CWB June 2004
Barry Tribble switched from building millwork to furniture featuring dyed veneer patterns when he relocated to North Carolina.
By Hannah Miller
Barry Tribble wasn't setting out to be a trailblazer when he started playing with dyed veneers in his Just Wood Custom Millwork shop in the woods north of Marion, NC, five years ago. He simply liked creating patterns with the different colors and, in the process, turning some of the rules of working with veneer upside-down.
But it is definitely an uncrowded field. He couldn't find source material that told him how to proceed. The closest thing to what he wanted to do is marquetry, he says, but that uses smaller pieces. Though he found several woodworkers on the Internet who do "pretty neat inlay, some interesting stuff," it is in a different style. "I don't think I have found anybody using the dyed stuff," he says.
Tribble precisely places different-sized and different-colored pieces of veneer into patterns that flow from his own imagination. They grace tabletops, chests, entertainment centers and stand-alone room screens. Sometimes light and dark colors are played against each other to create a three-dimensional effect. Other times, the designs echo patterns Tribble has seen somewhere, like pavers in a driveway or the features of a bulldog's face.
He says he prefers using dyed veneers to pigment-stained veneers because "they tend to be a lot clearer, so you see the small details, the figure of the grain. There is nothing in between you and the wood."
The dyes "tend to soak up in the wood and they give you the brighter colors...brilliant, clear colors," he adds.
Galleries, including Grovewood in Asheville, NC, Bayfront in Pensacola, FL, and Sansar in Washington, DC, handle the pieces, which Tribble says stand out in a room as more than just furniture. This spring, he also participated in a fine-furniture show in Providence, RI.
Mountain Life Spurs Changes
For 25 years, he ran Just Wood Custom Millwork in Lutz, FL, sometimes alone and sometimes with a partner. But when their children grew up and left home, he and his wife Carol started poring over maps, looking for a place that might give them what they call a more "rational" lifestyle.
"To tell you the truth, I got tired of chasing down money on the phone every Friday - 'Hey, listen, send me that check,'" Tribble recalls.
He says he found the serenity he sought on his wooded, creekside home and shop site, eight miles up a winding road from Marion. "We are out here. No hassles. Nobody to bother you. It's kind of peaceful," he says.
But the isolation and the laid-back mountain way of doing things spelled an end to his initial plan for an architectural millwork business, he adds. Not only was it hard to find help with the necessary experience for that type of business, but there are different priorities that rule "mountain culture," he says. "The lifestyle up here is more important than the business aspect of it."
For example, he might want to conduct business, he says, but "somebody's got to do something else, like go hunting."
The difficulties turned him toward his new, more personal craft. He found a source of dyed veneers, Herzog Veneers in High Point, NC, which imports them. By trial and error, he developed expertise and his own style.
"I am breaking all the rules of using veneers," he says. "With colored veneers, you can't put a filler (in). The finishing process can be much more intense, because you are trying to build up a finish with clear lacquer.
"You have no way of hiding defects," he adds. "If you have a little bit of an open cut, you are dead. You can't patch it."
Pressing the veneer presents a real challenge, because veneers of different species, sizes and thicknesses are taped together. They absorb glue and dry at varying rates, Tribble says, and they all seek to expand somewhere. However, they can't do it, "because there is something else here on the pattern.
"You have 30 to 40 seconds to get this taped-up sheet of nice, flat veneer into a bag before everything starts going nutty," he says, standing by his vacuum press bag with a heavy roller in his hand. When the pieces start popping and swelling, "you can massage most of it back out."
Because of the different thicknesses, the veneer can't be pressed hot in a platen press, he adds.
Sometimes he has told himself, "You shouldn't be doing this. It's against every reasonable expectation," he says, adding, "but that's part of the fun of it."
When asked what is the most important tool in his 3,300-square-foot backyard shop, he answers, "my computer." He uses a 2-D CAD program from Vision CAD to draw patterns that he transfers to the veneer. "You can produce a full-size pattern very quickly," he says.
Other equipment includes a table saw and joiner from SCMI, a shaper and drill press from Rockwell, a Holz-Her 1404 edgebander, a Williams & Hussey moulder and an Ultrasand 36Z drum sander. He uses CAB acrylic, "very hard lacquers," from Sherwin-Williams and dye stains from Mohawk for his finishes. Spray guns are from Binks.
Concentrating on the Work
His flat-surface designs often look three-dimensional, an affect he achieves by placing light and dark pieces next to each other. He takes advantage of the tendency of one of a pair of book-matched veneers to appear slightly darker than the other. Usually, that's something you have to watch out for, he says, but he makes it work for him.
With galleries handling his output, Tribble says he can concentrate on what he is doing, rather than on meeting deadlines or price points. His price for a small table ranges from $1,100 to $1,400; for a foyer table, the range is $2,400 to $2,500. A four-panel screen is $2,600 and up.
In Florida, he did work "that tended to be things other people designed," he says. Now, "I can just do what I want to do and give it to somebody else to sell."
He has come to appreciate, even share, the relaxed mountain attitude that changed the direction of his work. "Once you get used to it, it's a nice way to live," he says.
To make ends meet while the public discovers his furniture and he builds up his business, Tribble takes on some architectural millwork projects, and Carol Tribble works part-time as a nurse in a Marion hospital. The cost of living in their new locale is lower than before, which helps with expenses, Tribble says. "And we down-sized.
"I think eventually we will make some money from this," he says of his unconventional venture. He predicts that it may take eight or 10 years, because "People like conventional veneers better. They aren't scared of them.
"But color is more fun," he concludes.
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