Father and Son Furnituremakers: A Variation on a Theme

Richard Zubiate and his son Peter make a career of building fine furniture in their Texas homes.

By Ann Gurley Rogers

     
     
   
    Richard Zubiate likes using highly figured woods, which can be seen in his armoire in walnut and cherry.

When a father involves his son at an early age in his woodworking business, the result can be interesting. Such is the case with the work and process of Richard and Peter Zubiate, both furnituremakers, father and son respectively. Richard lives and works in Midland, TX; Peter in San Antonio.

In 1976, Richard Zubiate made the decision to go into business for himself repairing and refinishing furniture. This was a decision that was in part forced upon Richard in the wake of a failed business venture as franchiser of an automotive parts store. He still favored the idea of being his own boss, and he thought that his woodworking hobby, which had been introduced to him in 1949 as a Boy Scout, might be the answer.

Although he had never made a piece of furniture, Richard says that it was his nature to have a positive attitude and trust that he could teach himself what he needed to know. It did not take long before he learned what to do and started to find customers for his work.

“I figured that first I needed to know how to do mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joinery. I found some books that were helpful, one on Japanese joinery and one called ‘Classical Joinery,’ written in the 1800s. I also was able to find a reprint of ‘The Cabinet Maker,’ he says.

At that time, son Peter was about nine years old. Richard says he kept Peter around the shop a lot, not because he wanted to teach him woodworking, but because he wanted to teach him about work.

“Working for the work itself is meaningless. I believe that the objective should be to achieve excellence. My father taught me how to work, and I felt an obligation to teach my children the same,” he says. “I wanted my children to find their own way. In turn, my children have taught me some important lessons about working with other people, especially to be more patient and compassionate. My other son, Paul, once said to me, ‘Dad, if you would praise me more, I would do better work.’ That taught me a lot.”

Today, Paul Zubiate is an architect. But he also carries some of the furnituremaking heritage, having collaborated with his father on projects, including chairs based on an 1890s design by Charles Rennie MacIntosh.

When Richard’s furnituremaking skills developed and he was ready to think seriously in terms of a personal design process, he became acquainted with Rey Hegy, a master craftsman who makes propellers.

“Hegy’s insight into the movement of wood has always helped me understand how to approach the design process,” Richard says. He adds that he believes a well-designed piece of furniture should have a natural flow that draws the eye through the whole piece.

“If this flow is interrupted, then something needs to be changed,” he says.

Richard also says that he has always been intrigued with figured woods, like Pennsylvania cherry, bird’s-eye maple, quilted maple and fiddle-back maple. “As I work with these species, I like to let the wood do just what it is going to do,” he says.

 

     
     
   
  Peter Zubiate built this chair in maple, with a white lacquer finish.  

To fulfill this part of his design concept, Richard devotes a fair bit of time to seeking out unusual woods. At one time, he got a lot of lumber from a medical doctor who had been collecting wood in a barn in Tennessee since 1935. Once he also talked a woman into giving him her redwood fence post, which he used to make boxes.

At this point in his career, most of Richard’s work is commissioned pieces, plus a few spec projects. When he is building a piece of furniture simply for his own delight, he gravitates toward pieces that are influenced by Shaker designs. One example is a jelly cupboard, although it also has two non-Shaker elements — a square handle and a beveled top.

“People often make the mistake of thinking that these pieces are contemporary,” he says. “I usually select from my assortment of figured woods and sometimes leave the piece unstained. Over time, as the wood ages, it will mellow into the most beautiful color.”

Peter Zubiate learned the basics of woodworking from his father. Then, in the fall of 1993, he sought out more formal design instruction at Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen, CO. He took one class in furniture design and one in chair design. During the summer of 1994, he served as a resident assistant there. He has been working on his own for about five years.

His father describes Peter’s work as “sculptural.” Peter says that he was influenced by Martin Puryear, who does a lot of wood sculpture.

One design strategy that Peter says he likes to use is to develop a piece and then create variations of the same piece using different kinds of woods or finishes, until he reaches a saturation point and is ready to move on.

“With these pieces, I can create independently of a commission,” he says. “They have a sculptural quality and function independently without consideration for a particular environment and setting.”

Although that kind of work is Peter’s favorite, he only devotes about 10 percent of his time to pieces that are not commissioned. He also builds about four custom kitchens a year to help pay the bills. But usually he does not photograph that work because he wants to develop a reputation for his furniture.

It is apparent from his portfolio that Peter has “inherited” his father’s love for unusual woods. However, he has to be careful with the species he selects, because he suffers from asthma and is sensitive to certain wood dust.

When it comes to the management side of running a business, Richard Zubiate has been able to rely upon his college training in accounting. He also says he got some helpful information from a book by Stan Leroyd titled, “The Woodworker,” that he found in an old bookstore.

“That book was helpful because it outlined the amount of time that it should take to do certain tasks, like make a dovetail drawer or repair a joint. That was the information I needed in order to know how much to charge for my services in the beginning,” he says.

As he has developed his business, Richard says he has implemented a pricing structure intended in part to counter what he calls an American adherence to planned obsolescence. “I want to charge enough for a piece of custom furniture so that people will appreciate it and want to keep it in their family for a long time,” he says.

Richard finds most of his customers by word of mouth. Often, clients for custom pieces have

     
     
   
    Richard Zubiate’s own designs follow simple Shaker-inspired lines, such as this jelly cupboard in cherry. However, he does use non-Shaker elements in the piece, such as the square handle and beveled top.

known him through his repair and refinishing services first. Last year, he grossed $125,000 from his 3,200-square-foot shop, and about one-third of that amount came from commissioned pieces.

When he first started making custom furniture, he had to rely on joinery techniques and a few simple hand tools, like planes and chisels. It took seven years of building up his business before he could invest in power equipment, he says. Today, he has a 37-inch widebelt sander from Sunhill and a Powermatic tablesaw. He still relies a great deal on the hand tools, he adds.

Peter says that the most valuable thing he learned from hanging around his father’s business was the confidence to go into business for himself. He has developed a working relationship with several contractors, who feed him sufficient custom kitchens to allow him the time to build custom pieces for the furniture clients that he mostly finds by word of mouth.

Peter Zubiate also displays his work in several art galleries in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Midland. He has on at least one occasion collaborated on a joint project with his wife Katie, who is a ceramicist and painter. But by his own admission, he lacks the patience to sit at craft or art shows, where such pieces are sold. Peter is currently working with a Web designer to establish a Web site as another way to market his services.

Peter’s 40-foot by 80-foot shop, located adjacent to his home, is equipped with hand tools, a 12-inch Powermatic FS305 jointer, a Delta 10-inch Unisaw and a 12-inch Rockwell planer. Last year his sales were $40,000.

Richard Zubiate said that as a father, he wanted to help his children find their own way. But he also wanted to avoid the trap of living his life through his children. As furniture designers and woodworkers, both Richard and Peter have fulfilled that goal.

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