A One-of-a-Kind Passion
When he isn’t building commercial casework as one-half of Superior Installations, Ray Valdez is creating unique art furniture from exotic wood and solid surface material.
By Sam Gazdziak
Many woodworkers find it hard to manage one successful woodworking business. Ray Valdez has two. Fortunately, woodworking is his passion. “I’ve always thought that if I could do this for a living, I wouldn’t have to work a day in my life,” he says. “I feel very blessed.”
Valdez is the owner of Exotic Wood Works of Farmington, NM. Exotic Wood Works focuses on one-of-a-kind furniture that includes wood and solid surface materials. He is also co-owner of Superior Installations, which manufactures commercial casework.
Superior Installations has had up to seven employees in the past, but Valdez and Lonny Ellis, his partner, do all the work themselves now. “It’s hard to find employees that you can trust and can turn loose,” Valdez says. “Lonny and I decided to do it ourselves, and it’s worked for the last couple of years.”
While Superior Installations provides enough work to keep him busy, Valdez started Exotic Wood Works three years ago. “I can get really creative with Exotic Wood Works. Cabinets and countertops can get monotonous and boring, but with Exotic, I can do what I want.”
One such project is a starburst table, which uses curly maple and wenge. “I really like mixing exotic and domestic woods,” Valdez explains. The tabletop is constructed of wedge-shaped pieces of maple with a center inlay of 32 pieces of wenge, each of which were 18 inch thick. A hidden compartment is made of maple and is kept in place by strong rare-earth magnets.
Starting from Pandas
Valdez says Superior gets enough work to keep both men busy. He adds that there are several area contractors who use the company exclusively for all their jobs. Still, Valdez has long been fascinated with traditional joinery and high-end furniture. Along with his prior experience, he says he reads many books on his craft. “If you want to learn something, and you just dive in and read, you’ll learn a lot,” he says.
Exotic Wood Works began about three years ago. His first piece was commissioned by his wife, DeYan, who loves panda bears. He made her a walnut hope chest with a maple inlay of two pandas on the lid. Valdez started getting more and more commissions, which he kept doing on the side.
Valdez has lived in the Farmington area his whole life, so his reputation for quality work is well-known. He has gotten a number of clients through word-of-mouth, and a write-up in the local newspaper last year garnered a strong response. Exotic Wood Works’ Web site, www.exoticwoodworks.com, has also helped expand his market outside of New Mexico. “I’ve been able to make a lot of contacts, and I’ve been getting invited to different shows around the country,” he says.
Through Exotic Wood Works, Valdez gets to use solid surface material for more than countertops. Both Superior Installations and Exotic Wood Works use Gibraltar, LG Hi-Macs, Surell and Avonite solid surface material. A chess table, which he created for his son, has a chess table top and chess pieces. The “Yin-Yang” table features the Chinese symbol on the top, made of four pieces of Wilsonart solid surface veneer. The edgebanding on the pedestal had a compound curve, so Valdez heated it in a oven and formed it to fit the curve.
Some of the designs come from Valdez’ imagination, while others come from his clients. One client had decorated her newborn child’s bedroom with a moon and stars theme, and she wanted a hope chest that continued that theme. Valdez made the chest of ash and padauk and inlaid a wenge moon and bubinga stars on the lid.
Another woman wanted a hutch that had a stemware rack, a wine rack and a mirror, but no square corners. “That’s about all she told me,” Valdez says. “She said for the rest, I could just do what I want. Clients like that are fun because she actually said, ‘Build it and let me know how much it is.’”
Costs for Exotic Wood Works’ furniture normally range from $1,000 to $6,000, depending on the size and complexity of the piece. Valdez says he plans for those numbers to increase. “There are people around here who will think that sounds high, but I’ve had friends tell me that if you’re in a different part of the country, they wouldn’t bat an eye. That’s why I think the Internet is going to help me so much” in reaching a larger market, he says.
Valdez gets his exotic woods from Paxtons in Albuquerque, NM, and The Woodworker’s Source in Phoenix, AZ. He uses a variety of hardware, including SOSS hinges and Blum Tandem drawer slides.
Two companies, one shop
To create the intricate patterns in wood and solid surface, Valdez makes templates, which he says is the hardest part of the process. Most of the cutting is done on a 14-inch Delta table saw Valdez and Ellis purchased used. When cutting from the templates, Valdez uses a Porter-Cable plunge router. “My dad, Tony, is a machinist, and he helped me make some bushings that I can trade out to accommodate for the thickness of the router bit,” he says. The companies have a large variety of other power tools from Fein, Makita, DeWalt and Senco, among others.
Thanks to his experience with solid surface fabrication, Valdez likes working on intricate projects. One of his recent projects was a pente board made from more than 900 pieces of solid surface material. “I did that in about five hours,” he says. “To tell someone how many pieces are in it, it sounds complicated, but it really wasn’t.”
As busy as is he is, being the sole person behind Exotic Wood Works and half of Superior Installations, Valdez still finds time to add little touches to his work. All of his pieces have a wood medallion attached to them that says, “Handcrafted by Ray Valdez.” He also inlays padauk wooden dots to the back of drawers so he can tell where they go. The top drawer will have one dot, and so on. “It helps when I’m doing assembly,” he explains. “But my wife says I do that just for me.”
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