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Working wood with a sense of humor.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in American Woodworker # 154
Most carpenters they got a chuckle or two from a piece of furniture they or someone else built, perhaps a cupboard too big to fit through the workshop door or a bookcase with two left sides. But most of the furniture made by Jake Cress will make you smile, and it’s not from a lack of skill or planning. He wants to make you laugh. Whether it’s a Chippendale chair with a rebel ball or a grandfather clock that makes a wild swing with its pendulum to a rat running along its side, Jake’s work will brighten your day.
The long and winding road
After graduating from high school and serving in five-year stint in the USN submarine service, Jake was involved in professional theater. There were long pauses between the end of one play and the start of another, so he and his brother decided to open a cabinet-making shop. “In 1974 there were no carpentry schools, and even if there were, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it,” Jake explains. “If I had someone who would teach me, I could have saved a fortune in wasted wood.”
Now 66, Jake is completely self-taught. Part of his woodworking education came from visiting exhibitions and galleries to study the craft. “One cold morning I walked into a gallery and noticed someone had left their gloves and keys on a beautiful table. When I turned around to talk to someone about it, I did a double walk and realized they were part of the table, “recalls Jake. That piece, Table with gloves and keys by Wendell Castle, inspired Jake to start building furniture with personality. Cripple table, his first humorous piece, sports three shapely legs and a crutch.
Although some of Jake’s more complex pieces sell for more than $ 20,000, he remembers leaner days. Early in his career as a furniture maker, Jake admits he is willing to “do anything legal to do with wood”. Such legal efforts brought him various tasks such as refinishing 80 cherry wood coffee tables for a hotel and restoring an 18th century corner cabinet that was in poor condition only one door, one style and the center drawer front were usable. Eventually Jake’s furniture started selling and even though he admits that “it’s still a hard way to make a living,” he has remained dedicated to his craft.
Jake’s work may not be traditional, but his pieces have been acquired by museums such as the Smithsonian and exhibited at the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh. His furniture appeared in The Washington Post And Art and Antiques magazine.
Jake learned to make miniature furniture for a variety of reasons. “They are beautiful and cute,” he explains. “They are also useful and elegant.” But his miniatures aren’t just for show. Since he normally avoids working from a blueprint or plan while building life-sized pieces, he uses miniatures to work out the details. For example, Jake often adjusts the proportions on old traditional pieces to make them look even better. Building a miniature version allows him to try out those new proportions. Although some of his miniatures are quarter scale, most of them are half scale. “Half a ladder is easy,” he says. “You just cut all the half size. ” Jake also explains that the half-scale pieces are perfect for half-scale people, like his grandchildren.
But being tiny doesn’t make one of Jake’s miniatures a smaller project. You won’t find this using hot glue to put the parts together; its miniatures are faithful, right down to the joints. “I cut the mortises and tenons by hand using the same tools I use for the full-size piece,” he explains. “They are challenging. In fact they can be more complex than the full-size piece ”.
Traditional half, half animated
Jake describes his work and himself by explaining: “The pieces are made one at a time, very carefully, by a dusty old man working alone in an old log cabin.”
About half of the pieces he builds are traditional; the other half is animated. Jake names all of his pieces, which adds another layer of humor. An inclined table is called the democrat when leaning left e the Republican when it is turned to lean to the right. His great expectations the chair has a Fudgesicle carved in the arm and an impatient face with the tongue out carved in the back. by Jake Self portrait chair prepares to carve its leg with a chisel and hammer. peel here reveals a checkerboard under the veneer. How to build furniture illustrates a classic woodworking nightmare.
Some of Jake’s animated drawings have been exceptionally popular. He has made more than two dozen Oops! seats, peel here tables and Hickory Dickory watches. Although each piece is slightly different, once Jake has perfected the basic design, he creates templates for future pieces. Not content with resting on his laurels, he keeps pushing the envelope. The decorator, a recent piece, features a two-dimensional painting by the artist Mark Young, with the arm of a chair stretched out to pick a flower from a vase placed on a table below. Building one of its more complex pieces can take up to two months. “But a lifetime of experience,” adds Jake. “Don’t try it without adult supervision.”
Although best known for his animated pieces, Jake can create a Chippendale lowboy or federal secretary alongside the best, and his miniature versions of antique furniture are delightful. Jake is a personal show, taking care of all the carving, inlaying and finishing work. Uses both hand tools and power tools, letting him do the dirty work, so he can focus on the parts that really need the human touch. “I’m not going to hand plane a 20” wide board if I have a 20 “wide plane,” he explains. “But if I have a 21” board … well, I guess I have no options. “
Jake can transform a sentence as appropriately as he can transform a mahogany load into a corner cabinet. In an essay on his website he describes working late into the night with a friend who desperately needed a box of walnuts to contain the ashes of a suddenly deceased relative. “I saw the walnut get richer and deeper with a little sadness that would disappear forever,” he writes. “[But with] I am very proud that such a human need can still be satisfied by friends rather than by companies “.
When asked about his unique approach to woodworking, Jake explains, “No matter what you do for a living, you have to learn the basics. You have to study the classics. You have to learn how to operate a pencil before you learn how to operate a computer. If you don’t know the rules, you can’t break them. ”Nobody breaks the rules better than Jake Cress.
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