CWB February 2004
A chemist turned custom furniture maker found the formula for vocational happiness after viewing master woodworkers' pieces on display.>
By Ann Gurley Rogers
Will Orvedal, a Kansas custom furniture maker, has a bumper sticker on his truck that says, "I brake for trees.">In 1973, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in chemistry and had a teaching job in hand. About the same time, though, Orvedal visited the Renwick Museum in Washington, DC, which is part of the Smithsonian Institute.
At the museum he was introduced to the works of Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof, Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima and Arthur Espenet Carpenter. "I was blown away with what I saw, and I knew [then, it was] what I wanted to do," he recalls.
Orvedal moved to Lawrence, KS, where he became a custom furniture maker. At first, he had a furniture refinishing and repair business; then he began making furniture to sell at fairs. "I made [several pieces] and sold [them], so I [decided to] get out of the refinishing and repair business," Orvedal says.
For about three years, he rented shop space from G++nter De Vries, a German cabinetmaker. "That was where I learned the basics. The rest [I] learned from my mistakes and from adopting a scientific approach to furnituremaking by keeping a log with sketches and information about how long a project was taking," he says.
Over the past 30 years, there have been many elements in Orvedal's background that have contributed to who he is as a custom furniture maker. He says he has always enjoyed making things and feels that he has a strong engineering sense.
His design sense, though, is mostly driven by what pleases him. Overdal's approach to commissioned pieces allows for a kind of three-way interplay between his own sense about a piece and his ego as an artist; his customer's ideas and needs; and how the piece will develop.
"After the customer and I have gone back and forth about details of a piece and I actually start building it, the piece seems to take on a life of its own," he says.
Orvedal says his chemistry background helps him with the finishing process. At first he recalls trying to be creative with his own finishes. But he says he soon realized that the commercial finishes available were "so good," and it made more sense for him to use them instead.
Overdal also says his time in the repair business directed his attention to flaws and weaknesses in furniture designs that he has been able to overcome in his own pieces. For example, "The rockers on rocking chairs tend to break because the spot where the back leg is mortised to the rocker is weak. I have been developing a design for a rocking chair for 10 years [to combat this]," he says.
In 1976, Orvedal moved 15 miles from Lawrence to an 80-acre plot that is both his home and a separate 1,200-square-foot workshop. This was one more step, he adds, in buying into a lifestyle that seems to be central to many custom furniture makers.
"It is a beautiful spot. My shop is my refuge. It is where I like to be," he says. "I have plenty of work that comes from repeat business and word-of-mouth. And if I were to try to build my business, have employees, advertise, use e-mail, have a Web site and all of that, I would become a manager and not [be] a furniture maker."
After working in his shop, Orvedal says he likes to spend time outdoors because he is a wood "hound." Since his reputation for finding and collecting wood has grown, after storms he gets lots of calls with offers of wood.
Moreover, he says he often gets commissions from people wanting a piece of furniture made from a favorite tree on their property. A notable example is credenza tables that he made for the Shawnee County Public Library. They were made from an old red oak tree that once stood in front of the library. It was removed from the library's property to make way for a planned expansion. "The tree was older than Topeka itself, and an important landmark," he says.
Most of the oak's trunk was badly decayed, so Orvedal had to use wood from the two large limbs. The tops were edge laminated using 3-inch to 5-inch-wide strips of sound limb wood. The strips were template-routed along mating curves to follow the grain of the limb wood.
Creative projects like this keep Orvedal's work interesting, he adds, and they are also what keeps customers coming in.
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