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Falling into place

Bud Tullis, of Solvang, Calif., has been producing custom furniture since 1972, mixing his own ideas with fragments of various design styles from all eras.

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“Everything influences me, particularly the Danish Modern style. You’ll see a lot of that in my work, as well as the work of John Nyquist, Sam Maloof, Art Carpenter and Paul Tuttle.”

Tullis, 71, grew up in Long Beach, Calif. His plan after high school was to pursue architecture because he enjoyed drawing and thought it would be a fun way to make a living. He went to the University of Utah’s architecture school in 1956, but left after he and his brother inherited the family welding-supplies business in 1959. He took to his new endeavor — for a while.

“After 12 years, I finally realized I needed an occupation where I could build things with my hands. I didn’t want any employees. I had been building furniture in my garage during that time so I thought maybe some kind of craft would suit me. I discussed this at length with John Nyquist, who highly recommended I return to art school.”

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In 1972, Tullis had a family with three children to support, so he had to put some good thought into how he would fund his next endeavor. He sold the welding supply business and went to Cal State-Fullerton, graduating in 1974. He then earned a Master of Arts degree in 1976 from Cal State-Long Beach. As you might guess, Tullis is a strong believer in education.

“You’ve got to get things flowing in order to get out of the mainstream and get your own edge. I tell everyone who comes into my shop and wants to work for me, or wants advice about making a living doing this, to go back to school and study design and, if you’re handy, the craft will take care of itself.”

Wisdom from the masters
While in graduate school, Tullis was lucky to study under Nyquist, John Snidicore and Frank Cummings. He also apprenticed under the late Art Espenet Carpenter, known for his “California round over” style, the rounding over of the front edge.

“The California round over is also known as ‘bull nose’. I learned how to do that, but I also learned how he did a lamination trick with his chairs. He’d laminate a leg, normally 4" to 6-1/4" laminations, and put a wedge between the middle ones to spread it out on the floor where it would ‘settle.’ I did my masters thesis on this process and still use it on pieces that I feel require that kind of grounding.”

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Tullis was also curious about the business side of woodworking.

“One of the first things Art stressed was that in a one-man shop, you will spend half your life sanding and finishing. The next thing was creative designs and fabricating, and the next thing was marketing. Marketing is an extremely important aspect of this trade and most of us do a lousy job of it. I have done trade shows, galleries, museums. But word of mouth seems to be the best. In tough times as these, it is anybody’s guess.”

A progressive start
When Tullis left his apprenticeship with Carpenter, he felt confident and he was ready to take on woodworking as a profession. At that time, he was working on a couple commissions. Tullis’ only concern was whether the money from the sale of the welding business would hold out long enough for him to get established. It did.

Tullis rented a small shop space in Long Beach and put in 16-hour days, honing his personal design style at the time.

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“After doing the bull nose edge for a few years, I decided to give the front edge of pieces, like cabinet boxes and tables, a more important feature. So I started hand-shaping an elliptical shape using files. Again, all hand work, but it achieved my purpose. This provided a hard edge on both sides of the front.”

Tullis started with a shop rate of $3.50, then “pushed it” to $7, and then $12 an hour. Now he makes “as much as a plumber,” he says. Tullis admits that early on he just wanted to get the experience and greatly undersold himself.

His luck changed as he came in contact with a psychiatrist who was opening an office in Brentwood.

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“I met my first big client jogging on the beach. I did his whole office. Then his colleague wanted commissioned work, and then another came along. So I had four or five psychiatrists at a time — all young, all my age, around 38, all competing with each other, trying to get the best stuff,” he laughed.

In 1977, Tullis purchased his home on a five-acre lot in Solvang.

“The area that I worked in was getting scary and, working the hours I did, I knew that would continue. We started looking at Malibu and other beach areas we couldn’t afford. Then I found out about this place and we could barely afford it.”

Tullis built a shop — a 1,260-sq.-ft. double hexagon-style building, complete with beams and trusses — in a year-and-a-half. The shop has large picture windows that bring natural light to his work and let him gaze at the countryside where his shop dog, Sydney, likes to run about.

Establishing clients
At the time of the move, Tullis had about 10 regular clients and his backlog extended for nine months. But the market was scarce at his new address.

“I tried to get work here and that was difficult. This valley is pretty small; I didn’t have any connections and my backlog started shrinking.”

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He found customers, but they wanted traditional furniture and cabinetry. Tullis obliged.

“The first few years were OK and I learned a new method of fabrication. This went on for about five years in the early ’80s. I had to employ a helper for the bulk work. I made most of the parts in-shop, but used a door company when possible. I made more money doing cabinets than I ever have in furniture, but cabinetry eventually bored me.”

Tullis began a long association with furniture designer Paul Tuttle in 1982. They collaborated on more than 300 pieces in a 20-year period. Tullis credits Tuttle for getting him comfortable in working with other media, including used steel, Formica, glass, aluminum and cane.

“I like more of a hard edge on my furniture. After working with Paul, I really enjoy combining material … I’m not afraid of it. A lot of my chairs are combined steel and wood.”

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Nowadays, most of Tullis’ clients are in the Santa Barbara area. But Solvang produced a commission at a leather garment store, First Street Leather, at Mammoth Lakes Ski Resort in 2003.

“The job started small, but ended up to be one of my biggest jobs ever. All mahogany false beams, display cabinets, back lighting; I finished it all and installed it all. It was a very exciting and fun job, plus a great client. Over 100 sheets of plywood, hundreds of board feet of mahogany, and two back operations later it was completed — on time.”

Simple shop
Tullis prefers traditional woodworking tools and hasn’t conformed to high-tech innovations, which he says is very liberating. He has the basics: a Delta 10" Unisaw,
14" band saw, shaper and mortiser; Craftsman radial arm saw, Belsaw 12" planer, Davis and Wells jointer, Fay & Egan 36" band saw, Makita 10" compound miter saw and a Tormek sharpening system.

Tullis stores about 8,000 bf of lumber, which mostly comes from Higgins Lumber in Santa Maria, Calif. Tullis says his favorite wood is walnut because it holds a sharp edge. He doesn’t like maple because it’s an unforgiving wood. While it shapes out really nice, the color varies too much, he says.

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“I used to buy huge planks of walnut, the lengths are getting shorter, the cost seems to be fairly stable but the lumber isn’t as good of a quality with knots … but I like knots. When I make furniture I put in the knots in the tabletop, unless the client says no knots.”

And no piece ever leaves Tullis’ shop without at least five coats of oil. “Finishing is so important, you can’t stop at coat No. 2; you have to have the patience,” he says.

When calculating pricing, Tullis considers the time he puts into a piece, the complicity of the job functions he does such as milling, sanding, joinery and any edgework, along with the materials that include various domestic and exotic woods, as well as glass and metal.

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An average chair, for example, is priced at $3,000.

Tullis is more into carving now because of his recent interest in sculpture, which he used as a therapy when he had an illness and needed some time off. Tullis sold his first sculpture in a show soon after it was finished. The second one was purchased out of his shop. The third one is currently in a gallery, while the fourth is a work in progress.

“I am finding sculpture very satisfying and no less profitable than furniture. It is a total different mindset for me. Traditionally, I’m constructing furniture. With sculpture, you take away. I begin with hand gouge and mallet, then revert to whatever gets it smooth. But there is always hand work, sanding and finishing.”

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Through March, Tullis’ work will be featured in an exhibit at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, Calif., called “Progress and Ideals — 21st Century Arts and Crafts”.

On the average day, Tullis enjoys spending time with his grandchildren, hiking with his friends or camping with his family. Years ago, if Tullis didn’t have a three- to six-month backlog, he would wake up in a cold sweat. But those restless nights are over.

“I’m trying to retire, but I’m still selling pieces and getting invited to shows. I want to keep going. I don’t have to spend 10 hours a day in the shop and I’m not going to bury myself in my work. I have 100 oak trees to trim and fences to mend. I’m just taking it day by day.” n

Contact: Bud Tullis, P.O. Box 434, Solvang, CA 93464. Tel: 805-688-3758.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.

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