Greene and Greene’s modern master

Seattle craftsman Tom Stangeland takes a beloved furniture style to new heights.

“Don’t skimp on materials. When creating something beautiful, your time will be your greatest expense.” —Tom Stangeland

Tom Stangeland’s introduction to the Greene and Greene style, an offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement, came in 1981. That’s when someone handed him a photo of an armchair and asked if he could build one. Viewing the intricate joinery, curves, and inlay work, Tom replied, “If I can build that chair, I can build any chair.” The replica, below, is just one of many chairs of this design that Tom has built since reaching that turning point.

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Already a professional woodworker versed in the Art Deco style, Tom soon found himself immersed in this style, named for Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene. These California brothers were prominent architects involved in the Arts and Crafts movement. Like others from the era, they often designed not just their clients’ homes, which were built to glorify wood, but the furnishings to go in them, as well.

“I immediately took to the style,” Tom says, “because it’s beautiful, but very accessible. And it fits in nicely with a wide variety of furniture and architectural styles, from old to new.”

Expanding on a classic style

These days, many regard Tom as one of the premier Greene and Greene-style furnituremakers around. But he’s not content to make replicas. “I take the principles of their design and expand on them,” he says. “I want to play with the style, adjust it, do new things with it.”

The “reverse-taper” legs Tom uses onsome of his pieces exemplify what he means. “Those have become a hallmark of my work. But I’ve never seen them in Greene and Greene’s designs.” (See “Creating the reverse taper”, below, to learn how it’s done.)

So how does Tom create new furniture that stays faithful to the Greene brothers’ beloved originals? He keeps what he views as the key elements of the style in mind as he designs. They include:

• Fine, but not overstated, materials:
Mahogany and ebony contrast nicely, and carry a look of quality. But both feature subtle grain. Even the fine veneers he uses on tabletops, below, draw your eye without distracting you from the overall piece.

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• Relief and texture: 
Pegs used to reinforce joints protrude beyond surrounding surfaces; tabletops feature chamfered joints and exaggerated breadboard ends; and inlays and interesting shapes abound.

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• Softness:
“My furniture has no sharp edges that can catch you if you, say, brush against the corner of a dining table as you walk by. The textures are friendly to touch.”

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• Subtle Asian influences:
Though not immediately apparent, elements, such as Tom’s reverse taper and the “cloud lift” design, below, appear on many of his pieces and further define the style.

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2 Great Techniques to Try in Your Shop
 

Creating the reverse taper

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Several of Tom’s furniture pieces, including his dining table, above, glass-topped coffee table (opening photo), and Arts and Crafts bench, below, feature a leg he calls a reverse taper. Though it might look complex, the leg actually is easy to build.

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Tom starts with 16/4 mahogany, trimming it down to the proper thickness, width, and length. He cuts mortises for stretchers and aprons next. Now for the tapering.

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1. Tom’s taper jig (above) couldn’t be much simpler. The fence consists of two layers of 12 " particleboard with a cleat attached at one end. Two cleated spacer blocks—one 12 " thick, the other 1" thick— screw to the fence face to support the top end of the leg blank.

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2. Tom butts the bottom end of the leg blank against the fence cleat, and rests the top end against the 12 " spacer ( photo above). Pushing the whole assembly past the blade rips a wedge off one edge. He then rolls the leg 90° to taper the adjoining face.

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3. The two remaining faces get tapered using the 1"-thick spacer. The process leaves the leg 1" smaller at the top than at the bottom. The taper stops shy of the bottom of the leg, yielding a shape that’s subtly more bulbous and massive (photo above).

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4. To give the leg a more sculpted look, Tom routs a 12 " round-over on the base (photo above). This simple step dramatically alters the leg’s final appearance compared with the plain version also shown, plus creates softened edges that are less prone to chipping.

A diamond makes a gem of a detail

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Standing just proud of the surrounding surface of the tabletop, these diamonds invite your eyes and hands to them.

Diamond-shaped inlays, above, create a subtle yet striking detail at each corner on the breadboard ends of Tom Stangeland’s dining tables. He precisely crafts each diamond from a thin strip of ebony, and fits each one by hand to ensure a tight, gap-free fit. Here’s how he does it.

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1. Tom starts by ripping 18 "-thick ebony into narrow strips (photo above). Placing the wood at an angle orients the grain parallel to the long axis of the diamond. A thin piece of particleboard clamped to the saw acts as a zero-clearance insert.

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2. A homemade jig holds the ebony strips at the correct angle for cutting diamond shapes. Tom cuts just through the ebony stock, then pulls the jig back from the blade. (photo above). As in the step 1 photo, he uses a pencil eraser to hold the diamond as he cuts.

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3. At each table corner, Tom lays out lines for the mortise (photo above). He marks intersecting lines centered on the width of each joining piece. Then he places the diamond’s points on those lines and traces its shape using a sharp pencil to create a fine line.

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4. Tom cuts away most of the recess to a depth of about 116 " using a handheld router equipped with a 18 " straight bit. A sharp chisel and steady hand finish the cut. Once the diamond is fitted, Tom glues it in place and carefully hand-sands it, shown above.

While 6 out of 10 people might not pick up on these subtle styling cues, Tom insists that they’re critical to good design, and make up a large part of what separates fine furniture from the run of the mill. 

Close examination of the dining table base reveals more subtle details: The center stretcher sports a slight chamfer, plus a thin cap on top with half-round edges. “That detail takes a lot of time,” Tom says, “and you don’t necessarily notice that it’s there. But it catches the light, creating an accent that you will see, whether or not you know why it happened.”

Shop Tip

Tom’s top seven success tips

1. Make good and accurate layout marks, and then trust them.
2. Be thorough and decisive. Second-guessing leads to confusion and mistakes.
3. Have a good plan and design on hand before you start cutting. You want to know where you’re going to avoid arriving at a dead end.
4. Always use good materials, and don’t be wasteful. There are only so many beautiful boards.
5. Don’t be tentative when operating equipment or hand tools. Stay focused and make sure you’ve sorted out any questions or uncertainties about the operation before you turn on a machine.
6. Select the wood you use personally and carefully. Don’t leave it to someone who isn’t sure what you’re after.
7. Get to know your wood supplier really well. Having a good relationship at the lumberyard leads to better material in your shop because the supplier will know your desires, and may notify you when stock you’ll like arrives.

Design that works

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While design is obviously important in Tom’s works, he’s quick to point out that function comes first. “When designing a piece of furniture, always start by figuring out why it needs to exist and what it has to accomplish.”

A partially finished custom display case on his shop floor illustrates the point. Were he designing it for himself, he would have made this piece either taller or slightly narrower to make the proportions a little more pleasing. But it’s designed to tuck into a niche in the client’s dining room, and has to be wide enough to properly fill the space. Because the client is short, a taller cabinet would have made it hard for her to see a treasured piece of art that will reside on top.

Making those kinds of decisions lends an extra challenge to furnituremaking, which answers why Tom produces more stock pieces than custom ones these days. “When working on special orders, I have to stand around thinking a lot while I figure it out. And it’s hard to charge people for that part of the process.”

So does he ever tire of making similar pieces multiple times? Not really. Of the dining table he says, “I get really excited when I finish one. It’s a design I never tire of. And I really enjoy building beautiful things that will last a long, long time. It’s a little piece of immortality.”

Like all of Tom Stangeland’s furniture, this sideboard is built to withstand daily use. The finish looks like natural oil but is really a durable catalyzed lacquer. The drawers feature hidden ball-bearing glides for smooth operation.

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