Veneer ‘Child’s Play’ Produces Dramatic Results
Kurt Nielsen combines an imaginative use of veneers with whimsical carvings to create striking furniture pieces.
By Hannah Miller
Woodworker Kurt Nielsen has taught at the famed Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, and his well-heeled clients have included actor Michael Douglas. Yet he still approaches a new piece of veneer like a child at play.
He pieces and tapes it, trying to figure out what he wants to do with it. He says, “I think of veneer as really expensive construction paper.” What usually emerges is a piece of furniture based loosely on classical design, but with a distinctively different feel.
An example is “Minotaur Morning,” a bow-front console of African satinwood with the top in a classic clamshell pattern. The front has a classic veneer sunburst, and dark pommelle sapele is used in the two suns and in a rippling half-circle inlay that emphasizes the sun’s rays. Nielsen’s special touch shows in the carved mahogany minotaurs, half man and half bull, that stretch up the sides of the piece. They serve as handles and “guard” secret drawers that can hold an owner’s treasures. The beasts’ horns and nose rings are made of 14-karat gold, cast for him by a jeweler friend from carvings Nielsen did in wax.
Nielsen, who has been making his living from woodworking since he graduated from Illinois State University 13 years ago, says he used to be even more playful, using large cartoon figures in benches that he sold at craft shows and through galleries. “I had a penguin/duck phase,” he says, adding that he wholesaled the penguins to galleries for $900.
But now he prefers to concentrate on large, commissioned furniture pieces, which are more profitable, he says. His most expensive piece to date is a $26,000 bookcase, which he collaborated on with a maker of handmade books. The piece was done for an upcoming show at the Wood Turning Center in Philadelphia. His big pieces usually range from $8,000 to $16,000. Such pieces also let him use the whole range of his skills — veneer work, carving and painting — he adds.
Celebrity Work Opens Doors
After studying woodworking at ISU and at Penland, Nielsen settled in Asheville. He made custom furniture and freelanced as a carver of prototypes for high-end furniture companies. Then he moved to New York, where he was in charge of an architect’s furniture line when he got the commission from Douglas’ designer. He was working on it when he decided to move back to North Carolina in 1998, this time to the small town of Belmont near Charlotte. Having that commission “kind of helped jump-start my reputation there,” he says.
Today, nearly all of Nielsen’s business comes through word-of-mouth, though he does have a nice, four-color brochure. “I do a little pushing,” he says.
Many of his clients have large homes with large spaces to fill, and they appreciate what Nielsen calls his “over-the-top” pieces. He says he usually gives them a choice of three designs: the first is low-end; the second, fancier; and the third is carved, gilded and veneered.
Nielsen doesn’t object if they choose the less elaborate pieces. He tells them, ”I can see this piece, without the carving, being a very strong piece.” But he adds, “I think I should twist their arm” to choose the most elaborate design.
Some of his most imaginative veneer pieces have been in a usually staid furniture category, the home office. An example is his “Adam and Eve” secretary. The client had told him, “I need drawers. I need shelves. I need a place for a TV, and I need a place for my Scotch bottle.” The result is a piece with small carved figures guarding a closed compartment atop a Biedermeier-inspired tower.
The secretary is of flame mahogany, and the figures were carved from hard maple. The top section resembles a temple and houses a TV. The “stairs” leading up to the temple are amboyna burl, which Nielsen says is “knockout, to-kill-you, gorgeous wood, but so brittle.” It is probably the hardest wood to handle, he says, but adds that all burl tends to split into pieces. “You just have to make sure you find all the pieces,” he says.
Like accounting, making furniture involves “a lot of little parts that have to come together,” he says.
He has been fortunate in that clients don’t usually restrict his imagination. “They say, ‘I need something to go right here,’” he says. “We kind of piece together the feeling it should have.”
One home-office credenza he did has a shelf held by two mythical figures that resemble dogs with a bad attitude. He says he based the basswood figures on a New York neighbor’s leather-jacket-wearing Chihuahua. The client loved them, he adds. “When you are having a custom piece made for your home, it’s nice to have a little story to go with it.”
The desk also features what looks like an inlay in the veneer dentil moulding at the edge; it is actually squares of madrone burl separated by strips of maple.
He also built two interesting pieces for a home office that overlooks the ocean. The “Wave” desk emulates a wave’s curl and features quilted maple, “so fluid it has almost a three-dimensional look,” says Nielsen. “It looks like water falling as it comes down the side.”
The other piece is the “Whale Chair,” where arms, back and leg come together to resemble a whale’s tail. The one-piece arm/back is made of curved pieces of maple with cherry pinstripes. It is a compound tapered lamination, and Nielsen says it was difficult to glue up. “Why I did that to myself I don’t know,” he says.
Nielsen says he works with fairly simple, old-fashioned tools because he does so much carving and other handwork. They include hand planers, gouges and chisels, some of them antiques.
His 850-square-foot workshop in his backyard has a manual three-axis Multirouter from JDS Co., which he uses to do varied joinery, including dovetails, fingerjoints and mortise-and-tenon. He also uses a Yates American J20 bandsaw, a Delta Unisaw table saw, a Rockwell wedge bed planer, a DeWalt 12-inch compound miter saw, and a Walker Turner drill press.
He buys all his veneer from Certainly Hardwood and usually presses it in a Vacuum Pressing Systems bag using Franklin’s Titebond yellow resin or Unibond epoxy. However, he also uses several other methods, according to the needs of a particular piece. For instance, he sometimes spreads hot hide glue from Bjorn Industries and presses it with a special hammer that cools it as it presses. He also uses cold clamping, or he sometimes spreads heat-activated glue at the edges and runs a hot clothes iron over the strip he is adding.
He says he tries to avoid using stains by “picking the veneers that have the character and color I’m looking for.” He uses clear lacquer, sometimes 10 coats of it, and clear vinyl sealer from Mohawk Finishing Products or M.L. Campbell for the finish. Since his son was born two years ago, he stopped spraying finishes in his own shop. Instead, he takes his DeVilbiss 2-1/2-gallon spray gun to a friend’s booth to spray his work.
Nielsen works alone and estimates that he devotes a month to each large piece. “I obsess,” he confesses. The business, K.A. Nielsen Furniture and Design Studios, grosses a little under $100,000 yearly, he says.
In an about-face from his own un-automated shop, Nielsen also works part-time with several “high-tech minded” friends in their job shop in Hickory. Their enterprise, Ruskin Inc., uses software and computerized equipment to make carved furniture for high-end manufacturers. He acts as their consulting engineer, he says, contributing his knowledge of where the router should go so that it doesn’t tear the wood. “I have a sense of three-dimensional form and how it ought to be carved,” he says.
With its six-axis CNC machine from CMS, Nielsen calls Ruskin “the epitome of automation.” As a businessman, he complains that it is “the same thing that will put me out of business.” However, Nielsen the artist doesn’t really believe that will happen.
“I can design and build things that industry really can’t,” he says, citing the Whale Chair as an example. “People don’t come to me unless they want something special.”
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