Pennsylvania Woodworker Is Still Experimenting

A key regional show proves the perfect venue for the ever-evolving work of craftsman Ray Kelso.

By Anthony G. Noel

Many woodworkers fall in love with their craft through experimentation. It all begins as a hobby, and in that climate — without bills to pay and deadlines to meet — it’s easy to toy with ideas, fine tuning them until achieving one’s vision.

But begin counting on woodworking for your livelihood and up pops an all-too-common dilemma: How does the solitary designer/craftsman make a living while producing work which still expresses his individual style?

Ultimately, many don’t, agreeing instead to the trade-off of providing high-quality work with a modicum of deviation from accepted forms, in return for a reliable source of income. Still, some artisans manage to remain true to their vision, while finding a clientele which appreciates it and is willing to support it.

 

     
     
 

A three-species combination of walnut, cherry and maple comprises this chest of drawers by Treebeard Designs. Photo by Tom Crane.
 

Count Ray Kelso among the latter.

Like many woodworkers, Kelso entered the woodworking trade knowing he liked it, but knowing not much more about it. Nonetheless, after earning an engineering degree from Virginia Tech, followed by a brief stint in the Air Force, Kelso returned home in 1976 and decided to give woodworking a try.

“I just started refinishing and that kind of thing, plodding along at that,” Kelso says.

Today, he is an accomplished designer/craftsman who owns and operates Treebeard Designs, just outside of Philadelphia.

Shortly after setting up his refinishing operation, Kelso met Ed Ray, who had supplied lumber to Wharton Esherick. Esherick has been called the dean of American craftsmen. He died in 1970, but his studio has lived on as the Wharton Esherick Museum, which is located practically in Ray Kelso’s back yard.

Getting to know Esherick’s lumber supplier was just what Kelso needed for inspiration and motivation.

“Ed was a real character, and he kind of took me under his wing,” Kelso explains.

Ray introduced Kelso to Esherick’s work, and “that really opened my eyes to what was possible,” he says.

He continued to read about and look at the work of others, experimenting and expanding his own design sense.

“I’m self-taught, which means I have learned from everybody,” Kelso says with a chuckle.

Still, Esherick’s influence, through Ed Ray, is irrefutable.

“Ed was kind of a patron. He would find unusual pieces of lumber and bring them to me and say, ‘Here, make me something.’”

One can see the influence of Esherick’s decidedly organic forms in Kelso’s work. But Kelso has refined that look with symmetry and an understated sense of order to create his own vision, a vision with which he continues to experiment.

Thanks in large part to the annual Philadelphia Furniture Show, more people are discovering Kelso and Treebeard Designs all the time.

“It’s a great show,” Kelso says, sitting on the porch of his home/workshop near Collegeville, PA. “I have done really well there, since the beginning.”

Kelso says that the freedom he enjoys as a designer is granted by his clients, many of whom first see his work at the Philadelphia venue.

“I tell people to look at all the booths, and if they like most of the pieces in a craftsman’s body of work, then they will probably like what he will do for them,” he says.

It’s not exactly an aggressive marketing approach. But Kelso learned early that having the freedom to follow his own design instincts was directly related to people liking his work.

Like many designer/craftsmen, Kelso was afforded added freedom in developing his design vision thanks to his wife’s full-time job.

“Having a certain amount of financial independence, I focused more on what I really wanted to do than probably what I should be doing,” Kelso says. “I focused more on the craft side than the business side.”

But that’s changing now, he adds. His wife recently lost her job after 25 years with the same company — a fact which has made the craftsman more sensitive to the business side of his operation. “I’m focusing more now on making a living,” he says.

Kelso says that as a result, he is paying more attention to what people are looking for when they are referred to him or see his work at a show.

“I think people have a pretty good idea of what I am capable of doing, but that doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” he says. “I can’t tell you the number of times I have had people look at my work and say, ‘Can you build this?’ referring to a coffee table or a chest of drawers. Well, sure I can. But they want to be shown that, they want to see that.”

So starting with the Philadelphia show last spring, Kelso began showing a wider variety of work. He also made another key decision.

 

     
     
   

This detail shows operation of the end drawers of a cherry writing table, necessitated by the curvature of the base elements. Photo by Tom Crane.

“I’m trying to develop more of a line of furniture; something that I can reproduce relatively simply, because I don’t reproduce most of my work,” he says. “Most of it has been one-off, and that’s a tough way to make a living, because it’s a new estimate for every job.”

Kelso says his strategy paid dividends almost immediately. He sold a chest of drawers off the floor at the May show and took another order for the same piece. It is a beginning that Kelso envisions following through with via the Internet.

“With e-business opening up and the possibilities of having items on the Internet, you can’t really do that with custom work as easy as you can with a line,” he says.

Kelso makes literally everything, from rocking chairs to wardrobes to entire kitchens. His prices range from $1,100 for an armless dining chair to $7,500 for a chest of drawers.

But despite his determination to market his work more systematically, he remains dedicated to doing custom work as well.

“That’s a huge part of who I am. I’m not a production type of guy; I have a real difficult time focusing on that,” he says.

When CWB visited his small basement shop in May, he was laying out a kitchen.

“The client wants something a little unusual,” Kelso said. “She almost went with boxes (a ‘typical’ custom kitchen), but we softened the corners. All the outside corners have a five-inch radius. We really wanted it to flow, so the doors ended up just being frame-and-panel with flat panels.”

Well, curved flat panels, of course.

Though he had secured the commission when we spoke to him, Kelso was still unsure what form an island unit on the project would take.

“We aren’t tied into a wall. So the shape will be determined by the shape of the countertops,” Kelso noted. “She choose large, two-inch-thick maple for those, with a gentle curve from one end to the other.”

The island’s form will mimic the gently curving counter edge adjacent to it.

Kelso has been patient about establishing a clientele which allows him that kind of freedom. It’s clear that the freedom to try new things, to experiment, will remain a big factor in his work.

“Not having a formal education in woodworking, everything I have done has been an experiment,” Kelso says with a grin.

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