In their 30s, Christian and Robert are already climbing to the top of contemporary furnituremaking in California.

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In their hillside workshop on the edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Christian and Robert Meier design and build unique, eye-catching pieces that find their way to clients all along the central coast and to galleries as far away as Seattle.

But what else would you expect from men that as children in their native Germany pleaded for nails to build crude furniture rather than toys?

"I believe that we inherited our craftsman's genes from our grandfather, who taught us some woodworking. When we went to the University of Munich to study mechanical engineering, we took extra classes in things like wood finishing and design," says Robert.

"As graduates, we expected mechanical engineering to be creative," Robert comments. "We thought we would be making things, but after a year we realized that the way the system worked we could only input at the start. Now, with our woodworking, we are creative to the end."

An American adventure

In German-accented English, the twins explain their transformation from engineers to woodworkers. "We made furniture while we were in school, and after, in a little basement workshop," Christian says. "We built it for ourselves and friends with hand tools and small portable power tools—nothing like we have now."

After a 1988 visit to San Francisco, the brothers concluded that engineering was boring, and decided to move to the United States, selecting the City by the Bay as their new home. "We came to the United States with just two suitcases between us, and did anything to earn money," Christian remembers.

"We worked on cars and painted houses," Robert adds. "Meanwhile, we put together woodworking equipment, adding a few pieces here and there. It was hard because we were new and didn't yet have a woodworking reputation."

The young men persisted, though. They worked hard at pursuing their dream. Eventually, they were able to save enough to make a move down the coast to gain a larger shop. Then, in 1996, they made a final move to the Santa Cruz area.

Working with a focus

Today they're entirely focused on woodworking. Each has individual responsibilities for the success of their business, Meier Brothers Furniture Design.

Robert builds most of the furniture and Christian does the finishing as well as makes some of the special hardware. "But Robert and I together decide what we will build to sell," Christian notes. "Then, about 40% of our work is custom-designed for clients. And for large custom pieces Robert builds a full-sized prototype out of inexpensive wood just to give the client an idea of how it will look. Prototypes help us avoid unpleasant surprises."

The furniture designed and built by the brothers is freshly contemporary, yet the designs seem to have a familiar look. With study, you might arrive at the conclusion that their pieces mix in a bit of Shaker, some Stickley, and an Asian influence. But if there's any influence at all, it's nature.

"Everything I design has a curve because I think people find curves pleasing," Robert says. "That's right," Christian agrees. "Because nowhere in nature do you find straight lines."

If wood has figure, use it

The Meier brothers don't build a stick of furniture without figured wood, unless the client demands only straight-grained stock. "The material can transform a piece from Shaker to contemporary," Christian observes. "And highly contrasting woods always suggest contemporary."

If you want to use more-figured stock in your projects, hardwood boards with figure are easy enough to spot at your local supplier. That's because they're usually planed or surfaced on four sides (S4S). It's a different story with rough-sawn lumber. Yet, there are some fairly simple tipoffs. See Photos A and B, below.

Finding the figure in rough-sawn wood
"Generally, you have to get the rough-sawn wood in good light and hold it at different angles to detect figure— it will reflect light differently than straight-grained wood," Robert advises.
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"If the wood supplier will let you do it, wet a rag and wipe the edge and face of rough-sawn lumber. The figure will show up better," Christian says.

To get figured wood to final thickness, Robert turns to his Performax drum sander, a 37"-wide model with double drums. "This agile and well-designed machine is my favorite in the shop and is a must for small shops that need a powerful planer with a large capacity," he says. "On figured wood, you want to take wood off with abrasives to avoid tear-out," he advises. Robert also runs wood through at a slight angle to reduce the clogging of sanding dust in the abrasive, especially the finer grits.

The brothers' jointer plays a major machining role, too. Being the engineers that they are, the twins have modified the machine, boosting its power and making it more appropriate for figured woods. "We just beefed it up a little," Robert says. "It had a 1fi-hp motor and made 15,000 cuts per minute. We switched to a 2-hp motor and changed the gearing. Now it makes 21,000 cuts per minute and we get smoother results."

Cut smoothness doesn't come from speed alone. "Before I edge figured boards, I dress up the knives with a diamond stone and finish with a leather strop," Robert notes. "Then, because it's hard to read grain direction in figured wood, I just feed it one way first, taking off. If the cut isn't satisfactory, I turn the board around and try it another way. One direction is always better than another."

Try fresh glue and looser joints

"Titebond II is excellent glue, but it must be fresh," Robert cautions. "It gets old in six months and loses some of its strength. You can extend its life to a year by keeping it in the refrigerator. But after a year, it's better to throw out your old glue and turn to fresh glue rather than ruin a project. I use Titebond II for all my gluing needs. It is strong, reliable, and waterproof. And, it cleans up with water."

There's another gluing aspect that many woodworkers overlook, the tightness of the joint. "Joints are frequently cut too tightly," Robert says. "I make mine less than tight." See Photo C, below.

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I cut my joints with about 1⁄32" of slop," Robert says." Otherwise you'll starve the joint. A film of glue should cover both surfaces, even when edge-joining for width," he adds, "such as for a tabletop."

Wood movement is another important factor that Christian and Robert must deal with. Besides monitoring the wood in their dehumidification kiln for the 10% moisture content suitable for coastal California, they also allow for movement in their designs.

"To slow down wood movement, I'd rather glue up thinner stock to thickness than use a solid piece," Robert explains. "For example, the slats in the back of our chairs are a three-piece lamination, which makes them more sturdy and keeps the movement minimal. The two runners framing the slats are a bent lamination, which is also much stronger than a solid cutout."

"The slats are more stable then," Christian points out. "And the glue keeps them bent, too." To allow for movement, the slats on chair backs and the sides of case pieces, such as dressers, are not glued in place. See Photo D, below.

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"To allow for wood movement, we simply lay our chair slats in dadoes in the framing members. And a small compression spring at the top holds them tightly in place. That way, the slats can expand and contract as much as they want," Robert says.

Finish makes the piece

The finish achieved by Christian is peerless. It showcases the wood and invites a touch. But it's not arrived at easily.

"I normally sand up to 400 grit before starting the finishing," Christian explains. "In between the sanding courses, I apply a coat of Wood Size by Franklin International [800/347-4583]. It seals end-grain pores and prevents 'fuzzing' of wood fibers during sanding. It also helps stabilize the wood."

After careful preparation, Christian follows with up to four coats of penetrating tung oil. See Photo E, below.

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"After each of the three undercoats of tung oil dries, I rub it down with #0000 steel wool," Christian says. "I wait three days between coats. When the final coat has dried, I wax the entire piece."

Christian also makes his own paste wax. It's a combination of mineral, plant, and insect waxes with added driers and thinners. "Then I heat it in a double boiler until it all melts together. When cooled, it's ready for use. I also add color—artist's oil pigments from natural to dark—to enhance the wood. For instance, on maple, I use clear, but on walnut, I'll darken the wax. I apply the wax with cheesecloth."

For coloring wood, Christian turns to water-based aniline dye. "Water-based dye is more light resistant than the other types, which means the color won't fade," he explains. "Of course, the water raises the grain, but careful sanding after the dye has dried (using 400–600 grit) takes off the fuzz. For a more even absorption of the dye, dampen the wood first."

The secret of the tablecloth table

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For the Meier brothers, the highly figured tablecloth table has become a signature piece. Few of the ones they've made and sold are as playfully colorful as this purple-topped one.

The purple cloth is actually glued up from several pieces. Says Robert, "Gluing up the cloth keeps the movement and the possibility of cracking minimal. Christian dyed the redwood purple to highlight the quilted figure and to provide more contrast with the corner that's curly maple. The frame is plain maple."

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To make a tablecloth table, Robert first roughly shapes the wooden cloth at the bandsaw. Then he finishes it up with chisels, a 4" angle grinder, and lots of hand sanding. He next cuts a 34 " rabbet in the cloth to accept the maple part of the top. Doing this leaves the tablecloth part of the top higher than the 116 " maple to give the illusion of a cover. All maple parts are assembled first, then the cloth is fitted to them. (You can see all the parts in the underside view at right.) The top of the tablecloth is fastened to the apron with screws through oversize screw holes to allow for wood movement.