Chris Bowman - Contemporary Furniture Goes Classic
November 1, 2005 | 6:35 pm CST


Chris Bowman
Indianapolis, IN

Year Founded: 2000

Employees: 1

Shop Size: 800 square feet

FYI: Chris Bowman combines layers of milk paint with hand distressing to create 3-D, multi-hued finishes. In his spare time, the custom woodworker is an avid mountain bike racer.

With just a few strokes of his paintbrush and some vintage finishing materials, custom woodworker Chris Bowman adds a unique, modern look to his sculptural pieces of furniture, which are sold in galleries throughout the United States.

Bowman applies layers of "old-fashioned" milk paint over portions of smooth and distressed wood to create the multi-hued and faceted looks characteristic of his studio furniture. Milk paint, which has been around for hundreds of years, is made from natural milk protein mixed with lime, natural pigments and water. Bowman says he prefers milk paint over other finishing materials because of its durability and fast drying time. It also is biodegradable and contains no volatile organic compounds.

"The milk paint dries quickly and sands very nicely, so you can layer and expose different colors underneath. The first layer comes out pretty opaque at first, so I use at least four layers of each color to get a rich look," Bowman says.

"I also like to combine layers of different colors. Depending on the type of texture used, the sanding [of the color layers] will expose different [intensities] of the colors underneath," he adds.

This decorative clock incorporates old treadmill decking which has been painted in multiple colors and textured.


Many of his studio pieces also display a smooth transition from one color to another in the same layer. Bowman says he does this by hand, using a wiping cloth to blend the colors. "There are other times when I'll wipe off the paint when it's still wet, so the color just gets into the textures," he adds.

After painting, the finished wood is hand rubbed with steel wool "to give it a fine sheen," Bowman says. After he burnishes the painted areas, a coating of Sam Maloof polyoil sealer is applied to all wood surfaces.

"The polyoil seals the wood and gives it a gloss finish. It not only gives protection, it is also the most natural-looking finish for wood and gives a nice sheen to the paint," Bowman adds.

Although Bowman typically uses the milk paint as a single ingredient, he says that it also can be mixed with other materials, such as acrylics, to give better adhesion onto other media. In addition to solid wood - primarily poplar, mahogany, cherry and walnut - Bowman also uses copper, glass and other "reclaimed" materials in his projects.

"Reclaimed" is an appropriate choice of word by Bowman, who has been known to use atypical materials in his furniture. For example, to construct the body of a decorative floor clock, Bowman used the decking from a an old treadmill designated for junk. "I've also used salvaged lumber from old barns, cement and old copper pipes in some of my projects," he says.

Adding Texture


This "Boat Table" is made from cherry and poplar woods and finished in blue, green, red and yellow milk paint. Texturing enhances the legs and base, bringing added depth and color to the table. Three small drawers in the base add another level of functionality to the piece.
By shaping, painting and texturing the wood, Bowman adds a contemporary dimension to his pieces.
Bowman employs a number of methods for adding texture, including gouging and grinding. "I'll use an angle grinder a lot of times or take a hand chisel and gouge divets in the wood. I'll also cut lines for another type of [effect]," he says.

"The texturing and painting often take as long, or longer, as building the project," Bowman adds.

While the finish is drying on one project, Bowman is already at work on another. He typically has three or four jobs - benches, tables, clocks or chairs - in progress at the same time in the 800-square-foot shop located adjacent to his home in Indianapolis, IN.

Inside the shop, an array of hand tools are used in conjunction with a variety of standard machines. Among the equipment is: an 8-inch Grizzly jointer, DeWalt and Jet saws, and a Delta 15-inch planer, bench grinder and 12-inch edge sander.

Creating Functional Art

Bowman has made a successful career selling his one-of-a-kind wood tables, clocks, benches, chairs and other pieces of studio furniture through galleries and art shows. However, he is the first to admit that woodworking was not his first career choice.

Part of Bowman's Recollection Series, this memory box end table is constructed of birch plywood and poplar and finished with yellow, green and red milk paint. The design work on the top was made by texturing with an angle grinder after painting.
A talented artist, Bowman originally majored in painting while at The Herron School of Art/Purdue University in Indiana. He says he soon realized that it was not what he wanted for a career.

"A friend talked me into taking a woodworking class, and it was a real eye opener. When I first started, the Arts and Crafts style was a big influence. It wasn't until later that I was exposed to a lot of studio furniture. Now, I guess I would classify my work as a type of art-studio furniture," he says.

While the finish adds to the piece's artistic appeal, also integral are the curves, carvings and other artistic touches added by Bowman. "I always liked sculpture, but I couldn't justify it - furniture needs some type of purpose," he says. "All my pieces are decorative yet functional to a point - or at least hint at function."

One of his more popular projects is the Recollection Series of memory box tables. Inset into the tabletop is space for storing a prized memento, such as an heirloom piece of jewelry. A glass top enables the table to be fully functional.

Advice for New Woodworkers

Since receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Herron School of Art/Purdue University in 2000, Chris Bowman has enjoyed commercial success in selling his artistic furniture pieces in galleries throughout the United States. For new woodworkers hoping to break into the business, he offers the following advice:

  1. Exhibit in local and national shows. "Coming out of school, I tried to get into as many exhibits as I could," Bowman says. "From just one show, someone may see your work and invite you to exhibit in other showings."
  2. Search out the Web sites of galleries for information on submitting projects for consideration. Be sure to submit professional quality slides or artwork of the piece to be considered. Also, expect to pay for shipping the project to the gallery.
  3. Be patient.
"I enjoy making the memory box tables. I try to make each one look a little different," he says. Each piece of furniture is signed and dated by Bowman before being shipped for sale.

Bowman's work can be seen in galleries across the United States, including: Tercera Gallery, Palo Alto, CA; Function+Art, Chicago, IL; Mobilia Gallery, Cambridge, MA; and Domont Studio Gallery, Indianapolis, IN. He also has participated in a variety of art shows, including the recent Curv-iture, a juried exhibition of furniture sponsored by The Furniture Society.




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About the author
Karen Koenig | Editor

Karen M. Koenig has more than 30 years of experience in the woodworking industry, including visits to wood products manufacturing facilities throughout North America, Europe and Asia. As editor of special publications under the Woodworking Network brand, including the Red Book Best Practices resource guide and website, Karen’s responsibilities include writing, editing and coordinating of editorial content. She is also a contributor to FDMC and other Woodworking Network online and print media owned by CCI Media. She can be reached at [email protected]