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Custom-made furniture starts with good design aesthetic: Master craftsman

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Custom-made furniture has a soul, said master craftsman Daryl Evans, proprietor of Masterpiece Woodworks in Avon who uses centuries-old skills – combined with cutting-edge building techniques – to produce one-of-a-kind creations. Unlike impersonal, mass-produced goods, great rooms are often anchored by handmade pieces built especially for the space. “We are creating heirlooms that can be handed down from generation to generation, whether it’s a lovely walnut dining table with gilded trim or a mirrored dressing table,” said Evans.

Q: Joiner, planer, drills – what’s your favorite tool?
A: The sliding table saw has taken the mystery out of woodworking. For years, I used a traditional table saw, because I wondered, ‘How is that going to work for me?’ But I finally gave in, and found that the sliding table saw can tackle almost anything. We have a lot of other great machines, but many of them sit there, while the saws are going all the time. As far as hand tools, the offset chisel is a tool I’ve had forever, allowing me to get in really close.

Q: Why would a designer or client ask you to custom make a piece of furniture rather than just purchasing ready-made?
A: We compete with places like the Design Center showrooms, but people with good design skills and creativity often want to fashion something that’s distinctive and tailored to every whim. The possibilities are endless, whether it’s a faithful antique reproduction or a very contemporary installation. Most of our clients aren’t movie stars or athletes but low-profile business people, just good old money, if you will.

Q: What’s an example of a recent project?
A: The trend to flat screen TVs means a lot of homeowners are rethinking the traditional media cabinet. Recently we put together a cabinet with figured walnut veneer; the doors have a framework that features a distinctive covering of silky horsehair. The cabinets are touch latch and the interior has customized components for equipment below the TV. There’s a lot of modern accommodations and intricacy. The cabinet looks simple but in reality is much harder to accomplish.

Q: What is the process to create a custom piece? How long does it take?
A: There’s a lot of planning before you even cut a stick of wood. The building is almost secondary. It’s generally a 16-week turnaround, although we can knock out a few coffee tables in six weeks or so if we need to. Using hand-tools only might sound romantic but is not always best thing to do. Hand carving, for example, can be time-consuming especially when new technology like the CNC (computer controlled) router does so much for you. The design is created in CAD drawings then goes right to the router to cut out certain parts, but there is also tons of bench work, including hand-fitting and assembly. Then it goes up to the next floor for finishing, which is like science and chemistry to perfect the process.

Q: All wood naturally changes and shifts – how does this affect the design?
A: Wood always moves when moisture is absorbed or shed, and different woods move at different rates. It’s best to plan for that; a drawer-face, for example, could might grow and shrink so you need to accommodate for this. Plywood and veneer actually have a lot more stability than solid wood. The best approach is to use substrates then work in solid wood where you have to. Another issue with wood are the defects, such as cracks, uneven grain and knots; walnut, for example, is a beautiful wood, but you throw away as much as you use, unless the defects are part of the look and patina of the piece.

Q: What designers inspire you?
A: Karl Springer, that guy was awesome. He started the trend of covering furniture with goat and snakeskin. Similarly, we just completed a piece covered in parchment goatskin; it gives an interesting effect.

Q: Why do you not make seating?
A: A chair takes a lot of abuse – it has to be strong, comfortable and, in my book, good-looking. By the time you figure this all out and do mock-ups, it’s hard to be economical and offer an affordable price point; you would need to make a whole bunch of chairs at one time to make it work. There’s also a ton of seating options available already. I have to admit, though, every time I see a good-looking chair, I think ‘I would love to do that.’ Kitchens are another niche that we don’t do – kitchens have their own standards and dimensions.

Q: What furniture do you have in your own home that you made in your shop?
A: The last thing I made was a traditional, hand-planed oak trestle-style dining table with breadboard end. There’s a nice decorative etagere in the kitchen that my wife puts all her china in. My daughter has a whole roomful of stuff, including a built-in bed with side tables and shelving. And someday, what I really want to do, is make lamps.

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