Meet Greg Mitchell

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Part of the fun of building rustic furniture is trying to imagine what the finished piece will look like. Arkansas craftsman Greg Mitchell arranges and rearranges peeled dogwood and bark-on maple branches that will become legs for a small side table.

With its many hills and tree-studded neighborhoods, Fayetteville, Arkansas, suits furnituremaker Greg Mitchell just fine. "I could probably find all the wood I need within a three-block area from our house," he says. "Nobody wants branches lying around. And they always are pruning for power lines, plus storms that blow over trees and knock down branches. There's an endless supply. And if I have to cut fresh ones, there's a vacant wooded lot right down the street."

Greg's a tree person through and through. He has always been one, even while growing up in the San Francisco Bay area. Couple that with his love of tools and tinkering, and you get a very special brand of woodworker. "All through my early twenties, when I lived in Vermont, I had a shop and was accumulating tools," he recalls.

Back then, Greg built small pieces of furniture just for fun. It wasn't until after he had been in business for awhile as a cartographer that he finally could focus on crafting the rustic. "I'd been working for about eight years in Fayetteville with two partners creating software atlases. Then we were bought out," he explains. "I didn't want to move to Massachusetts with the new company. And at that point—in 1995—I had money in the bank. So I thought I might as well start building rustic furnitur—then or never!"

Without any formal woodworking training, Greg jumped in cold turkey. "I had to start from square one: insulate my shop, run sufficient power to it, and buy a bandsaw, planer, jointer, and routers to go with my tablesaw and hand tools. Then I needed to build drying sheds for the wood."

Rustic furniture—tied to the American Arts and Crafts movement and widely popular as furnishings in the great Adirondack lodges of the 1920s and 1930s—undergoes a revival today in the country look. From the mountains of Idaho to the wilds of Maine, and from the Texas plains to the ridge tops of North Carolina, you'll find rustic furniture of all varieties. There are sturdy straight-lined chairs of bark-on saplings, sofas and loveseats of bent willow, tables of twigs, desks of driftwood, and accessories decorated with birch bark.

The style's newfound presence may be due to the public's growing appreciation of nature. No other furniture style draws so much from it and in turn reflects it. Too, there's a simpleness to rustic furniture shared with the pieces of Gustav Stickley that came to be acclaimed as mission. But with rustic, natural forms become functional objects for the home.

No matter the reasons, the number of people who make (and buy) rustic work continues to grow. And depending on what type you want to create, you'll discover that rustic furniture is relatively easy to build. Best of all, you may already have a yardful of stock!

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Greg Mitchell takes a break on the porch of his Fayetteville, Arkansas, shop. His hand rests on the back of one of his more formal country creations. Note drying wood behind.

Nature's variety of raw material

Woodworkers doing rustic furniture draw upon their local natural resources. If you live near large bodies of water, for instance, you might look to driftwood. City dwellers could recycle pallets. But because the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas are abundantly forested with a great variety of hardwood species, Greg has lots of choices: tree branches, saplings, firewood, sawmill slabs, and "rounds" that come from crosscutting logs.

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Down the street from his home, Greg ponders the possibilites for a twisted sapling.

"My love of trees shows in my furniture," says Greg. "But I've had to study wood identification because I try to identify all that I use. One time at a crafts fair, I counted 12 different species of wood in what I had on display."

The craftsman does have his favorites, though. "I like dogwood. It's a really hard wood, and it often has great 'bug trails' under the bark. A dogwood tree has a formal shape with symmetrical branching. Every type of tree has its own character, and to me, dogwood has elegance," he comments.

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The halves of an Osage orange branch arch over a maple base in this $500 mirror.

"On the other hand, I like the twisty gnarliness of oak—it's down-home rustic," Greg continues. "Sycamore I'd call leggy, somewhere between dogwood and oak. Then there's linden [basswood], the elms, maple, and cherry—with bark on and off. I've used some woods from other places, like mountain laurel from North Carolina that a man brought to me. And redbud grows everywhere here, but it proves marginal because it's not very strong. Yet in the right place—such as a mirror frame—it'll work. Bois d'arc [Osage orange] has heft, hardness, and a rich color that I like. I don't use many softwoods, though, except cedar. I've used pine for tops, but never pine-tree branches."

To get wood, branch out

Greg prefers collecting his wood in the winter because, with the leaves down, he can better see the shapes of the branches. And natural shape is an important aspect of making rustic furniture because you work with what you get. What shape best suits a chair arm, table base, or a stool leg? It takes some imagination.

Too, winter is the best time to cut branches on which you want to leave the bark. With little or no sap between the bark and the wood, the bark tends to cling. "If I want to take off the bark from a piece that was cut in winter, it would easily require half a day," Greg says. "And the wood will be full of nicks from the knife or scraper. So if the bark is on a piece—and it wants to remain on—I don't attempt to take it off."

On the other hand, bark slips or peels with little effort from branches harvested in the spring and summer, especially maple, hickory, and basswood. The presence of any sap prevents the bark from bonding to the wood.

Although Greg sees in his mind's eye the potential use for a particular branch or piece of wood, he doesn't cut or select it for a specific piece of furniture because it first has to dry. "I dry all my wood under covered sheds," he notes. "Small branches up to about 12 " in diameter may only take a few months, while a stick 2" in diameter takes a year, unless it's a very dense wood like bois d'arc. I also use a small dry-kiln, but it's primarily for thick pieces and to kill bugs.

"You can tell when wood is dry by rapping pieces together. If they make a sharp snapping sound, they're probably dry," he continues. "But I check my wood with a moisture meter, too."

Why does Greg care how dry the wood is when his furniture is rustic anyway? Basically, because green wood made into a tenon will shrink and loosen in the mortise, even if glued, and come loose. But the piece that's mortised can be a bit green because it will shrink tighter around the tenon as it dries.

Greg lines up his tools to build a rustic table

Greg Mitchell used these essential tools for the rustic table project you'll see him build in this article (alternatives given in parentheses):

* Pruning saw (pruning shears)
* Flush-trimming saw
* 38 " electric drill
* 58 " Forstner bit (spade bit would do)
* 58 ' Veritas tenon cutter; about $69, from Lee Valley Tools, 800/871-8158. (Tenons also can be made with plug cutters, but they'll leave square-shouldered tenons and you'll have to saw off the "collar" left by the cutter.)
* Trim router and 14 " double-flute straight cutting bit. (A rotary rasp chucked into an electric drill will also work.)
* Bench vise
* Oscillating portable finish sander
* Tablesaw (to rip boards for top)|
* Jointer (to edge boards for top and flatten base)
* Bar clamps
* Bandsaw (to saw top to round)

Rustic end table
To show you the basics of rustic furniture building, Greg Mitchell designed a simple, but dramatic, end table. View the photos, below, to see how it goes together.

Greg builds a rustic table

1. Start with material selection

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From one of the several drying sheds surrounding his shop, Greg chooses some branches that he'll insert in the base to support the solid maple top. The craftsman likes to employ branches with several forks. He believes they add more visual interest.

For a top, Greg edge-joined four pieces of 34 ×5×22" sugar maple, sawed it to round on the bandsaw, profiled the edge with a router, then sanded it smooth. The base is a hefty (it needs weight) split half of spalted white oak firewood with its bottom side flattened on the jointer.

Next, Greg arranges and rearranges the branches on his workbench for the right visual balance on the base. He also takes into consideration how these structural members must equally share the weight of the top, then marks their positions with a pencil.

2. Shape the tenons

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With a 58 " Veritas tenon cutter chucked into his electric drill, Greg shapes a 1"-long tenon on the first branch, which he has clamped securely in the bench vise. The tenon cutter gives him a radiused shoulder, but he must be sure that the branch and the cutter are level so the tenon won't be angled. Manufactured especially for the rustic-furniture builder, the tenon cutters come in sizes from 58 " to 1" for most furniture applications and in larger sizes for big structural connections.

3. Drill the base mortises

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The branches now tenoned, Greg chucks a 58 " Forstner bit into his electric drill, and at the workbench, first bores shallow holes at the mortise marks. "I don't want to go too deep without dry-fitting the branches to recheck their placement," he explains. "If my holes are off just a bit, no problem. I can fill the voids with epoxy." Satisfied with the original arrangement, Greg completes the drilling. He angles each mortise as necessary to match the bend of the branches, and drills it 1" deep.

4. Time for some pruning

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After Greg has epoxied the tenoned branches into their respective mortises on the base and allowed the adhesive to cure, he can prune them to table height. With a 17"-long wood scrap to check height, Greg goes from branch to branch with saw in hand, measuring and trimming. (He keeps several such scraps on hand, each cut to a specific length and labeled.)

5. Turn the table topsy-turvy

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To mark the locations for the pruned branches on the underside of the top, Greg flips over the maple top and sets it on his worktable. After finding and marking its center, he turns the base upside down so that its branches rest on the top. He now can center the base.

Then, with a pencil, Greg traces around the tip of each branch where it rests on the top. If a branch has an irregular shape, the tracing reflects it.

6. Rout the branch sockets

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Using a small trim router with a 14 " double-flute, straight-cutting bit, Greg carefully routs away the wood within the branch-tip outlines to a 12 " depth. He routs straight into the wood, even if the branch will meet the socket at an angle. "Don't try to match the angle by angling the router. It's too dangerous," he advises. When finished with the routing, each socket roughly reflects the shape and size of the branch tip that it will house. "Unlike the base mortises, which tightly fit the tenons, the sockets can fit loosely because the pool of epoxy will fill any gap," Greg notes.

7. Attach the top with epoxy 

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Donning latex gloves, Greg prepares to adhere the base to the top. At his worktable, he once again turns the base topsy-turvy onto the top's bottom side and fits each branch tip into its routed socket. Then he moves to the epoxy dispenser, and squirts equal amounts of the two-part mix into a paper cup and carefully stirs it.

"I use slow-set epoxy because of its permanence and gap-filling quality," he says as he works around the base, filling each socket with the gooey substance. "On the frame of a chair, which might have to come apart some day for part replacement, I'll use yellow woodworkers' glue. Otherwise, it's epoxy for everything I build because even though it's rustic, I'm making furniture that I hope will be around for a long, long time."

A note on finishing rustic

For his furniture finish, Greg sprays on water-based exterior polyurethane. "But I usually first put on a sealer coat of dewaxed shellac, unless I think it may darken certain types of bark too much," the craftsman explains. "Sometimes I'll apply a base coat of Danish oil to give a little more color to bright, peeled wood."