Studio furniture maker Andrew Pitts has planned a lifetime for what he's doing now. The sole owner of Andrew Pitts - Furniture Maker in Heathsville, Va., Pitts does it all from joinery to sanding to finishing and upholstery. He built his shop, mills his own lumber and does all of his own marketing and bookkeeping. What's most interesting is that Pitts is a retired captain in the U.S. Navy who yearned for this opportunity throughout his long career in the service.
While his military duties kept him at sea most of the time, Pitts and his wife, Kathy, carted the growing workshop around with them whenever they could as he transferred to new stations. Finally, in 2002, with 30 years of active duty, he left the Navy and decided to make his studio furniture business profitable.
"Unfortunately, my Navy career never left room to take formal training, but as a Navy 'nuc' I was very adept at learning from reading, so I read all that I could and then tried to apply the principles in the shop. I'm pretty good at figuring things out, so it worked out well and I learned the mechanics of building furniture."
Now Pitts has a growing clientele of mostly local individuals for whom he builds one-off pieces of accent furniture for their homes. He is also an active member of The Furniture Society and expresses gratitude toward his colleagues for giving him a cross-pollination of various artistic styles.
Pitts, who grew up in Franklin Lakes, N.J., built his first piece of furniture in high school, but really made a decision to be a furniture maker after graduating college and in his fifth year in the Navy.
"I bought my first large tool, a radial arm saw, as an ensign living in Idaho Falls, Idaho. That was in 1976 and there was sparse information available for budding studio makers. The business of studio furniture, as opposed to the hobby, was a mystery to me. I could see that raising a family could be tough financially and the Navy was a great career, so I decided to do both - a Navy career and a furniture-making career, in that order."
Owner of: Andrew Pitts – Furniture Maker
Size of shop: 2,000 sq. ft.
About: For more than 30 years, Pitts has designed and built custom solid hardwood furniture. He gained most of his furniture-making experience during his 30-year career as an officer in the Navy. Now he is settled in eastern
with sawmill and lumber-drying kiln.
Quotable: “Hard work, honesty and integrity. All good things will follow if I live and work by those tenets. I want my work to be the best I can do. I never want to feel I have to explain myself or make excuses, so I take the time to meet my own very high standards.”
Pitts began to really contemplate the meaning of furniture making in 1979 after reading James Krenov's "The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking." This made him realize that quality had to be the top priority.
"I stuck with that notion at the risk that my work might seem overpriced compared to other folks' work. Trying to keep with the philosophy, my pieces are finished everywhere, even where you will never look. It's all about integrity of the maker. I need to know that my work is the highest quality throughout, even if it will never be discovered in the most minute detail.
"James Krenov's books were like a bright light for me. I savored his words of honesty and integrity in woodworking. Reading Sam Maloof had a similar effect on me as well. Even though they were unaware of me, these people were, and still are, my mentors."
So far, Pitts' commissions have all been for residential customers, although he has made liturgical pieces for two churches.
"I'm not adverse to commercial work, but it hasn't come my way yet. I think that the right commercial client might really appreciate what I can do, though. I don't do wholesale, by the way. There is just so thin a margin with my pieces as it is. I could never compete wholesale.
"My region is heavy on retirees from places like Northern Virginia and Richmond, and they have second homes or retirement homes that need certain pieces of furniture. So far, they all seem to like working with me to design unique pieces."
Pitts promotes his work on several fronts. Locally, he has displayed his work in a couple of galleries for the last four years. There haven't been any sales, but exposure and referrals have made it a worthwhile experience. He has exhibited at local farmers markets and art shows.
"I have a large Web site and have worked hard to increase my position in the search engines, but I've found the Web site is more of an online portfolio than a sales device. I regularly write press releases for the local papers - things like awards I receive are great for press releases. I speak in public whenever asked and local folks seem fascinated with what I do. I submit photos to magazines as well."
Last year, he began exhibiting at national shows, including the Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show and the Baltimore Fine Furnishings and Fine Craft Show. He has also organized a show in Heathsville for the Artisans Center of Virginia, of which he is a juried Virginia Professional Artisan and a former board member.
"I don't really feel like the local market for my work is that competitive. I offer a service: furniture design and construction. I work with clients to design great furniture for their homes and my work is good quality. My work is unique in style for this area, so I really don't have much competition locally. But on the national stage there are a lot of great makers vying for a seemingly small number of clients."
Pitts creates his designs in one of two ways. For commissioned work, he makes what the client has in mind, even if the client does not really know what that is at the initial consultation.
"My job is to coax the necessary functional elements from the client, discuss design choices and then provide my input. From there, it is an interactive process until we get the design right."
While he used to think in straight lines, most of his former pieces were basically rectilinear. Now, Pitts tends to think in flowing curves much of the time.
"The design aesthetics have to originate from inside me and I cannot really say where they come from. Of course, since I build functional work, I start with the functions in mind, but the shapes and details just seem to come to me.
"Although I usually have some feel for how a piece might look before I start the design, I will often start by drawing a box showing the approximate overall dimensions of the piece, in which I then draw blocks for the different functional parts, drawers and doors and such. I think about size and proportion and then start refining the basic blocks into actual parts. The box approach gets me thinking on the right track."
Pitts approaches the mechanics of his design process with DesignCAD software.
"I know lots of designer/makers use pencil and paper, but I like CAD for a number of reasons. First, I need to think long and hard about a design and put it on paper. I cannot just start building from what is in my head. CAD forces me to be honest and actually make the design work on paper. Every part must fit and I can see it in the design stage. Also, CAD allows me to modify a piece very easily. If it is too tall, I can easily scale it down in height. I can change one piece of wood and see how it affects all the others. I can make client changes based on their input."
Pitts also likes how he can produce a 3-D color rendering early in the process, as well as when the design is complete, so he and the client can see how the piece will look. CAD allows him to spin the piece 360 degrees so he can see the back, sides and angles.
It took Pitts 2-1/2 years to build the 2,000-sq.-ft. shop on his property. It features a Saw Stop 10" cabinet saw, Delta Unisaw and shaper, Rockwell 14" band saw, Grizzly 20" planer and 16" jointer, Powermatic 8" jointer, Craftsman radial arm saw, DeWalt 12" sliding compound miter saw, Performax horizontal drum sander, Festool Domino and Rotex sander, and Veritas hand planes and scrapers.
Pitts harvests wood from the Northern Neck area of Virginia with a Wood-Mizer LT15 sawmill and dries it in a solar kiln. He's also milled stock from clients' trees to use in their furniture.
"I like cherry the best and I think it goes very well with red oak. I also like walnut, white oak and especially sycamore. I find tulip poplar is a very interesting wood. It starts out with a greenish/purplish heart and an off-white sapwood, but with a few years of exposure in the finished piece, the heart turns like a light chocolate brown."
Pitts will use veneer when it is the sensible thing to do. "I don't hesitate to cut my own veneers, which end up being about 1/16" to 3/32" thick, but when I need an unusual pattern for a panel or such, I've used commercial veneers.
"The trouble with most commercial veneer is that it is very thin, so I use it only in parts that will see no wear and I am extremely careful in fabrication to make sure I don't cut though the veneer. I built my own vacuum pump and really get a kick out of vacuum-bag-clamping my veneers."
He finishes with a shellac polish, discussed in Krenov's books, or an oil/varnish/beeswax mix that Sam Maloof used. Occasionally, he has wiped on thinned varnish in several coats if a table needs extra protection.
Living a dream
Pitts currently has a small order backlog and feels that business is good for the services he provides. Instead of exhibiting at Baltimore this year, he has decided to hone his local reputation for a while by doing shows closer to home.
"I recently did a Virginia Beach show, for example, and a Richmond show before Christmas. The Virginia Beach show resulted in a commission for a sideboard and, on my way back from the show, I sold [a piece] to a friend in Norfolk. I'm helping organize a studio tour for April to benefit the county library and my studio is on the route. I'm realizing that my strength right now is talking about my work with local folks, so I'm capitalizing on that aspect."
When asked the best part of his job, Pitts says "all of it."
"I'm living my dream, the work I spent my life preparing to do. I wake up, eat breakfast, and walk 200 feet to work in my forest workshop. I look out the window and see the lumber from the mill drying in stacks between the trees. I turn on talk radio to maintain some link to the outside world and then get to work. When I can get absorbed in my work, that's what it's all about. I'm not too down on the other, more mundane aspects either, like doing the business things or keeping up the maintenance on the shop, except that it takes me away from making my furniture.
Contact: Andrew Pitts Furniture Maker, 667 Courthouse Road, Heathsville, VA 22473. Tel: 804-724-3401. www.andrewpittsfurnituremaker.com
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.