CWB June 1999
Robert Beauchamp's Custom Furniture Showcases Local-Harvest Walnut
Although he uses other species from time to time, this Northern California woodworker says he prefers using the locally grown walnut he has harvested himself.
By David DeCristoforo
The first thing you notice about Robert Beauchamp's shop is how quiet it is. The stillness is only occasionally broken by the sound of machines. Beauchamp, an artisan woodworker, prefers to use hand tools whenever possible.
With the exception of a large, almost antique jointer, Beauchamp's machinery is not much beyond what would be found in a typical home workshop. A Powermatic 10-inch table saw, a bandsaw and a small lathe are the only other "major" machines in evidence.
His shop occupies a converted barn two miles "east of town" near tiny Zamora in the Central Valley of Northern California. The shop is one of several buildings that formerly housed farm equipment and livestock.
Huge stacks of walnut planks, the result of years of local harvesting, fill former farm buildings nearby. Walnut slabs, also locally grown, are stacked, propped and scattered everywhere.
"When I started to cut my own wood, I figured if I cut wood until I was 50, I
would have enough to last the rest of my life," Beauchamp says. But already, at the age of 40, Beauchamp has enough wood to last the rest of his life and beyond.
Beauchamp began his career in woodworking in the early 1980s. "I was going to college and studying forestry. But I found out you had to take a lot of sciences to become a forester and science wasn't my thing," he says. "In my junior year, I took a woodworking class and I really enjoyed it." So Beauchamp changed his major to industrial arts.
"After I got out of school, I took a job in a cabinet shop," Beauchamp says, "but that was not the kind of work I went to school to learn, and I quit after two months." Shortly thereafter, Beauchamp applied for a position with furnituremaker Bob Erickson, who is located in Nevada City, CA.
"That was really the turning point in my life," Beauchamp says. "That was when I really became a furnituremaker. I worked for Bob for three or four years. He let me work on my projects as well as his, so that when I went out on my own, I already had a pretty good client base."
Beauchamp has maintained a close friendship with Erickson, and they continue to work together to harvest wood. "Bob is also the one who got me into harvesting my own wood," says Beauchamp. "He had an Alaska chain saw mill, and we would use that to cut lumber from trees that were being taken down for some reason. Now, we hire a guy who has a bandsaw mill. This produces better boards than the chain saw mill and it isn't such brutally hard work."
Beauchamp says he prefers to work with the wood he has harvested himself. "Mostly I use walnut for my furniture. There is a lot of walnut in the valley, so that is what I cut," he says. "I also work with cherry and maple, but I have to buy that. The wood I cut is all air-dried for one to three years, depending on the thickness."
Beauchamp also sells some of his wood to local retailers and other woodworkers. "I'd rather sell to individuals, because I can get more for the wood. If I sell to retailers, I have to sell for wholesale prices," he says. "That's not very much money for the amount of work that goes into cutting and drying lumber."
But selling wood is not Beauchamp's main interest. "I'm a furnituremaker, and that's what I want to do," he says.
Beauchamp has shown his furniture at craft shows, but says he is not enthusiastic about the results that these shows produce. Instead, he is focusing his efforts on trying to start a co-op gallery in the San Francisco area.
"I have a couple of people interested in pursuing this idea," he says. "We would each have to come up with a share of the start-up money needed to get things off the ground. We would show non-members' work, but the commission for these pieces would be higher than members would pay."
He also has a solid list of repeat customers. "I have a lot of really great clients who buy my work," he says. "I don't like to bid on furniture projects; I would rather do business with people who want my work and are willing to pay the prices I have to charge."
Beauchamp has begun to experiment with working on a time-and-materials basis with his customers. "It's really difficult to put a price on the pieces I make until they are done," he says. "I have done a couple of time-and-materials projects for some of my repeat clients, and they don't seem to have a problem with it. They know my work is expensive to begin with, so they are not shocked by my prices."
Beauchamp says his customers are usually willing to wait for his work. "My clients know I will get the piece done, but they are probably going to have to wait awhile for their furniture. I don't like to rush my work, and it takes a long time to make things the way I do it. If I want to take the time to hand plane a top or fine tune the drawers, I want to be able to do it without someone breathing down my neck."
Even so, Beauchamp confronts the same dilemma that faces any fine craftsman trying to make a living in the modern world. "Right now I'm making around $20,000 a year, after taxes," Beauchamp says. "But I am happy doing what I do, and I can take the time to do some of the other things I enjoy."
Some of the "other things" are soccer, bicycle riding and seeing the rest of the world. Beauchamp recently spent a month in Australia, for example. "That's not something you can do if you are tied down to a desk job," he says. "I don't like the idea of being limited to a week off or two weeks off. If I feel like taking six or eight weeks to do something I want to do, I want to be able to have that freedom."
But Beauchamp, who is single, admits things would be more difficult if he had a family to support. "I'd like to have kids one day, and that would change things," he says. "But, I am not that concerned with owning a lot of things. I can get by just fine without having a lot of stuff around. I drive an 11-year-old truck with 330,000 miles on it. It's just more important that I can be happy doing the work I like."
For the most part, Beauchamp works alone, occasionally hiring some help when he has a lot of finishing to do. "I use mostly oil finishes," he says. "They take a lot of sanding and rubbing over a period of several days." He can also call on fellow woodworkers Angel Santillanez and Paul Lynch, who have a shop set up in an adjacent building. "Angel and Paul used to work for me," Beauchamp says, "and we help each other out when things get hectic."
Beauchamp also has had several interns from the University of Calif./Davis design department in his shop. "That has worked out pretty well," he says. "The students seem to enjoy the work. They usually work a couple of days a week, and the school pays part of their wages."
But Beauchamp doesn't seem too worried about finding employees. "I don't want to have a factory," he says. "The pieces I make are unique. I don't have a 'product line' or even a signature piece that I make over and over. I think my style is recognizable, but every piece I make is different. Sometimes I may make several identical pieces at one time, like a set of chairs or a pair of dressers. But mostly I make one-of-a-kind pieces."
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