A New Star Rises in the West
She's an artist, a carver, a designer, a woodworker, and all Montana. Amber Jean worked her way through Montana State University as a Forest Service firefighter and wilderness ranger. She apprenticed in a cabinet shop to get a handle on power tools. Today, Amber (she dropped her last name after graduation) lives modestly in a mountaintop cabin, daily driving her 4×4 pickup to and from her spacious, sunlit studio in Livingston.
As a blossoming artist, Amber sees her star continue to rise with each passing day. Her reputation for creating unique, massive, Western-themed furniture and accessories has spread beyond the Rockies. A consistent award winner at the Western Design Conference in Cody, Wyoming, Amber can command five figures for her pieces. She gets commissioned work, too, such as the five custom-made, 21⁄4 "-thick guest-room doors she was bestowing with Western motifs when we visited. They're slated for a Coloradan's mansion under construction. Following those, she'll begin work on a life-size carved buffalo bench made entirely of walnut.
Beauty beneath the dust
Amber Jean's award-winning juniper and mahogany bed that she named "Spirits Untamed" took shape from an experience. "The mustang bed actually began in the Pryor Mountains of eastern Montana," she recalls. "I spent a college summer there working with Native American children. We lived in tepees, slept under the stars, and ate around a campfire. And there are wild horses in the Pryors, running amidst all the twisted juniper. So when I started thinking about doing a piece that represented the West—the power, the harshness, the beauty, the gracefulness—the juniper to me symbolized that. And the mustangs are dusty and dirty, not like Hollywood wild horses. You can see some color, but there's all this grime on them. The juniper is that way, too, weathered gray. But underneath the weathering are wonderful colors—reds, rusts, white. Because of that, I had to bring the two together—the wood and the horses. Since part of my remembrance was of sleeping in the outdoors, it just had to be in the form of a bed."
But why such a doggone huge bed? The headboard posts alone are 8' tall! "People often ask that," replies Amber. "I tell them it's because of that whole overwhelming feeling that I get from the West—the mountains, the sky, the clouds, just the vastness. It's majestic. After all, in Europe there's a lot of huge, oversize furniture. But here in America we have huge things like the Jolly Green Giant and Paul Bunyan, superdomes, and skyscrapers, yet all our furniture remains small. It seems that big hunks of furniture would be part of the American attitude. Despite that, my big pieces haven't had any trouble finding homes."
Found wood: gems in the rough
Amber began working with wood in the rough during her last semester of college, through necessity. "I was holding down a number of jobs, doing the starving artist thing," she explains. "My art assignments reflected my lack of money. So for my final sculpture class, I needed material. I heard that the local Forest Service district was selling dead standing trees as firewood for $5 a cord, and it dawned on me that I could buy a whole tree for five bucks! So some friends from my firefighting job went with me to do some harvesting of dead lodgepole pine. We ended up bringing a whole truckload of trees back to Bozeman!"
That wood was the beginning of a career. With $200 worth of Swiss-made chisels and a mallet that she bought on a bus trip to Seattle, Amber began chipping away. Today, she favors juniper, marrying it with mahogany or walnut, as in the mustang bed.
"Working with juniper is like what happens when people polish stone," she says. "They have an idea of what they want to get, but they're sometimes surprised. With juniper, you've got this rough, gray, weathered exterior. But once you start getting below the surface, it's like finding a gemstone."
Although Amber could obtain a permit to gather dead and downed wood on the vast federal lands surrounding her, she favors private ranchland. "I just ask the owners for permission," she notes. "Then I go looking for interesting pieces. Some pieces I pull aside because they look special, even if I have no idea where they're going to go. But if I have a project that I've started and generally know what I need to add—like so big around and with a crook or something—then I try to find a piece that fills that need. The old fenceposts that I use for my lamps have a whole other history and meaning, and usually their history does not lend itself to power tools very well, with nails and staples and all."
The juniper Amber finds does have hidden defects, and she usually won't discover them until she starts working the piece. "With found wood, you can't be rigid. You have to be open to the fact that this most beautiful, perfect bed corner post has rot or decay in a section that makes it unusable. Sometimes you can remove it, and the resulting curve or depression adds to the look. Sometimes I like to leave some of the old, weathered wood on the piece because I don't want people to forget what it was."
Critters are another story. "Early on I had a piece that I delivered to a gallery and it had a little worm in it. I had thought the finishing would kill it, so I just left it," she remembers. "A few days later I got a call saying, 'Amber, there's these little things coming out of your piece.' I had to go back to the gallery with a can of Raid and a thin, strawlike nozzle and spray into the holes! So I check out the wood more closely now, and throw it out if I suspect critters.
"Most of the bark is usually gone by the time I get to the juniper," Amber continues, "but I power-wash it all to get the dirt and any remaining bark off. Then I go directly to sanding with a portable sander. To clean out crevices, I'll use a carving burr on a pneumatic rotary tool. Then, I do some hand-sanding, usually with 220 grit. But if there's a neat touchy-feely spot, I take it up to 440 grit. Then people will just pet it and pet it."
Moisture content is never a problem with juniper, according to Amber. Montana's low humidity, sun, and wind have stabilized it by the time it's found.
A marriage of wood
By the time the juniper joins with the machined stock in a piece, Amber has it gleaming. Streaks of red portray the setting sun; whitish yellow provides contrast. And any remaining gray balances the two, much as the Montana mountains separate the sky from the valleys.
Amber got her introduction to fine wood rather than found in Jacksonville, Florida, where she designed and carved an entry door in mahogany for an art collector. She used more of the wood in a 12'-tall Mayan-themed totem for the same gentleman. "It carves so well," says Amber, "and the color complements the rugged juniper. It's a perfect marriage."
Because she freehand-routs the backgrounds of her images to a 1⁄2 " depth, Amber orders 11⁄4 "-thick stock. Large items, such as the headboard on the mustang bed, require edge-joining several boards to obtain the needed width. "People have this thing about something being made from one piece of wood," Amber comments. "So when they ask me, 'Is that just one big piece of wood?' I say 'Yes, a big piece of wood made from smaller pieces.'" Laughing, she mocks their surprised expression.
When it came to joining uneven-shaped juniper to ordinary wood for her mustang bed, Amber was at first puzzled. It was nearly impossible to flatten the found wood on one side so that it would mate. And doing that would defeat the look she wanted in the piece anyway. Then, she recalled her time spent in the cabinet shop. "Scribing! Just as you do when installing a countertop in a kitchen remodel," she says. Accordingly, profiles of the bedpost and frames for the headboards and footboards were traced onto the edges of the mahogany panels. Then they were cut to shape with a jigsaw and further profiled with a detail sander.
The drawing below shows in an exploded view how the footboard assembly was done. The bed's massiveness required heavy-duty lag screws.
Finishing to fit the West
The shelves carrying Amber's finishing supplies reflect her artist's approach to woodworking. Dozens and dozens of small cans of different colored Minwax stains occupy several. A box of artist's oil colors fills another. Tried-then-discarded finishes sit here and there, beaten out by her now favored ones.
"My staining is more like traditional oil painting on a canvas," Amber explains. "I put down areas of oil color first—I call them under-colors—then lay glazes of oil-based stains over them. And I usually mix in pigmented oils to get the color I want. It's more tinting than painting, letting the colors build up.
"I've even burned wood to get it black," she continues. "For a large clock I built, I had farmed out the juniper sanding because I was so busy. Well, the guy had done it all wrong, and I thought I'd have to throw it out. Then, I was working late one night, and a friend stopped in. I was upset about the juniper. He just said 'Burn it' and grabbed a propane torch. Well, both of us got going on the wood with the torch. We'd char it, then wet it, then burn it again. And sometimes things just happen, you know? It was incredible—the charred black against the white streaks and against the red. The piece became ten times better than first conceived because the black was so powerful. I wanted it to look as if the black areas would get you black if you touched them. So it took some experimenting with finishes, but I settled on Danish oil applied with a mister, like for plants. The charred wood soaks it up."
To keep the natural colors of the wood bright, as well as the applied colors, Amber has settled on a two-part finishing process. She first sprays on several coats of Danish oil (by Menco), and lets them dry. Then she follows with two coats of Minwax Helmsman's spar varnish, creating a look of lasting beauty.