L.A. Table Company Creates 'Marble-Ous' Finishes
California Handmade of Los Angeles uses specialty finishes to create the look of inlaid marble on its custom tables.
By Beverly Dunne
A world map from the 1500s has been unrolled and awaits illustration in California Handmade's shop in Los Angeles, where it ultimately will become the focal point of the company's custom-made table. Benjamin Cole, owner of the company, takes the basic map and fills in the countries, oceans and geographical elements with water colors, a method that provides good realism, he says. "This process mimics the way ancient cartographers worked. These maps don't look like printed reproductions."
The map is mounted on an MDF table top which features a faux marble border and gold-leaf trim for the map. A thick coat of translucent epoxy renders the top impervious to water, alcohol and heat. Suitable for commercial use, the table is being built for a seaside hotel in Sand Diego that is seeking an upscale, sophisticated but nautical or seafaring theme for its interior decorations. "The seaside restaurants and hotels love these antique mariner maps," says Cole. "I am glad our tops are so durable and salt-resistant."
Maps are the latest offering of the company's images. Under the "Seven Continents" banner, the shop manufactures tables with looks from around the world and throughout history. Designs are inspired from the Greek and Roman empires, or the prehistoric rock paintings of Europe, North Africa or Australia, or "estampas," the native designs from Mexico. Maps of the Old West, or faux marble inlay suggesting Western themes are also popular, says Cole. While the maps are actually embedded into the table top, other imagery is achieved by painting separate layers of faux marble.
The inlaid marble look -- offered at a very reasonable price -- is the specialty of the five-man California Handmade shop. To create it, the first step is to create a "field" or "background" marble, usually in a lighter marble, in the pale ochre, beige or dust pale rose end of the pallete. "All of our colors are based on earth tones, so when you mix and match, they tend to work. I always say, 'Nature produces no false colors.' If you stick with natural-looking colors, then your inlay will work," Cole says.
After the background color is painted, then the top is masked. Images are cut with sharp blades into the mask by craftspeople with years of experience, often garnered in the leather-working industry. Sometimes the images are cut following silhouettes on paper, other times the workers employ stencils. Usually, the images and the border are darker maples, so as to contrast with the lighter marble field.
Watching the craftspeople create their effective marble is fascinating: Work-a-day tools such as sponges, saran wrap or slightly stiffer plastics, feathers, brushes or even rags are used to create marble and veining. The whole process would not be commercially viable without the introduction of quick-drying acrylic artist-quality paints in the last 15 years, says Cole. "When we started, we actually had to re-invest faux marble painting with acrylics. The literature and classes were based on oil paints. But they dry too slow."
There are endless tricks to the trade. The depth of the marble is further enhanced with iridescent and interference paints. The shop has even resorted to using glitter, very sparingly, Cole cautions. "We don't want it to look like carnival time."
The use of contrasting or complementing colors contributes to the inlaid marble look. Customers can choose from 25 standard marble patterns and hundreds of designs -- with or without maps -- to create a truly custom piece. Once the acrylic has set, the table top is covered with an alcohol-, water- and heat-proof epoxy resin commercial finish.
The epoxy is treated as well, so that it makes the illusion of marble even more convincing. The epoxy resin is a commercial finish, designed for use in restaurants and hotels. However, California Handmade has learned how to buff the epoxy to a high satin, thus making the final product "softer" and very desirable for residential use, too.
Epoxy is a "devilish" substance to work with, Cole says, and he has taken many measures to ensure that it settles evenly. "Epoxy pours out like molasses. If the conditions are not correct, you'll get dime-shaped holes in the surface," he says. The shop has a 500-foot room that is temperature and humidity controlled, and in which positive air pressure is maintained, though a filtered source. There are heat lamps for use on cooler days, and air-conditioners for hotter days.
California Handmade uses commercial epoxy manufactured by the Enviro-Tex brand. It is mixed at a near 50/50 ratio -- one pound of resin to 0.84 hardener to produce a very thick coat at nearly 1/16 inch. After curing for three days, the surface is buffed. Then the MDF tops -- now gleaming like real marble -- are mounted on sugar pine or wrought iron table bases, which are outsourced. "We use MDF because it is stronger than oak and will never warp," Cole says. The pieces sold to retailers are designed to be shipped UPS and are assembled with Jacob Holz corner brackets.
Tables take four to six weeks to complete, depending on the size of the piece and the difficulty of the design. Prices range from $110 for a smaller table to $300 for a coffee table. Large or custom sizes cost considerably more, but in general, prices run about $36 a square foot, says Cole. The 3,000-foot shop usually completes 40 tables per week.
Tables are sold nationwide through 300 retailers which are primarily boutique/gift or furniture stores or to hotels and restaurants. Cowboy scenes, depicting mountains, cacti and horses, sell strongly in the Rocky Mountains and Southwest, Cole says. To expand into the Northwest, the shop has incorporated Kodiak bears, elk and pine trees into its designs.
The shop is also targeting the Southeast with imagery appropriate to that region -- golf-related themes as well as antique maps of North and South Carolina. Maps are also big sellers for the hospitality industry, as they easily adapt to the themes of resort hotels, casinos and restaurants. About 25 percent of the company's business comes from this market.
Sales are expected to reach nearly $750,000 this year, after several years of steady increases. Recently, however, sales have begun to flatten for the first time since its founding in 1991. Cole attributes some of that to the changes in retailing, and the death of independent or regional department and furniture stores, and the large chains which import cheap goods. But within its end of the market, California Handmade is inexpensive, says Cole. "At $0.25 to $0.30 per square inch, our product beats all rivals. Solid surfacing and inlaid marble can easily cost up to five times as much or more," he adds.
"And no one else can give the inlaid look we can. Or the antique map reproductions. I have been to endless trade shows, and no one can make a product like ours. It is too difficult -- I sometimes don't know why we make it," laughs Cole. "I guess it is too much fun to see what kind of tops we can make next, or what the next designer will bring in."
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