Pull up a chair - Craftsman or artist?

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Pull up a chair
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Craftsman or artist?
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Technique vital to finished product

Scott Mulcahey uses a variety of techniques to make his one-of-a-kind chairs and bring them in at a top price of about $650.

As much as he loves wood and woodworking, he also applies a hard edge to his work. "I use whatever I need to get the job done," says Mulcahey. He applies that approach across his entire construction process — choosing design, joinery and finish with an eye to construction time and final price point:

• Mulcahey primarily uses two coats of post-catalyzed varnish on the chairs, applying the varnish before using any paints for additional color. "I have more control over penetration. I can apply the color and wipe it right off where I don't want it."

Mulcahey said he'd like to use multiple coats of tung oil and wax. But the process is simply too labor intensive. "It would put the price out of reach," says Mulcahey. "The varnish gives the same effect."

• Because Mulcahey uses a variety of woods, uniform moisture content is vital before he starts. He makes sure his wood is at between 6 and 7 percent moisture content before he starts. The only exception: the found wood and driftwood pieces. "I don't care if those pieces open up. It's part of what they are."

• Mulcahey relies on two joinery techniques for his chairs, one traditional, the other modern.

The traditional through tenon adds vertical strength to his chairs — they can support up to 600 lbs. At the same time, they save time and money because they eliminate stretchers that would add an entirely new level of construction time and design elements to his clean style.

On the modern side, Mulcahey uses biscuit joints and epoxy to join the variety of scrap boards he uses to create both the chair seats and backs. Two tricks here: First, Mulcahey allows the wafer to absorb ambient moisture, so they are swollen and fit into the slot tightly to start. Second, Mulcahey makes sure he joints his scrap boards to a perfect dry fit. He'll use a jointer, hand plane or even an edge sander to get the fit he wants. "The fit has to be right," he says.

"People come in and see them and if they like one, they have to have it," says Barry. "It can be the color or the wood. One woman bought a blue one for her bathroom because the color was right. I had two driftwood chairs that had all tangled roots at the top. I called them my Harry Potter chairs. A landscaper came in and saw them and bought them both."

For Kelly Krajewski, the orange color and the look of her chair convinced her to buy.

"I really like the rustic look," says Krajewski as she puts the chair into her SUV. "And I like how each one is individual. The furniture in my house tends to be unique and eclectic, and this just fits in."

It's that one-of-a-kind combination of natural wood grains, the board's own history of use and abuse, woodworking skill and human creation that Mulcahey hopes will draw the market to his chairs.

In designing each chair, Mulcahey starts with the back. Once he has that down, the seat and legs follow. His more sophisticated pieces may have legs with a sleek, gentle curve. His rustic pieces may have full, thick wood chunks for legs. Especially in his rustic pieces, Mulcahey exploits empty knotholes, rusty nail holes and broken edges to add texture and drama to the work.

Mulcahey uses a combination of hand tools, mallet and chisel, an adz and hand planes and modern tools such as a band saw to create his chairs. "I'm not a woodworking purest. I'll use whatever I can to get the job done," says Mulcahey.

The traditional joinery Mulcahey uses and his skill in reading wood grain — combining woods in a way that reduces expansion and contraction with humid or dry conditions — serve the pieces both aesthetically and functionally.

Reading grain directions, the way a lapidary might read a jewel before cutting it, can also add tension, drama or unity to the piece depending on how Mulcahey mixes and combines grain directions.

Joinery, too, can add strength and visual variety.

For now, Mulcahey uses the through tenon to add vertical strength to his chairs and as an additional design statement — the exposed tenon's end grain absorbs more stain or paint than the flat grain and shows up as a darker element in the chair — giving Mulcahey an additional design element. 

Mulcahey hopes to expand his joinery techniques. That will add strength and design to his work, especially a joinery technique that will span voids in his boards and pull together the variety of species he uses.

So far, he's still experimenting.

Mulcahey's seeking something like a butterfly joint, "but that's George's (Nakashima) territory, and I don't want to rip him off."

Craftsman or artist?
In such details, Mulcahey's design integrity and skill show through. A look at his joints shows each piece fits perfectly into the other. No gaps. No torn edges. No wood fill. Only perfectly tight, perfectly joined wood, as if it were poured as liquid that then solidified.

In Nakashima's spirit, Mulcahey sees design and technique as secondary to the wood itself. "Nature is the best designer," he says. "I just reconfigure it to make a piece. I'm secondary to nature."

It's that philosophy that has pushed Mulcahey into new territory.

"Someone recently asked me if I'm a craftsman or an artist," says Mulcahey. "I had to think about that for at least a week before I could come with an answer. I finally decided I'm an artist. If you're making cabinets, even beautiful cabinets, you're making boxes. You repeat that beauty and perfection over and over. With these chairs, I'm looking to make an individual statement."