Skip to main content

Inspiration and ideas are all around you

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “But it’s just so ‘samey.’ ”

The client was a retired tax judge in Minnesota and we were remodeling her bathroom. She was paging through a brochure of top-end cabinets and looking for a design that caught her eye. There was everything from flat- to raised-panel doors, crown moldings, milk washes and foil — a really comprehensive catalog of standard, traditional, time-tested designs.

What she wanted was something that made these cabinets distinctly hers. The quest here was not so much for customization as it was for personalization. Even though this was a custom job, the stark truth was that other people already owned these same doors and boxes, albeit in a slightly different size or stain.

So how does a shop go that extra few feet (we’re not talking a whole mile here) to create something that is distinctive, unique and very personal?

Design inspiration

There are three sources of inspiration that immediately come to mind. The first is obvious: just look around the room and pick up some architectural detail that can be incorporated into the casework. For example, the 16 divided lights in the front door might suggest cubbyholes or the natural edges on the dining table could be reflected in a creative crown that runs along the tops of the cabinets. Perhaps there are ebony plugs in the furniture that can be imitated or a color in the carpet that can be used as a wash, dye, stain or even a milk paint?

The second source of inspiration is the customer’s personal life. What hobbies do they have? Is a golf or sailing theme appropriate? Do they want to carry those images as far as hiring somebody to do a couple of marquetry panels for doors? Hobbies aren’t the only aspect of a personal life that might provide inspiration. People present mementoes of their private histories for public viewing in all sorts of ways. The type of art they hang or the books and magazines they read are clues. Photographs always tell stories: the most sophisticated, urbane demeanor might be a thin cloak laid over a childhood on a farm and a furniture builder might just hit a home run by adding a smidgen of grayed, ancient barn wood to a sleek lacquered sofa table.

Hidden talents

The third inspiration for distinctive decoration might be closer than you think. Your shop might have hidden potential. Is one of your crew a woodturner? If so, it’s relatively easy to tape two pieces of stock together, turn a spindle and then separate the halves to create a pair of impressive, one-of-a-kind appliques. These add a very distinctive design element to almost any project. A similar technique can be used to turn solid Grecian vases/urns, acorns, darts and other themes. Because the turning is done as two halves taped together, the backs are flat so attaching them to casework, doors or even table legs is as simple as glue and clamps.

If you don’t have an in-house turner, finding one is not a challenge. The American Association of Woodturners ( has about 14,000 members in 319 local chapters spread all across the United States.

Exposed and highlighted joinery on a drawer shows off the mahogany with ebony accents and showcases the artist's talent.

Do any of your people carve? Adding a philosophical quote (make it a short one) to a door or a wide cabinet rail can enliven the wood and personify a project. The quote should probably have a somewhat universal appeal or the point could be lost. A phrase from a well-known poem or speech works well. Greek symbols from an old sorority or fraternity, carved in floating panels, seem to be popular in the offices of lawyers and other professionals. And finding a carver is relatively easy, too. Do an online search for ‘wood carvers association’ and the results will reveal organizations in several states and regions. There is also a National Wood Carvers Association ( based in Cincinnati. 

Outsourced inspiration

If carving and turning doesn’t appeal to your client, perhaps something as simple as unusual hardware will do the trick. In 1999, Roy Prange created a company in Portland, Ore., named the House of Antique Hardware ( The firm has been featured on This Old House and in The New York Times and, through the years, Prange’s people have contributed to various historical renovation and restoration projects for federal and state entities, as well as some notable commercial clients. With a mix of authentic antiques and impeccable reproductions, they could have exactly what you need to add some distinctive design and detail to your work. Plus, they offer sales consultation. This is one of the few corporations where a woodworker can have a conversation with a real live salesperson.

Another company in the same vein is Minneapolis-based Architectural Antiques (, although here the range of product isn’t limited to hardware. It offers stained glass panels, period lighting, doors, corbels, ironwork and a dizzying array of accents that can be incorporated into a furniture or cabinet project to give it a unique look and feel. If the thought of shipping from Minneapolis to your job site is daunting, then an online search for ‘architectural antiques’ and a ZIP code will probably yield a source closer to home. But having walked through the Minneapolis facility, it’s hard to imagine there is another one quite like it anywhere else.

Strictly woodworking

Laser engraving from photographs makes it easy to add personal artwork.

Beyond hardware and applied accents, a woodshop can turn to its own trade practices to add distinctive design and detail to its work. For example, revealing some elements of joinery can bring a deep sense of craft to an otherwise run-of-the-mill project.

There’s nobody in our industry who understands the impact of exposed joinery more than Darrell Peart, a master craftsman based in Seattle. Peart draws his inspiration from the work of past masters such as James Krenov, John Ruskin and William Morris. But he is recognized internationally for his own masterpieces, many of which are executed in the spirit of the Pasadena architects, Charles and Henry Greene. Building on their legacy, he has created an instantly recognizable and often imitated style and an hour spent wandering through his website ( might inspire accents and elements that can bring a distinctive note to any shop’s work.

Krenov was a master of distinction, too. Any woodworker who has read even rudimentary texts in this field will recognize a Krenov piece across a crowded room. Two of his books, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” and “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking” combine to describe a design philosophy that was both unique and extremely innovative. Reading such works and also familiarizing oneself with the portfolios of designers such as Tage Frid, Sam Maloof and George Nakashima will open up possibilities and introduce notions that might not immediately occur to woodworkers, especially those of us who were trained as cabinetmakers and feel most comfortable with straight lines and rectangles. Before there were sheet goods and table saws, there were intricately shaped pieces of furniture and casework by the likes of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton.

Perhaps our best inspiration for moving forward is to occasionally glance backwards. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.

Related Articles