CWB July 1998

New York City Artist 'Sculpts' His Future with CNC Technology

Stephen Whisler studied sculpture in graduate school, but now does "whatever I want" with wood on a CNC router.


Everything was rolling along according to plan for Stephen Whisler. He received a Masters in Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate School after having met his wife in his undergraduate years in art school, and they moved into the Soho neighborhood in New York City, where Whisler began applying his studies in the field of sculpture. However, the demands of doing pure sculpture were taxing, so he turned to the fusion of art and furniture. In the process, he settled upon the medium of wood and the technology of a CNC router.

"The furniture presented something that was less difficult to deal with," Whisler said. "For many years, I was making large, adult human-scale sculptures. But then my work started to become more architectural in nature, and sculpture involves so much of art and its historical context, I felt locked into an art/history type of program. Furniture, however, presented me with the option of pretty much doing whatever I wanted."

His pieces feature cut-out designs, which initially he cut by hand with a

little saw. But he finally said to himself, "This process is really stupid." So three years ago, Whisler started to create projects on the computer and then carved the designs in decorative partition screens with a CNC router.

Whisler credits the CNC technology with being a major impetus for the work he has been doing on the furniture pieces since then.

"It allows me to do things that would be too laborious and too exacting if the process was by hand or with less advanced methods," he said. "Many ideas have come from the ability to use the technology."

The opportunity to use a CNC machine came by chance through the father of a friend of his daughter when they were talking together at a school function. The man, who works on props at Lincoln Scenic in Manhattan, told Whisler that his company has one of the biggest routers in the city.

"He set me up with a division of Lincoln Scenic called New York Displays, and I went up there with some work on a disk," Whisler said. "We played around with it a bit and I started making my screens that way. It was so much easier -- a job that used to take a month doing it by hand now just takes an afternoon. I go up with a few disks and I end up doing a lot of the CNC programming as well."

Whisler has established a niche both financially and creatively with his routed pieces. He said the radius of business for the projects encompasses the entire country, with an emphasis on California, which he said is due to the "design sensibilities" there.

Whisler pointed out that the routed pieces present something "less difficult to deal with" than the field of pure sculpture, which he studied in graduate school. Pictured is a headboard with "thought" and "speech" bubbles.

In addition, his work is advertised in Metropolis magazine, and he also displays it at the annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) shows in New York.

"I am planning to open a store where my current studio is, in order to sell these pieces directly as well as through referrals," he said.

There are a number of distinct furniture pieces and cabinet doors in Whisler's Interiors collection. In addition to the screens, he makes sideboards and headboards, radiator covers, armoires, medicine cabinets and trays. Within these pieces, he has created a number of shapes, which often incorporate recurring themes.

For instance, one of the designs for his screens is called "Twentieth Century Screen," which has cut-outs of all the years of this century running vertically on three panels. Another favorite theme for the screens is the "Screen of Addiction," which features routed shapes of cigarettes, pipes, syringes and drink glasses. The drink glasses, which themselves appear in many of Whisler's other pieces, can be martini, red wine, champagne and aperitif glasses.

"A single screen is usually the least expensive of the furniture pieces, around $800," Whisler said. "Armoires can run as much as $6,000. But I also do small serving trays, which are only about $100."

Other popular designs include the "Thought and Speech" patterns which Whisler uses on many screens and headboards. One side of a piece will have a "thought" balloon and the other side has a "speech" balloon, following the style of newspaper comic strips.

On many pieces, the routed designs are left open. However, Whisler's armoires do not generally have their routed designs left hollow, but often have them filled in with a plastic inlay. One example is an armoire with doors that have white dots inlaid against a dark background, representing dominoes.

The screens, headboards, medicine cabinets and trays are alike, however, in that most of them feature what Whisler calls the "blond" woods, such as maple. The screens, for instance, are made of Apple Ply plywood substrate with a maple veneer from States Industries. "I am starting to go with more functional pieces, such as the armoires, headboards and medicine cabinets," Whisler said. "I love the screens, but they don't sell as well, perhaps because they are not as practical."

Before the plywood pieces go to Lincoln Scenic/New York Displays to be put on its Gerber Sabre 408 CNC router, they are cut on an Inca table saw in Whisler's 1,200-square-foot shop. When the designs have been carved in the piece, it comes back to the shop and Whisler smoothes out any ragged areas on the shapes with a Porter-Cable orbital sander. The piece is then framed and finished. Other machinery in Whisler's shop includes an Inca planer/joiner, a drill press and a sander from Delta, a knife grinder and a Powermatic dust collection system.

For the finishing, if it involves hand staining, Whisler will add polyurethane varnish from Schreuder to pieces such as tabletops. He uses lacquers on most other pieces. A sideboard in Whisler's home is made of white oak and is hand stained with an alcohol-based stain and finished with a white wax. The stain is very dark, but the white wax brings out the wood grain in the white oak. When spray finishes are required, that work is outsourced.

For hardware, Whisler uses hinges from Blum and Accuride drawer slides.

Stephen Whisler considers the CNC technology available to him as "a means to an end," in regard to the creation of his many unique, artistic pieces. But, at the very least, the work can be done much faster, allowing Whisler to design more projects. It also gives him more time to concentrate on the other area of his business, which is renovating lofts in downtown New York.

"I've always done construction work as my primary business," he said. "I've worked as a carpenter on crews and then I started to do contracting. One thing just lead to another. The CNC technology allows me to do exactly what I want and need to do."

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