987. At age 38, he was embarking on a precarious new career, building handmade furniture. Barba did have an advantage: no overhead, since his family home, a converted Pennsylvania barn on a rolling green Bucks County hilltop, has plenty of space in the lower level for a workshop.

Barba's furniture falls into two categories. One is furniture built "in the spirit of the 18th century." The second is more contemporary furniture whose design is often inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement, a revolt against Victorian excesses.

The first category includes both reproductions of 18th-century and early 19th-century furniture and original pieces that use the designs of that era as a stepping-off point. He says that one of his heroes is Sheridan Hepplewhite, a leading Federalist furnituremaker active from about 1780 to 1820.

Among Barba's most distinctive pieces is a 1790s-style lady's writing desk. He did not copy anything exactly. "No one ever built something just like this before," he says. Made of fine-grain mahogany with cocobolo wood accents, the desk features a writing area that folds open to reveal storage areas. The shelf unit accents vertical lines to balance the horizontal bulk of the desk. Though the basic design is from England, by way of France, Barba looked to the Virginia Tidewater region for his inspiration for the legs and feet.

Another near-replica is a jewelry box patterned after an early-18th-century spice box from Chester County, PA. Made of solid cherry, the box has 11 drawers, with 10 arrayed in a circle around the central drawer. The back is paneled, and the box is dovetailed together, a detail that shows behind the built-up moulding around the top. The door panel of bookmatched claro black walnut offers a striking contrast with the light cherry.

But the piece that has brought Barba the most notice, including articles in Computerworld, Bostonia and US Airways' in-flight magazine, Attach+¬, is a slightly updated version of Thomas Jefferson's lap desk, upon which the 33-year-old Virginian wrote the Declaration of Independence. Barba was inspired by seeing a near-replica at Monticello in 1993. He began building it with no more than a postcard as a guide. Later, he got a book that gave him more accurate information.

"Jefferson is a philosophical hero of mine. It was neat to get into his head and build something he designed," he says. Barba also figured the item's authenticity and historical significance would make it very marketable.

The mahogany desk is a box that measures just 4 inches by 10 inches by 14 inches when folded for traveling. It includes a drawer for writing supplies and a foldout writing surface. When the drawer is locked, the desk can be carried by the brass handle.

Barba took pains to build it the same way Jefferson's cabinetmaker built it, including hand-cut drawer dovetails. Like the original, it features a writing surface covered in fine wool felt. The main difference is that Barba's design omits the inkwells.

"The desk has a touch of Jefferson's genius," Barba says. And, he adds, it qualifies as "the original laptop." He has sold about a dozen copies at $495 apiece.

With his more contemporary pieces, Barba sometimes starts with designs by renowned furnituremakers like Simon Watts and Ernest Gimson. Other designs are wholly original.

To let his creativity flow unimpeded, he says he works out a new design in his mind, putting down only the sketchiest details on paper. Having a too-detailed plan limits his creativity, he believes.

"The biggest thrill is working on my own design and seeing that made solid," he says. "The most fun I ever had was with a computer desk. I did it all out of a simple sketch. It was really satisfying because it all came out my head."

But he keeps it all in perspective. "I really believe that craft is craft and art is art. There's no comparing fine art with furniture making," he says.

The ash and cherry desk features rounded-over edges with an art deco look, but the revealed joinery shows the Arts & Crafts influence. Barba preserved the ash's grain and whiteness with a water-based finish. The drawer bottoms are made of high-grade plywood for stability and NK slides ensure that the drawers will never stick or wear down.

Another original design is a coffee table in the Arts & Crafts mode. The legs are simply slabs with a cresting wave cutout. They are joined to the tabletop with mortise and revealed tenons. While Barba has fashioned these tables in mahogany or claro walnut, he says they can be made out of any wood and in almost any size.

Sometimes the design ideas start with the customer. For instance, Barba built a dining set based on a customer's vague notions. "I fleshed out the ideas not really knowing whether it would work," he says. The result was a highly distinctive set made of cherry stained a deep mahogany-red.

Another contemporary piece is a hutch out of cherry and claro walnut. An original design, it features glass shelves and interior lighting. He's asking $5,995 for the massive hutch.

When he first started, Barba built furniture on spec. Today, he works on commission only.

 

One of Barba's most popular reproduction pieces is an updated version of Thomas Jefferson's lap desk, shown here partly opened for use a book stand for reading. The top also folds open to reveal a felt-covered writing surface. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence upon the original.

On the practical side, Barba says that built-ins build business, and he depends on them for about half his income. "As I get older, I would like to get out of the built-in business and just make furniture, but I can't afford to now," he says.

Barba's built-ins are mostly wall units. The less-expensive ones are made of unfinished poplar. He crafts his higher-end built-ins out of cherry finished with oil and varnish.

A typical wall unit consists of cabinets and shelves built around a fireplace or computer desk. He usually installs the units, typically 13 feet to 15 feet long, in the client's living room or den, occasionally a bedroom.

Barba's prices start at around $2,500 for a basic set of ready-to-paint poplar cabinets and shelves. Poplar is denser than pine, cheaper and doesn't gum up his equipment, he says. A finished cherry unit typically sells for about $6,000.

His customers are mostly "well-heeled middle-aged folks and up-and-coming younger people," he says. Built-ins are usually more profitable than furniture because his clients often haggle with him on furniture prices, but don't with built-ins.

Additionally, Barba says furniture prices are constrained by competition from high-end furniture stores. "You can't go to the local store to get a customized built-in," he says.

People would be better off spending their money on furniture, but many customers don't see it that way, he says. "One of the big mysteries of the market to me is the money people put into cabinetry," he says. "They might leave the house five years from now and never see it again. But with a piece of well-made furniture that will last forever and that they can hand down to their kids, they will 'nickel-and-dime' you."

While Barba takes pride in his built-in workmanship, he does not need to be as fussy as with fine furniture. For instance, he does not usually use old-fashioned joinery, except occasionally in old houses. "One reason that I can make built-ins cheaper than furniture is that the joinery is banged in with screws and nails and rabbeted ends. It doesn't need strength, because it is up against the wall," he says.

Barba tries to make all components in his shop and do the assembly on site. But with more complex jobs, he has to cut extensively on site. For instance, his biggest built-in job was a paneled cherry room with a wet bar, cabinets to hide a big-screen TV, plus other shelves and cabinets. The wall unit had a compound crown moulding of four pieces, including dentil moulding.

More recently, Barba was working on a garret bedroom with "weird angles" that made the job more challenging. The project included a computer desk, storage space, counters, a built-in bureau and a window seat that had to be fitted into the unusual space.

Crafting built-ins is more physically demanding, and that's another reason that Barba, who just turned 50, wants to eventually shift to full-time furniture making, he says.

Woodworking has plenty of challenges, and Barba says he is learning all the time. "You get frustrated with yourself when you make stupid mistakes. You keep making mistakes, but don't get down on yourself," he says. Sometimes mistakes can be "worked into the piece" and an interesting "serendipitous design" can result.

"Making furniture isn't hard," he says. "The hard part is making a living." Dealing with business matters like marketing, sales and accounting frustrates him, he says, because it cuts into the time he can spend making furniture. His wife, Mary, and his 11-year-old son, Nick, help him set up for furniture and craft shows. He does everything else himself.

The early years were lean as he got going and invested in equipment. But sales have grown about $5,000 a year for the last few years and hit $27,000 last year. Now Barba always has about a six-month backlog of work.

"Pricing is the craziest thing of all," he says. Sometimes putting a higher price on something makes it sell better than a lower price. He aims to make $30 an hour on his labor, but often ends up with a bit less than that.

When interviewed, he was nearing completion of a replica of a portable bookcase used by George Washington at Valley Forge. It is a wood box with a shelf and door. He priced it based on 10 hours' work plus the cost of materials. He says he underestimated the time only slightly.

Over the years, Barba says he has become more efficient, and that has boosted his profits. "I have sped things up as I can look at a project and go with it and finish it fairly rapidly. I have become more confident in my judgement and that I am doing something the most efficient way. With more experience, you have to do less pondering to know which is the way to go to make it the best and the fastest," he says.

"In furniture, it' is an education to look at what people will notice and not notice in the way something is constructed," he adds. "It always takes you back when you are so involved with it. Most people who are buying a piece of furniture, as long as they are convinced it is solid, will buy it for the design. They don't really care how well it's constructed. I always ask, for my most popular desk, do you want a solid wood panel bottom on your drawers or do you want plywood? Plywood is a better drawer bottom than solid wood because it doesn't expand. Some want the traditional method and some want what's better."

While he makes most pieces one at a time, he is occasionally been able to "mass produce" items for greater efficiency and profit. For instance, he fashioned the parts for 10 Jefferson lap desks and set up a mini assembly line to put them together.

Selling is always a challenge, Barba says. His marketing was initially limited to word-of-mouth among relatives and friends. He tried placing ads in national consumer magazines, but never got any responses.

"All my marketing is centered on craft and furniture shows. It is the only thing I have found that works," he says. "You need to see furniture to buy it." While Barba used to go to furniture shows in New England and the South, now he sticks within 100 miles of home. About 30 million people live in that radius, so there's not much reason to go farther.

Since his furniture is handcrafted and of his own design, it is unique, and that is a big selling point. His top sellers are desks, tables and cases. But, it often "takes forever" to make a sale, Barba says. Someone will go to a show and say, "'Isn't this a wonderful desk? I have seen it before.' Eventually, they say, 'I really want it.' There's great satisfaction to see a piece go out the door and you make some money."

Watching people make buying decisions at shows is a study in psychology, he adds. It usually involves a lot of back-and-forth between the husband and wife before the sale gets nailed down.

As befits a traditional craftsman, Barba uses fairly simple equipment. His work space isn't ideal because it is divided into two separate rooms: one where he does rough work, and the other where he does fine work and final assembly.

His equipment includes a DeWalt 12-inch electric miter saw, which he calls his on-site workhorse, a Craftsman radial arm saw, a Delta sawbuck (portable radial arm saw), an 8-inch Sunhill joiner, a 6-inch AMT joiner, a 15-inch Grizzly planer, a 10-inch Jet table saw, a Conover bandsaw, an "ancient Shopsmith" that serves as a drill press and lathe, and portable power tools by Bosch, AEG, Porter-Cable, Ryobi and Skil. For attaching large pieces of veneer, he uses a Jet vacuum bag system, which "works like a charm."

Running a one-person shop takes a lot of drudge work. The "prose" of working the wood and running the business outweighs the "poetry" of design.

But Barba wouldn't have it any other way. "It's a totally satisfying job," he says. "To envision something and see it come to life is wonderful."

 

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