Thursday, December 30, 2010


There seems to be a lot of confusion around the term used to describe people who make things from wood.
I once had an architect introduce me to his client as his “millworker”. This, I guess because I often produced and installed millwork to his design.
A “millworker” as far as I know is not a trade. It is definitely not the name for the trade of people who make and install millwork. A millworker would be a general term for someone who works in a mill. A sawmill, a pulp mill or whatever. More specific names would be used to describe the various occupations and trades within the mill.
I recently saw this ad posted by a company that makes and installs architectural woodwork, cabinets and millwork:

Positions Available

William Ronald Millwork (not the real name) is growing. We need qualified persons.

Painter / Finisher
Minimum three years experience with highend finishing.

Minimum five years experience, familiar with all aspects of woodworking, blueprint reading is a must.

Cabinet Installers and Assemblers
Minimum two years of production experience.

Please call for more job information and requirements.

The thing that caught my attention was the position for “Millright”.
This ad was placed on the website of a large company boasting 35,000 square feet of production space for cabinets and architectural woodwork.

Amazingly, whoever placed the ad does not know the difference between a Joiner (cabinetmaker) and a Millright. Worse still, they spelled Millwright incorrectly.

Here in the lower mainland of British Columbia the main educational facility training people for the trades is BCIT. Here are the descriptions for the relevant trades discussed here, taken from the BCIT web site:

A carpenter assembles and erects falsework as well as forms for concrete, wood and metal frame construction, and installs interior and exterior finishing metals for residential, commercial and industrial projects while conforming to plans, specifications and local building codes. The apprenticeship process requires time spent on the job supplemented by in-school training. Apprentices who have completed Carpentry Entry Level Training receive credit for the first level of the apprentice training. Apprentices that have completed the BCIT Carpentry Framing and Forming Certificate of Trades Training will receive credit for levels one and two of the apprentice training and 450 work-based hours credit towards their time in trade. A carpentry apprentice must complete a four-year program including 5,000 workplace hours and 720 in-school hours of training completed in four levels of training, each for six weeks. After completion and achievement of a passing grade, the apprentice will hold the B.C.Certificate of Apprenticeship, B.C. Certificate of Qualification, and the Interprovincial Standard Endorsement also known as Red Seal.

Joinery (cabinetmaker)
Do you know what a Joiner is? A Joiner will layout, machine, assemble, install and finish products that are fabricated from wood, plastics and other materials. Many of these processes will combine conventional techniques with automated (CNC/CAD/CAM) procedures.
Joiners work in these areas for example:
• Architectural Woodwork (Millwork)
• Cabinets
• Commercial furnishings
• Residential furnishings
• Yacht interiors
• Specialty items
To become a certified journeyperson, you need to complete four years of apprenticeship training. Apprenticeship is a time-proven method of acquiring skills in the trade by combining technical in-school instruction with practical on-the-job training. Apprenticeship training is the best method for passing along trade skills from one generation to the next.

Millwrights are often described as masters of all trades as they are expected to install, maintain and repair all types of machinery in almost any industry. Millwrights install, repair, overhaul and maintain all types of machinery and heavy mechanical equipment. They work from plans and blueprints and install equipment and align parts or components. Millwrights also maintain and repair machinery as required. They learn how to use grinders and lathes so they can make their own parts if necessary. Maintenance includes cleaning and lubricating, or adjusting valves and seals. They must inspect and examine the equipment to find and investigate problems and breakdowns, although some millwrights specialize in installation of machinery only.

There you have it. The company with the ad mentioned above is looking for a Joiner (cabinetmaker) not a “millright”.

I hope they find one.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


We recently had the privilege of exhibiting at IDSwest 2010. This was our 5th year. Originally the show was called DV Decorate Vancouver, which gives you an idea of the naïve optimism of its founders. (The topic of Interior Designer verses Interior Decorator is worth discussion on its own)
None the less, they had vision and recognised that Vancouver was large enough to support a public show devoted to interior design (or interior decorating as they called it at the time). More importantly, the founders of this show had and continue to have enthusiasm, and commitment, qualities essential to the continued success of this venture.

For the local and not so local designer / maker / woodworker, aside from “culture crawls”, this is the only venue in Vancouver I know of where they can showcase their work and meet the public.

This year’s event took place in the new Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, a very impressive facility built not without controversy as construction costs went out of control prior to the winter Olympics. It was built without a business plan and at a cost $346 million higher than B.C. taxpayers had been promised. (Original budget: $495 million. Final bill: $841.2 million.)

Two things I like about the new trade and convention centre are the use of BC wood and the choice of relevant art. There is a great collage of archival photos and original works by Ian Wallace and BC Binning among others. A number of the archival photos depict cruel and violent events perpetrated by the government and police. I was impressed and surprised to see these.

Our experience this year as exhibitors was the best yet. The logistics were vastly improved over previous years. Although I recognised many of the exhibit staff, they were different people. They were well co-ordinated, helpful, and kind. This is no small achievement given the circumstances.

Other woodworkers often ask me if they think that they should be exhibiting at IDSwest. In answer to that I would ask; what do you expect from exhibiting? If it is immediate sales this is not the show for you. IDSwest in my experience is about building new relationships and re-kindling existing ones. It’s largely a social event, and as we know, especially in this business, it’ all about relationships.
For a small business like ours the financial and time commitments are considerable. You have to enjoy doing it in order to justify it.

Two other significant differences I noticed at this year’s event were, one, the lack of green washing. In previous years there were always a number of exhibitors touting their supposed “green” superiority. I saw almost none of this in 2010. I attribute this at least in part to the unfortunate reality that so much of the so called “green” movement on the part of manufacturers and retailers is really only a matter of fashion, and that the “fad” seems to have passed.

The other noticeably absent contingent was the “design scouts” or whatever we might call attendees with cameras collecting ideas for immediate appropriation. I guess with all the great design on internet blogs it is no longer necessary to leave the office or factory to gain access to them.

On the topic of "green" practices and sustainability I was amazed at the waste created by the show itself. A number of exhibitors build large booths from scratch, on site then when the show is over simply chuck the whole thing into a dumpster destined for the land fill.

One flooring exhibitor tore up hundreds of square feet of new laminate flooring and tossed it. Another had a display with large stone tiles glued to plywood. Rather than dis-assembling it for later use, they smashed the whole thing up with hammers and threw it out. What a waste and what a chore.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Its back, IDSwest. And we will be exhibiting again this year, in the new venue, the new Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre.
This has become the main event for Interior Design in Vancouver and for many people designing and making in wood, this is one of the few opportunities to bring their work to the public and especially to those with a special interest in design.
Its also a great place to network and socialize with colleagues and old friends.
We have a limited number of free passes, if you would like one send us an email

Saturday, August 28, 2010


In the early 1970’s when I began my career in woodworking one of my first jobs was as a finishing carpenter working for a contractor from Yugoslavia. With the exception of me and one other carpenter all of the crew were recent immigrants from Yugoslavia. I remember one of my first days on the job; I needed to rip some wood on the table saw. I donned my safety glasses and proceeded with the task. The other carpenters watched me as I worked and when I was finished they mocked me for my use of safety glasses. They told me that using safety glasses was “Canadian” and by inference, wimpy. When they ripped material on the table saw they simply squinted to protect their eyes from slivers and projectiles. Perhaps Yugoslavians had developed stronger eyelashes from thousands of years of evolution. Probably not, the table saw has only been around for a few hundred years. No what these fellows had in common was macho moronic bravado. This, like the habit of whistling at passing women and long haired guys by workers on construction sites, I assumed was a thing of the past.

Not so according to a young fellow who dropped by my shop recently looking for an apprenticeship. This fellow, let’s call him Erik, had taken the entry level trades training for joinery at BCIT and had worked for four months for one of the larger millwork shops in the Vancouver area, this shop was a member of the industry association AWMAC. We chatted for some time about the state of the industry, apprenticeships, and his experiences so far. One of the things that caught his attention in my shop was the panel saw and specifically that the splitter and dust hood, stock safety features were in use. He was impressed because at his former employers these devices were simply removed and discarded as a matter of routine. When he inquired to his foreman why the splitter (the fin like piece of metal behind the blade) was removed he was told that it was "in the way”. He could not get an answer to the question “in the way of what?”

The splitter as shown in the photo above is one of the most ingenious safety features I have seen on a table saw, especially a sliding panel saw. I use my saw for both panels and solid wood. The splitter virtually eliminates the possibility of kickbacks, one of the most serious hazards with these machines. The only situation where the splitter can get in the way is when cutting a kerf part way through the material. In this case the splitter is easily removed in a matter of minutes.

The dust hood which catches as much as 50% of the airborne dust also acts as a very important safety feature preventing the operator from coming in contact with the moving blade. The only time this device is in the way is when ripping narrow parts against the fence. It has a lever on the top which allows the operator to easily lift the hood out of the way allowing the use of a push stick.

Many things disturbed me about Erik’s experience regarding safety procedures on his first job. It is difficult to attract good people to the joinery trade. Maybe part of the reason is because of these stupid attitudes that persist in the industry. It is one thing for a tradesperson to decide for himself to forgo the benefit of a safety device or procedure on the job and take a risk with life and limb but it is quite another to force an apprentice to take that risk by discarding safety devices and preventing him or her from using their own instinct and discretion.

Of course these foolish attitudes toward safety also negatively affect the bottom line for the business, which of course affects wages, which of course affects the ability to attract quality people to the joinery trade.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


This is a true storey. The other day I was having a coffee break at a café near my shop. I was sitting outside on the patio. A middle aged couple sat down at a table nearby. As the woman was putting down her coffee and pulling up a chair she remarked to her male companion “this is such a nice café, I love what they’ve done with the tables and counter tops, I think it’s a kind of Birdseye Maple”.

The table tops and counters are in fact made from a type of OSB, a low cost panel often used as sheathing, with a lumpy thick layer of glossy epoxy resin pored over them.

The image at the top is an actual table top. The image at the bottom is real Birdseye Maple.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


VIRTU was a national furniture design competition organized by a group called Forum & Function Directions in Canadian Design, led by Ester Shipman.
The format of the exhibition was to invite designers to submit pieces. All those accepted were “winners” and became part of the exhibition. Some works not accepted were given “honourable mention” and photos of these pieces were also displayed as part of the exhibition.
This annual competition seems to have spanned a period of about twelve years beginning in 1985 and ending in 1996. I am not able to come up with much by “googling” but here is something from CBC radio on the jury process.

The images here are the front and back of the flyer used to publicize the event. I had the good fortune of exhibiting four pieces in this inaugural event as well as having an image of one of my chairs used for all of the publicity materials and the exhibition catalogue. The publicity materials were designed by Bruce Mau.
It’s interesting to note that these competitions ceased around the time that personal computers and the internet became common. 1995 was the year that Windows ’95 was introduced and the year that I acquired a personal computer and started designing with CAD.
Furniture design of course has changed in Canada over the past twenty five years. Styles and fads have come and gone.
I am not aware of any national Canadian furniture design competitions or exhibitions taking place since the end of Virtu. Of course there are trade shows, industry events such as IDS in Toronto and IDSwest in Vancouver. These are not competitions or juried exhibitions but trade shows, provided they meet a basic criterion, anybody who pays the price is part of the show.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


As a designer and craftsperson who has designed and made many chairs, seeing this piece inspires all kinds of reflection on design, craft and manufacturing, too much to put down here, but I would like to say a few things and hopefully, others will have something to add.

This chair the DC09, designed by Inoda + Sveje and made by Japanese manufacturer Miyazaki Isu is a great example of how far fine, wood furniture making has come with the help of automation. When I first saw this chair, I assumed it was the work of a highly skilled craftsperson with a very refined design sense. In reality it is the work of a team of industrial designers and technicians. Indeed, for a craftsperson, working with conventional hand and power tools to produce a piece like this would be a major challenge-as a one off. To re-produce the piece in a quantity, with consistency would be masterful.

In terms of design, it is a kind of highbred between the work of studio furniture maker Sam Maloof and industrial designer Hans Wegner.

Apparently, the retail price for this chair is 1300 to 2500 Euros or 1662 to 3196 Canadian dollars, depending on the wood choice.

Most so called “studio furniture makers” in the Vancouver area do not make chairs. Chairs have always been considered more challenging than tables or cabinets, and for that reason, designing and making (a good) chair is daunting to some and irresistible to others. That is one of the reasons that chairs are considered iconic.
Many architects have designed chairs as a way of demonstrating their talent and ability with the three dimensional structural form-on a small scale.

One of the things that distinguish this chair from other similarly refined, wood, industrial designs is the candid way in which the designers depict the production process. We see no photos of mythical craftsmen with hand planes and chisels, or fine toothed Japanese pull saws. All we see are the chair parts being carved by a five axis cnc router.
In fact, I have asked myself recently, when I see the stereotypical depiction of the traditional woodworker pushing a hand plane with fine shavings falling to the floor; do people today recognize these tools and processes anymore? Sure, many still do, but in this digital age, with the loss of what used to be called “vocational training” or shop class in schools and people growing up in high density urban situations more people may be able to understand the image of automation than the image of hand woodwork.

How does automation in woodworking affect the studio furniture maker? Is it a threat or an opportunity? Is it a force against which they cannot compete? When you form a team made up of the best designers and technicians using the best software and automated machinery with the advantages of mass production, combine that with the cheapest labour markets, the most effective marketing and distribution, it doesn’t look promising.
However, things are much more complex…………… be continued.

Monday, May 24, 2010


There was a time not long ago, say twenty or twenty five years ago when investing in real estate by buying a workshop space was a realistic part of the business / retirement plan for small trades shops like woodworkers, metalworkers, upholsterers etc.
Unless you have a big pile of cash, those days are gone.
Here is an example of what you might get today, and what you can expect to pay for it. This building is in East Vancouver, where most small woodworking businesses are located. It is close to 1000 Parker, a huge old furniture factory now divided into many small units and rented to numerous artists and craftspeople.

Francis Lemieux

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


On a recent trip to Victoria BC a friend took me to visit a few of the local retailers specializing in modern wood furniture. One of those was called Design House. When we arrived at their downtown location we found that the store had recently changed hands. Unfortunately, I did not make a note of the new name, but the product line is similar, with mostly imported products and a few locally produced pieces.
What was most interesting about this store was the lengthy sales pitch delivered by the salesperson who welcomed us. She emphasized that a specific chair although made in China was made from FSC certified wood. I did not ask to see the chain of custody documentation and would have been surprised if she were able to produce it. The chair in question was a wood frame lounge chair with upholstered seat and back.
I guess this is a pretty typical case of “green washing”. An attempt is made to make the product appear to be a more environmentally responsible choice for the purchaser by drawing their attention to a relatively insignificant “green” factor in its production in order to distract them from considering all of the other negative environmental and social implications of producing it in unknown conditions using other unknown materials, foam and fabric, then shipping it half way around the globe with all the resulting emissions.
Another interesting fact she offered was that many of the “Italian” products they sell are actually made in China. The wood is shipped from North America to China where the product is manufactured; the product is then shipped to Italy and from there shipped to international distributors as an Italian design.
According to Stewart Brand in the “Whole Earth Discipline”, commercial shipping is responsible for 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Furniture is bulky and takes up a lot of container space.
Clearly, whether or not the wood in this furniture is sourced from a supplier that employs appropriate standards as defined by FSC is irrelevant when all the other environmental factors involved in its production and distribution are considered.
According to Jeff Rubin in “Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller”, all of this silliness will come to an end when the cost of oil rises to the point where it has the effect of prohibitive import duties. Apparently that future is not far off. And when it comes, suggests Rubin we will return to manufacturing things closer to home.
Notwithstanding all of the negative economic implications of more expensive oil, this could be a positive thing for woodworkers and furniture makers as well as the environment.
Sourcing manufactured products closer to home in considered the better environmental choice and furniture is a product that can be manufactured almost anywhere. The main reason our furniture comes from distant locations is because under current conditions, it is cheaper. If those conditions change and it becomes more competitive to produce it locally that should cause resurgence for the local industry.
It will never be practical to produce all manufactured products locally. Some things like steel production need to be done on a large scale. But furniture is a simple product that can be produced by small manufacturers with minimal technology.
Of course, if the cheap, throw away furniture now being manufactured in countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam is no longer available due to the rising cost of oil, people here will have to pay higher prices for furniture. This can be offset by value, higher quality products that last longer. For those who cannot afford new higher quality domestically produced furniture there will be the re-sale or second hand option. Many people change their furniture when they change their living situation, or simply when they tire of it. But unlike disposable furniture they will be able to re-purpose it through consignment stores or internet sites.
Currently we have a finite supply of used furniture available to us. Almost none of it is domestically produced, that stuff is long gone, and there is virtually no resale value in the cheap imported product available through stores such as Ikea. Most quality re-sale or used furniture on offer is mid-century Danish Teak or similar products. Much of it is being imported in bulk from Denmark. Importing this used furniture will no longer be practical or necessary as this market will also be affected by the higher cost of oil.

Francis Lemieux


Wednesday, March 17, 2010


As I write this The Wood Co-op is in the process of shutting down, permanently.
Here is the story in a nutshell. (a big nutshell)

This early history is taken word-for-word from “The Wood Co-op Guide for Directors 2009”.

Early History
Following a series of telephone conferences (which included representatives of small wood businesses and business-associations), a two-day meeting of some fifty interested persons was organized in 1998 by the Value Added Business Unit of Forest Renewal BC. When this meeting was held in Vancouver (at the University of British Columbia forestry quadrant), the idea of a self-sustaining, legally incorporated co-operative was advocated by forestry-economics consultant Ian Leask and by a sizable number of the participants who had come in from various regions of the province for the meeting.
Small wood businesses were regarded as owner-operated ones, with generally anywhere from one to five employees (and with ownership by as few as one but possibly equal to the number of all hands-on employees). These businesses might include ones making furniture (indoor or outdoor), home accents, specialty lumber, secondary-processed wood materials, or smaller items like giftware, toys, artful craft objects etc. The participants in the 1998 meeting were keenly aware of the disadvantaged commercial position of small wood businesses outside of the Lower Mainland.
Key areas of interest included market access, marketing information, and goods –and services-purchasing programs. By the end of the second day of this gathering, an ad hoc founding committee sat and resolved to proceed toward the establishment of this sort of organization.
Conceptualization and incorporation steps required some weeks. Incorporation as “British Columbia Associations cooperative of Small Wood Businesses” was achieved by April 1999. The first directors on the board both represented woodworking organizations from around the province, and they consulted with individual small woodworking businesses. Hence the initial concept of the Wood Co-op was inclusive of all regions of the province.
A bit more than a year after incorporation, the Wood Co-op secured a good location for a retail sales outlet. In July 2000, the Co-op opened the Wood Co-op Gallery – the first important service-providing project for Co-op members and associate members, and the first of the Co-op’s business functions.
The Wood Co-op received “seed money” from Forest Renewal BC to establish itself and set up its first commercial enterprise on the secured business site on Granville Island, in Vancouver. However, the Co-op Board realized that governments and political climate are subject to change and that the principle of financial self-reliance should guide the Co-op’s future path. Hence, the Wood Co-op Gallery and any other commercial enterprises undertaken by the Wood Co-op are expected to be self sustaining and even to earn net revenue which can be used to cover the Co-op’s expenses and, ideally, fund the Co-op’s further activities.

Reflecting on this document, a few things stand out and need to be clarified for their current significance.
Forest Renewal BC was an entity or initiative of the NDP BC government of the time. I believe the premier was Mike Harcourt and the minister of forests was Andrew Petter (the now-new president of Simon Fraser University) It was created to stimulate value added forestry initiatives in BC. Some of the other things that it did that I am aware of were to create a furniture design program at Kootenay School of the Arts, and to subsidize the membership fee for BC Wood Specialties so that any company with $50.00 per year could join. Those were the good old days!

The Wood Co-op Gallery, the entity that we are currently lamenting the loss of, was always a project of the Wood Co-op organization. As it turns out, it was the only project of this organization.
The board of directors of the Wood Co-op were not the directors of the Wood Co-op Gallery. The Wood Co-op Gallery had no board of directors, but the board of directors of The Wood Co-op directed The Wood Co-op Gallery. Sound confusing? It was. It should also be pointed out that the Wood Co-op was not made up of individual artists and people making things out of wood, but by member organizations, such as the Fraser Valley Woodworkers Guild and the Vancouver Island Woodworkers Guild. Individual woodworkers had almost no involvement in the operations of the Wood Co-op Gallery, unless they were on the board of The Wood Co-op.
Another point is that the site “secured” on Granville Island was anything but secure. This site, which must be one of the prime retail locations in Vancouver was stumbled upon by happenstance. The Wood Co-op Gallery was given this space on a month to month rental agreement that lasted for about nine years. The space had formerly been used as an information centre and came complete with fixtures. It was an incredible stroke of luck for The Wood Co-op, and The Wood Co-op Gallery.
When the Wood Co-op Gallery first set up shop in this Granville Island location it was mostly stocked with wood products from the rural areas of BC. There was virtually no representation from the lower mainland which reflected the vision of the Wood Co-op organization at the time.
Eventually, under the direction of Laura Friesen, who was gallery director for the time the gallery existed on Granville Island the wood products on offer evolved to reflect the tastes of the clientele. Laura encouraged artists to refine their designs to reflect an international, modern perspective. The gallery also undertook various initiatives with Emily Carr University of Art + Design, with special wood product design exhibitions.

Over time, I think that the market honed the product mix in the Wood Co-op Gallery, things that were shipped from various parts of the province that did not sell after an agreed upon time period were shipped back to the maker. Products that were successfully sold were re-stocked. Through this process, the product mix was refined.
The Co-op was always aware of the insecurity of its location and had been in negotiation with the management of Granville Island to secure a more permanent location on Railspur Street. The partial roof collapse during a snow storm was the single event that lead to the ultimate demise of the gallery. When this happened the gallery was given two weeks to vacate. Granville Island management offered The Wood Co-op a temporary space approximately 10% the size of its original location in the Netloft building. They also provided office space in the Railspur Street location.
Ultimately, The Wood Co-op was unable to come to an agreement with Granville Island to renovate and occupy the Railspur location, leaving two options; fold or move off Granville Island. It was decided to find a location near Granville Island for the larger work such as furniture and wall pieces and to retain the small Netloft location on Granville Island to exhibit the smaller works. It was hoped that this arrangement would help to direct clientele from Granville Island to the new location, as well as continuing to serve the tourist clientele interested in smaller items.
The timing could not have been worse. The new gallery on 6th Avenue was opened in mid November, a very slow month for furniture. The economy was in recession, especially effecting discretionary spending and Vancouver was competely distracted by the upcoming winter olympics. It was hoped that the large number of olympic visitors to Granville Island would be interested in locally produced unique products, but instead, some two hundred and fifty thousand people spent all their money on food, booze and olympic souvenirs. The areas around the olympic venues were packed with people and the rest of the city was dead.

The approximately nine years of success of The Wood Co-op Gallery can be attributed mostly to the prime Granville Island location. The customers just rolled in the door and the staff served them.
The long and short of it is that the loss of the Wood Co-op Gallery is a significant loss for artists even remotely related to wood in Vancouver and to the public, both local and visiting.
Whether such a thing can be re-created in the future seems unlikely. It was born by serendipity and killed by accident.
I think the value of the institution to the cultural and economic diversity of Vancouver and British Columbia is without question, but whether that will ever be officially recognized by the powers that be, or will be, who knows?

Here are a few comments from people on the loss of The Wood Co-op Gallery.!/event.php?eid=389390343082&ref=mf

This is very sad news indeed, particularly coming when studio
furniture is finally getting serious profile. The Coop has done a
huge amount to educate the public in this new cultural industry; all
of us in the business will be the poorer for their demise.

regards, Celia
Celia Duthie
Salt Spring Woodworks
125 Churchill Road
Salt Spring Island, BC
V8K 2R3 / 250-537-9606

As more comments come in I will add them to this post.
Francis Lemieux

Sunday, February 14, 2010


It’s interesting how a few minutes of conversation can influence your thought and perception for years while millions of words go in one ear and out the other.
I remember a customer coming to my workshop some years ago in a small Ontario town. This man wanted to have his kitchen cabinets replaced and had come to me, a cabinetmaker to do the job. I was in my early twenties at the time and he would have been twenty five or thirty years older. After he had explained what he was looking for I asked him if he had a design or if he needed me to do that part of the job as well. He reacted with suspicion and confusion and replied, “What design? I just want you to build it”. I did not have a lot of experience at the time in dealing with people, especially people my parent’s age who were suspicious that I was trying to take them to the cleaners with fancy talk about design. The customer left and I never heard from him again.
This experience has stayed with me for several decades and I still try to understand what happened. The conversation with the customer ended abruptly because he thought that I was bull shitting him when I tried to make a distinction between the design and the making of his kitchen cabinets.
I think perhaps that this experience also represents a change in the way that this type of work, the making of things is done. At one time, I am sure that carpenters, cabinetmakers and other trades simply designed and built almost simultaneously without a distinction between the design and realization of the job, much like the way one might dig a ditch, you just dig and adjust your digging until you have the ditch you want. You might spend of few minutes leaning on your shovel thinking about it, but you would not have distinguished this as the design part of the job.
The question is; can we separate design from making? Of course we can. It’s done all the time, more and more, in architecture and construction, industrial design and manufacturing. Even in art. Many artists never technically make anything although, in my experience, there is a lot more collaboration between the artist conceiving the work and the tradesperson executing it than is generally acknowledged. This is often the case with design professionals as well.
Some design professionals and trades people embrace their inter dependence and others resent it.
Recently I looked at all of the websites of architects who are members of the AIBC. I think there were more than one hundred members with sites. As I recall, only one of these sites showed images of the architects engaged with the building part of their projects, or buildings under construction. (Incidentally that one architect was a customer of mine and the building site represented was his own home.) All of the other web sites showed the architects either working at a computer, or sketching at a meeting table and images of finished projects. Interestingly, architects often use the term “build” when referring to their work rather than “design”, as in “we recently built a large home in Whistler”, when, in reality, they had nothing to do with the actual building work.
I ran into an architect friend of mine recently, who made this mistake when telling me what he had been up to lately. I didn’t say a word but I think he could tell from my face that I was not comfortable with his use of the word “build”. He backed tracked and said “well I don’t mean I actually built it. I designed it”.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Recently I have been asked my opinion on the value of FSC certification for small woodworking shops.
It’s difficult for me to offer advice to other woodworkers as to whether or not they should get certified but I can share with them my own experience.
About six years ago I was contacted by an architect named Omer Arbell, who was working at the time for Busby Associates, a firm specializing in “green” or “sustainable” design. Omer was looking for FSC certified woodworking firms to supply millwork for a demo project they were doing called “The Sustainable Condo”. It was a full size mock-up of a small condo designed to be “sustainable” or “green”. Omer was lamenting the fact that at the time his choice was limited to one firm, Ornamentum.
Given the very tight time constraints there was not much I could do to help with this particular project, but I did get the impression that this was a growing field and that demand for FSC certified millwork and wood products would grow. I also thought that this might be a new segment of the industry where the focus was not only on cost and a fast turn-around time, but that there was a new emerging community of like minded businesses interested in doing the right thing, not necessarily to increase profit, but to have a positive effect . It seemed like an opportunity to become part of a new progressive community.
I did some research into the process and decided to make the investment in time and money to get my shop certified. For a small shop like mine this involved putting in place procedures to maintain the chain of custody for FSC certified materials from the point of purchase through the manufacturing process and sale to the customer. It also involved re-arranging my shop to accommodate these materials and keep them segregated from non FSC certified materials and set up a system to provide documentation for annual audits by the certifying body.
One of the first things I learned was that because of the altruistic associations with FSC, green, sustainable and environmentally appropriate things, there was an expectation on the part of design professionals in the field that you would provide your services for either a discounted price or for free. Many so called “green” design professionals clearly expected us to discount our work in exchange for the “opportunity” to work with them.
Another thing I learned was that the segment of the public who were concerned about the environment and making a “greener” choice were not the same people who could afford custom, high quality woodwork. Often they turned out to be people who would buy from us if it didn’t cost more than other suppliers within their budget, such as Ikea.
Another important issue that I did not fully appreciate was the lack of supply of FSC certified material. I did speak to some of my regular suppliers about it and many of them such as A & M Wood Specialties, PJ White Hardwoods and General Woods had at one time either been certified or had considered it but not pursued it. At the time, there was only one certified materials supplier in Vancouver and that was the Eco Lumber Co-op. They carried a variety of certified products including flooring, veneer and lumber. However, shortly after I became certified The Eco Lumber Co-op dropped all of these products with the exception of flooring. Not long after that, The Eco Lumber Co-op went out of business, apparently because their sole supplier lost their FSC certification. At that point we were left with no suppliers for FSC certified material, at least not smaller quantities locally available.
Another problem was the reliable availability of sheet goods to substitute for traditional products like mdf and particle board. At the time I was using a Canadian product called ISOboard, made from corn stalks left over from the harvest. Apparently, this company got into trouble and was bought out by Dow Chemical, the company that had been providing them with the adhesive for the strawboard.
At first this seemed to be a good thing. They improved the quality and distribution of the product. Soon it became available with a melamine coating making it suitable for kitchen cabinets. They gave the product a new name “Woodstalk”, a play on words relating to the hippy, back to the land culture of the Woodstock nation and the corn stalks from which the product was made. I thought this was somewhat cynical because I associated Dow Chemical with napalm during the Vietnam war.
Just when it seemed like Woodstalk had become the industry standard for FSC projects, Dow closed the company and we were left without a suitable alternative.
It seemed only like months after receiving my FSC certification that I got notice from “Smartwood” the company that carried out the certification process, that we were due for our first annual audit and that it would cost something like $1500 to $2000. I was shocked as I had yet to complete a single project requiring FSC chain of custody. After some negotiation it was agreed that the audit would be conducted by phone rather than in person and the price would be reduced to $600.00. The only thing to be audited was a single receipt for a few hundred square feet of FSC certified veneer.
When the next annual audit came due, having done no subsequent FSC work, I declined and gave up my certification.
Although I haven’t spoken to other small FSC certified shops in the Vancouver area (I think there are only two or three) I suspect they will have a similar story. Ornamentum, the first one to be certified is no longer in business.
Some of the materials suppliers, such as PJ White have become re-certified and I think some of the larger shops are considering FSC certification, probably with an interest in satisfying more serious interest south of the border.


We have a new game in our house. It’s called Finding Stuff That’s Made in Canada. It's not quite like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it is getting close.
When I was growing up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, almost everything was made close to home. I grew up in “The Steel City” of Hamilton Ontario and in the farming area nearby.
My Dad worked at Westinghouse, a gigantic factory occupying several city blocks. Almost everything that used electricity in our house came from Westinghouse. Most of our neighbours worked at jobs that involved the making of something, everything from soap to steel.
A variation of the Find Stuff That’s Made in Canada game is Find Stuff That Used to Be Made in Canada. It’s too easy, as long as you have some stuff that’s more than a few decades old. In our house, I start with the piano, the label says made in Toronto. Can you image? At one time there were dozens of piano manufacturers in Canada.
So what? Some would say. As a maker of things I lament the loss of industry in Canada and the fact that anything that can be done cheaper somewhere else will be done somewhere else.
Some people suggest, only somewhat confidently, that only the “grunt work” is being exported and that the “brain work” will continue to be done here, the distinction in their minds being work done by the brain verses work done by the body, as though such a distinction existed. The truth is that all work that can be done cheaper elsewhere will be done elsewhere, and in fact it is the brainwork that is much more easily exported as there are hardworking, well educated, capable people in very low wage countries able to do this work with far less infrastructure and the final product, unlike furniture and appliances can be imported electronically rather than on green house gas spewing container ships.
In the ‘50’s and ‘60’s the standard of living in Canada was high. Families were larger and there was often only one person employed. Houses cost a fraction of what they do now and many more people lived in houses with yards and gardens, garages and workshops. Today our standard of living compared to many places on the planet is still high, but some costs like housing are gigantic. We pay much more for much less. Many families need two members working full time to get by. Our standard of living, to a large extent is dependent on the cheapness of imported goods and services.
What will happen, if for some reason such as the rising cost of energy, or social advances in developing countries, these cheap imported products are no longer available to us and we have to go back to making these things here? Long after we have ditched all the shop classes and trades training, long after we have turned all the factories into condos and the farm land into sub-divisions?
The only thing we will still be able to source from lower wage countries will be legal, accounting, design and consulting services.

Friday, January 29, 2010


I first heard this song by Tom Waits on CBC radio while working in the shop. It really grabbed my interest. It evokes so many things; memories of obsessively nosey neighbours, in this case, paranoid nosey neighbours, creepy news stories, which are probably the things that make the nosey neighbours paranoid, small mindedness, small town fear of outsiders.
What really caught my attention as I was working away were the lines “He has a router and a table saw”. Now that really changed the picture for me. A devious psycho who is pounding nails into the hardwood floor would not be using a router and a table saw to build a dungeon for his torture victims. Maybe he is just setting up his woodworking shop so he can make some grandfather clocks and birdhouses.
When I got home I looked up this video on YouTube. It’s pretty creepy and fits with my first impression of the song, but here is another layer.
When the video gets to the lines “He has a router and a table saw” the image for the router looks like a plastic “T” joint with a few wires routed through it. This I find hilarious because it reveals that whoever is making the video, in spite of the context does not think of a router used in woodworking but the only kind they know, which is some kind of electronic networking device. This person definitely did not take woodworking in high school, but I bet Tom Waits has made some sawdust in his time, or at least , has seen it done.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010



So what is the relevance of the games to the woodworking scene in Vancouver? Well a few years ago I received an email from I don’t know where suggesting I sign up for invitations to bid on Olympics related products and services. I filled out a form in which I checked off some boxes for the type of work I do. Although there were no boxes directly related to my business, I checked a few that I thought might include my work. I don’t think their system worked because I started getting “opportunities “to bid on everything from catering to toilets. I stopped accepting the emails.
I was also contacted with respect to producing a conceptual model of an Olympic venue to be presented as corporate gifts. I attended a meeting at a large design firm to “discuss” the project. This turned out to be a kind of job interview. As I was leaving the meeting room I noticed another guy sitting outside with what looked like his portfolio beside him. I never heard back from the design firm but later got an email forwarded from a woodworking group by a guy looking for someone to do some cnc work for a project related to the Olympics, a conceptual model of an Olympic venue. This gives you an idea of how small the woodworking community is here and how everybody is pretty closely connected.
I know I said this blog is not about the construction industry, but if I am going to find something about the Olympics relevant to woodworking I am going to have to go there. There has been a lot of hoopla about the fantastic engineering innovations involved in the wood structure of the Richmond Olympic Oval. Maybe I’m a moron but it just looks like a variation on the old Safeway stores we used to see all over BC.
The general sentiment around the Olympics at this time seems to be one of trepidation and dread. I don’t know anyone who has a ticket to an event or is renting their home out for a windfall, and I am including everyone I talk to, not just family and friends. Personally, I think that the Olympics are representative of a kind of social madness like the big heads on Easter Island, and I think a lot of people here instinctually feel this, even if they don’t consciously think it.
I think that the extraordinary decadence and wastefulness of the games has given people a feeling of dread and trepidation in the sense expressed by Margaret Atwood in her lecture “payback”.
As far as the weather is concerned, I am glad it is mild. I hope it gets even warmer. This is not to spite the games but simply because the shop I rent is so poorly insulated that to heat it is very expensive. The last year of recession has been tough and I need a break somewhere. Which makes me wonder, how much would it cost to upgrade all these energy sucking, green house gas producing old buildings in BC? Probably a drop in the bucket of the Olympic budget.
A very popular sport here, maybe not an Olympic sport but popular none the less is thinking of all the things that the money spent on the Olympics could have bought. Here are a few of my most recent contributions.
1. I understand that the Olympics (a 2 week party) cost 6 billion dollars. To rebuild the totally destroyed country of Haiti is estimated to cost 10 billion.
2. To bring all of the public schools in the province up to acceptable structural and health standards would cost 500 million. The cost of the security alone for the games is close to 1 billion.
3. And so on, and so on…………

Sunday, January 24, 2010


We spent much of the day today at the newly renovated UBC Museum of Anthropology opening event. I think it started yesterday and goes on for three days.
The museum is one of the first places I visited in Vancouver when I moved here in 1979. It was always great, now after the renovations, it is even better.
There is a huge abundance of fantastic woodwork, ancient and contemporary, from many different cultures. To get a better idea of the collections, visit the website Or, better still, visit the museum.
One of the things I noticed when we first entered the museum were a trio of wood chairs at the entrance to the gift / souvenir shop. The literature attached explained that the chairs were commissioned by the museum as the MOA chair and described as an “iconic chair”. The design was credited to the head architect for the renovations, Noel Best of Stantec Achitecture. There is no credit given to the actual maker, although the shop manager told me they were made in Vancouver. It was also explained that the starting point for the design came from the Pacific Coast First Nations bent box joinery techniques, followed by ergonomic, anthropometric considerations to arrive at the curved shapes to support the body.
I did not have a camera with me to document the chair, nor anything to write on, or with, so I purchased a pencil for 99 cents and made a simple profile sketch on the back of the receipt. The chair consists of a back, a seat and a front leg / panel. All of these pieces are the same thickness (approximately 7/16” ) and width(approximately 16”) and made from 3 or 4 plies of laminated edge grain fir. There is also a separator between the seat piece and the back as well as a beam structure under the seat to re-enforce the joint between the seat, the front leg /panel and the back. The three pieces that make up the seat, back connector piece and front leg / panel are joined with a “V” or mitre joint inspired by the bent box joints. The curved back panel is joined to the seat assembly by typical “IKEA” style exposed hex head bolts.
The retail price for the chair is $2400.00 cnd.
This chair is very comfortable. The quality of material is very good and the look of the chair is attractive (it comes in three colours). Given its simplicity and exposed bolts, I was surprised at the price. I know that other museums such as those designed by famous “starchitects” have created “iconic” furniture pieces, I don’t know if this one with do the same job for the MOA, given that searches for anything relating to the MOA or Noel Best turned up nothing on the Stantec web site

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I have just received news that my friend Ted Lehn passed away on January 2 2010. Ted was an architect based in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island WA. He and his wife Jennifer recently moved to Panama.
I first met Ted in the mid eighties. I was showing some of my new chair designs at a group show at the Charles Scott Gallery on Granville Island. Ted was at the opening and was very interested in the work. He later bought some pieces for his new gallery in Friday Harbor. We became friends and collaborated on projects.
As an architect, Ted was unusual in his support for crafts and his enthusiasm about craft in architecture. He would enlist craftspeople to contribute as artists and designers on his projects with no insecurities about giving full credit and acknowledgement to them.
I loved his enthusiasm and spontaneity. He loved Vancouver and would often bring his clients for weekend visits. He was always on the lookout for talented artists and craftspeople and would insist that his clients accompany him on studio visits. He was a great advocate for all things creative.
As an architect and a person, Ted was unique, a very positive force who always made us happy. He will be missed. Obituary

Saturday, January 16, 2010


The other day, I was listening to CBC radio while working in the shop. They were interviewing Vancouver artist Ken Lum about his recent public art piece “East Van Cross“ Strangely, it took a few minutes of listening to Ken speak about his work and about East Vancouver before I realized that the veneer I was in the process of stitching together was for a large custom piece for his apartment.
I have done a number of pieces of furniture and architectural woodwork for Ken Lum and made a few of his conceptual art pieces. The work is always interesting.
There seems to be a mini boom in public art in Vancouver at this time. Much of it, I assume, like the East Van Cross are related to the upcoming Olympic games.
A metal fabricator I know is currently working on what looks like a scaled up wreckage of a balsa wood glider for Rodney Graham another Vancouver artist.
A huge photo mural by Stan Douglas has been unveiled at the new Woodwards development on Hastings Street gastown. It’s great to see this work happening. Until recently many of these artists were far better known in Europe and other places than they were in Vancouver. That’s typical of Vancouver, and probably many other less known cities. Artists need to get international recognition before anyone at home will acknowledge them.
I have had the pleasure of working with a number of great artists over the years. A few years ago we built a number of giant frames for black and white photos by Vancouver artist Jeff Wall. At approximately nine by thirteen feet they were too large to assemble in the shop as there were also other projects going on at the time. The frames had to be assembled in the parking lot outside the shop. It was unusually rainy that summer so each morning we would have to set up a pair of large tents to work under, then hang the frames and move everything inside at the end of the day.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


The last step in the production of most woodwork, is finishing. In the case of architectural woodwork, this step would be followed by installation.
Many if not most small shops in the Vancouver area sub-contract finishing to an outside supplier that specializes in finishing. Sometimes these may be another larger shop that has its own finishing department or it may be a shop that does finishing exclusively.
Most modern finishing today involves a spray finish of some sort. This requires a preparation area, a spray booth and a dust free drying area. It is not generally practical for smaller woodworking shops to commit the required space and capital to a finishing set up that will only be used on an occasional basis. Although many joiners are also skilled finishers, finishing and joinery are considered separate trades, and both require a high level of skill.
As any elementary joinery textbook will tell you, finishing will not make up for a poorly prepared surface. Unfortunately, sometimes defects like sanding marks and glue residue are not always evident until the first stages of finishing. Finishing then, although a separate stage of the woodworking process is an integral part of it. For this reason, the finisher needs to understand his responsibility in terms of the success of the overall project. Not just put a finish on the work and send the bill.
In the Vancouver area it seems that the ratio of finishing shops to woodworkers who use them is very much in favour of the finishers at this time. In fact, I think it could be said that there is a shortage of good finishing shops.
This is an excellent business opportunity for the right people. Setting up and running a wood finishing shop is much less demanding than setting up a woodworking shop. The capital costs are much lower. If you avoid on site work and re-finishing the work is pretty straight forward. There is no need to do any design work or drawings. There is almost no math involved. Like any trade, skill is acquired with practise and you would not want to dive into self employment without skilled help or a few years under your belt working for someone else. One measure of a good finisher is the ability to mix colours from samples both for stains and paint. The other critical abilities required to successfully run a finishing shop are the same as any other, communication and organizational skills. Once you have things established with a satisfied customer base you will do well. Provided you have a broad range of customers, even if things are slow, they will always have work for you.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


These are some of the wood related businesses that are making a larger impact on the local scene at this time.

The web site gives you a pretty good idea of the history of this business, a profile of its founder and the products they make. In many ways this is an ingenious woodworking business in that they have overcome or avoided many of the challenges and pitfalls that many woodworking businesses face. The most significant of these would be joinery. Joinery, to a large extent is what defines furniture making, thus the term “Joinery”. Generally speaking, making the parts is the easy part of woodworking, especially if you are taking advantage of CNC technology. The hard part is putting those parts together. For that you need skilled trades people and or a highly sophisticated manufacturing facility. IKEA gets around this problem by passing on the job of putting the parts together to the consumer. Brent Comber takes it a step further and eliminates the need to put parts together by designing most of the pieces to consist of only a single part. Some of the pieces such as the Alder tables do consist of numerous pieces but do not involve complex joinery; rather the parts are fused together with a gob of construction adhesive.
Although brilliant in its simplicity, this method has its limitations, as we can see the Brent Comber product line is limited to objects providing horizontal surfaces to be used as tables or something to sit on and decorative wall pieces. There are no case goods.
Another great thing about this business is the material they use, commercially worthless cast off material.
With support from organizations such as BC WOOD Brent Comber markets their products internationally, this has been critical to their success.
One of the major, ongoing challenges they face is protecting their products from plagiarism, obviously, if the designs are cheap and easy to make for them, they would be for many others.

The Wood Co-op Gallery was established on Granville Island in Vancouver circa 2000. In January 2008 after part of the roof collapsed in a snow storm the gallery was given two weeks to move. As an interim measure the landlord provided the gallery with a temporary space in The Netloft building also on Granville Island. This space is approximately 1/10 the size of the original. This severely limited the ability of the gallery to show the work of many of its artists. After about ten months of searching, finding and renovating a new space the gallery has re-opened at 1554 West 6th Avenue in Vancouver, a short walk south of Granville Island. The Co-op has also retained the Netloft space. The Wood Co-op gallery carries an eclectic collection of work reflecting the diversity of the artisan / artist woodworking community in British Columbia and provides an indispensible venue for artists and the public to come together.

Kozai is an importer / retailer of Japanese artisan furniture. As you can see from the website the work is fantastic. Obviously there is something good going on in Japan as far as woodworking is concerned. Ironically, if I am not mistaken, much of the choice hardwood we see used in these designs comes from North America. Kozai is located almost directly across the street from The Wood Co-op Gallery, each benefit from their close proximately to each other.

This company has been around in different forms since the early “80’s. They design and produce mostly upholstery with a few wood pieces such as side tables. A few years ago they opened a new showroom in Chinatown. This is a great Vancouver success story and Russell Baker, the founder has a good understanding of the local scene over the past several decades.

This company was founded by its owner Niels Bendtsen and has grown enormously since its humble origin at 1000 Parker in the early ‘90’s. One of their first projects was to supply seating for the huge expansion of Starbucks into Canada. Mr Bendtsen is also the owner of INFORM INTERIORS and a large inventory of commercial real estate in Vancouver.


Here is a brief description of the current, local woodworking scene from my perspective here in Port Moody. I have not conducted a proper study on this topic but these are some of my observations.
In the early 1980’s there was a deep recession that killed most of the large unionized woodworking operations. Many of these were re-born as smaller non-union shops. The general impact of this is that it lowered wages and generally loosened things up. I think it made it easier for smaller artisan / artist shops to get a start as suppliers could not discriminate to the same extent who they would sell to. Now most suppliers don’t care if you are a twenty five person shop in an industrial complex or one guy working out of his garage.
It is also much less expensive to set up a small woodworking operation in the Vancouver area now. This is the up side of Chinese imports, reasonable quality machinery is plentiful and affordable. For example, in the ‘80s most of the machinery available for small shops was either General, made in Quebec or American products such as Rockwell / Delta. Choice was limited and costs were high. Now there is a huge proliferation of cheap imports. Many companies like General, import cheaper lines, theirs is called General International. Their domestic line has hardly changed in the last half century while their import line includes many innovations of quality products suitable for the small shop.
Although gentrification has had a big impact on the availability of shop space, municipalities like Vancouver, Richmond, North Vancouver and Burnaby have retained a large amount of light industrial areas for small shops. Many of the larger shops have moved to industrial complexes in the suburbs. East Vancouver has a very vibrant artisan / artist based woodworking scene with many practitioners living and working in that area. Vancouver continues to grow, and the powers that be continue to pursue population growth as the driving force of the economy. It would seem inevitable that this strategy will lead to further gentrification and the re-development of older light industrial property.
In summary, at this time, I think that it has never been easier to set up a small woodworking business in this area and more people than ever are doing it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


What is relevant woodworking? How is woodworking relevant to you or to anyone today?
This blog is generally focussed on woodworking as it pertains to art and manufacturing rather than the construction industry.
I am a designer and artist working principally in wood. I design and make wood furniture and other products. I am a cabinetmaker (joiner) and run a shop producing custom furniture and architectural woodwork.,

Like many industries this one has seen a lot of change over the past several decades, with huge changes over the last ten years or so. The most significant changes that come to mind are one, the global economy that has shifted most manufacturing to China and other low labour, low energy cost countries and two, changes in materials science and manufacturing technologies specifically, the use of plastic instead of wood and the use of computer aided design and manufacturing. Other significant changes that come to mind are changes to the labour market, education, trades training, changes to government and industry programs as well as environmental concerns.
My business is located in Port Moody, British Columbia, Canada. My observations and opinions are seen from this culture and location. Of course, I am influenced by everything I read and hear about from other sources all over the world, but most of my experience is here and the bulk of my business is conducted here.