April 2005

Furnituremaker Finds a Career in 'Lost Art'

Brian Bortz was looking for a new career that would give him enough time for his woodworking hobby when he decided just to make that his new job.

By Hannah Miller
Josie's Triangle Table is a small occasional table with a top that floats above pyramidal legs. The free-form tops in this pair complement each other. Legs are made of a complementary hardwood with a saber-tipped end.

Brian Bortz of Lost Art Woodworks in Durham, NC, believes in aiming high. The first show he entered after becoming a professional woodworker in 2001 was the prestigious 2003 Philadelphia Furniture and Furnishings show.

"I just shot for it," he recalls. "All they could do was tell me 'no.'"

Not only did the jury choosing entries not tell him "no," he was given the "Best New Artist - Wood Media" award for his work. The winning piece was "Bertram's Bed and Screen." Made of cherry framing with mottled makore panels and foot, with post tips of cocobolo, it is in the Arts and Crafts style.

"I was a rank amateur there," he remembers. He wasn't dismayed about his novice status then. But now, "I do quite a few things differently," he says.

Being an award winner was a definite boost to his pocketbook. The ensuing local publicity brought him at least $30,000 worth of business, he says - a good start for a new studio furnituremaker.

A hobby turns into a career

Bortz had pursued woodworking as a hobby for five years while working in engineering, sales and marketing for a telecommunications company. But by 2001, the bottom had fallen out of the telecommunications business, and he started looking for a new career.

Whenever he considered a job, he found himself wondering, "When would I find time to do my woodworking?" he says. "And then it occurred to me, 'There are people making a living making furniture. Why can't I be one of them?'"

So he took three one-week seminars at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Indiana, quizzed other woodworkers about their business models and decided what he would specialize in: hand-made furniture sold through commissions and shows. "I jumped into it full-force," he says.

His efforts brought more awards, in addition to the Philadelphia show's. In 2003, he won "Best in Show" at Durham's Centerfest arts and crafts show for a body of his work. Most recently, the Durham Arts Council gave him a 2004-2005 "Emerging Artist" grant that will let him spend a week in Santa Barbara learning from furnituremaker Victor Dinovi, a great opportunity, he says.

Moving beyond the norm

During the five years that he was a hobbyist, neither his designs nor his workmanship went beyond the norm, Bortz says. He worked mostly with solid wood. "I started with the basics, making knockoffs of Mission pieces, or something like that," he says.

Katrina's Cabinet is made of quilted makore with cherry legs and wenge accents on the feet, top edge and doors. Slivers of holly separate the saber-tipped wenge feet from the table legs. Bortz attaches the tips with dowels and epoxy.

Since he turned professional, however, he has mostly stuck to traditional furniture shapes, enlivening them with free-form marquetry. Exotic veneers, which he presses on a veneer press in his 1,000-square-foot basement, help give his pieces their distinctive look. He uses wenge, cocobolo, quilted makore, holly, macassar ebony, lacewood, quilted maple, amboyna burl and more.

"What I like about exotics - it is almost infinite what you can do with color and contrast," he says.

There is another plus for doing marquetry, he adds: "It is really quiet work. Usually, when you are working with wood, there is very little that is quiet."

Contrasting tips have become a signature on Bortz's table and chest legs. He makes a graceful leg, sometimes straight and sometimes curved, then attaches a tip in another color veneer that picks up a tone from elsewhere on the piece. The tip is separated from the rest of the leg by a thin slice of contrasting wood, often white like holly or black like ebony.

"When I really want it to 'pop,'" he says of a design, "holly is a great thing to use. It pulls your eye down there."

When the tip is saber-shaped, "the piece looks like it has little hooves," he adds. He attaches the tips with dowels and epoxy. Many of the exotics are so oily, other glues won't work, he says.

Although his shop is small, he uses the space efficiently. He can make tables that seat 12, he says, adding that he just isn't able to make two at once.

Handmade touches and machinery efficiencies

Though he is adamant about his pieces being handmade, and to him that means the creative parts of the design should be done with hand tools, he uses power tools for the basics. For a woodworker, he says the question is, "Can you make enough product to make ends meet? The key is time." Materials account for only 15 percent of his pieces' cost, he says, with his labor accounting for the other 85 percent.

This Rabbi's Table of walnut, jatoba and figured cherry was made for a Reform Jewish congregation in Durham, NC. A curly English sycamore Star of David is centered in the bowed front. Heavy Torah scrolls are frequently placed on the top, so jacoba was chosen for its hardness. A honeycomb material typically used in airplane wings was used in the top to reduce the table's weight and make it easier to move.

Among his labor-saving equipment, Bortz uses a Woodtek dual drum sander, Delta Unisaw, General International hollow chisel mortiser, Bosch sliding compound miter saw and a Porter-Cable router. His finishes are Chemcraft conversion varnishes, applied with an HVLP spray system from Titan.

One of his most reliable sellers, a quilt stand that you can take apart, is one of his early designs. He thinks its popularity is due to the fact that so many quilt stands are Early American style, but his come in several versions. Most are simple but sleek in design, with various patterned veneers as decoration. One cherry version has patterned lacewood feet. Since all joints are exposed, they must be finished expertly. "It's really hard to make," he says.

Thanks to the popularity of his work, Bortz hired a part-time helper, and this year he expects sales to be in the $70,000 range. His designs sell up and down the East Coast. By February of this year, he was already booked through September - not bad for a guy who, three years ago, was wondering if it were possible to make a living building furniture.

"I'm doing what I love," he says, adding that very few people get to say that.

However, the repetitiveness gets painful, he adds. "There are days when I am making feet all day long. I don't want to make feet forever."

On the other hand, when everything he does is new to him, "My brain is tired" at the end of the day, he says.

Nevertheless, when asked what he would do if he won $10 million tomorrow, he says, "I'd build furniture," without hesitation. Of course, he adds, the extra money would let him spend a little more time with experienced furnituremakers, soaking up their techniques.

 

                                                                                                                                                                                           

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.