Out of the Ashes | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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A look at Ken Richards’ life in woodworking.
After six years as a designer at Boeing – his first job out of high school – Ken Richards had enough money set aside to buy five acres and a barn in nearby Maple Valley, Wa, and was ready for a career change. “Six years of work at the desk, in a room full of desks, in a gigantic building full of rooms full of desks – it was enough to convince me that unemployment insecurity has beaten Boeing’s safety,” he recalls.
Drawing on woodwork, Richards obtained a license for contractors to pay bills and spent his free time building furniture in the barn, for family and friends. To keep his overhead low, he lived in an unfinished house on the property, essentially a basement with a roof over it, left behind by previous owners.
Within five years, Richards worked full time in the barn and had his first piece in Seattle’s Northwest Fine Woodworking Gallery, a thriving commercial space for stunning contemporary works. His Padauk wine cabinet quickly sold to a visiting couple from Florida who were interested in ordering more pieces.
A couple of months earlier, in the spring of 1991, Richards was cleaning his biggest piece to date, an 8-foot-high and ceiling-length walnut buffet for a client’s dining room.
The next morning, the barn, the buffet and all its tools and equipment were gone. “I lost some oil soaked rags during the cleaning the night before and they spontaneously burned,” he says. “Everything went up in flames.”
When the Florida couple showed up, Richards was “covered in dirt, working in a pit and laying the groundwork for a new store,” he says. His commitment to his carpentry career must have been obvious, because the couple commissioned a complete dining set, plus two more pieces, and they were willing to wait.
“You never thought about choosing another path,” he recalls. “It was,” What should I do here? “I started creating” build “and” burn “piles, had the new building in six months and went back to work to replace the buffet.”
Rich life, modest budget
What Richards created over the next 27 years is surprising. His furniture is a tour de force of precious woods, decorated details, deeply sculpted surfaces and meticulous workmanship, with recent pieces that take up to a year to finish. On the idyllic property he never left, he built a huge two-story workshop and an extraordinary house, both almost entirely alone, each personal and unspoiled like its furniture. Every fir beam, every charming canopy and fence, has accomplished everything, while raising chickens, cows and the occasional pig for food.
Ken Richards is an example of how talented and determined carpenters can live far beyond their bottom line. Its formula: buy a nice piece of land, stay on it, buy materials as you can afford, build everything yourself (you’ll find out and friends will help you) and refuse to compromise your vision. “There’s a connection you get when you create something, which you don’t get when you buy it,” he says.
The fire gave Richards the opportunity to design a laboratory for the future, a two-story building that houses timber drying and wood storage below and a 1,000 square foot wide. workshop above, with a wall of windows leading into a wash of natural light and an elevated view of the pastoral landscape.
“The old barn had very limited space for tools and wood storage,” he says. “The new has allowed me to take my work to another level by building multiples and large dining sets. Setting up and working in a space specially designed like a wooden shop, rather than working to try to make an existing structure work, is a big difference “.
As Richards ‘work shifted from machine work to manual work, the shop became quieter, making way for another of Richards’ passions. To bring hi-fi music to the sunny lab, he connected an audiophile stereo system to world-class speakers, which are suspended from chains from the ceiling and tilted towards his workbench. The tops of the high walls are covered with mobile blankets to improve the acoustics. As a result, Richards’ CD collection sounds shockingly like live music.
A house built like a piece of furniture
When the fire hit, Richards’ plans for a new home on the old foundation were put on hold, and he lived in the makeshift basement house with his wife for another 12 years. Then he disemboweled the existing place to its rough foundations and built the house he had dreamed of for years.
Richard’s extraordinary home is conveniently located among the trees, built with native woods, with large cornices and an enveloping porch. Like the laboratory, it is designed to adapt to its life and is sided with the same vertical cedar, finished with transparent oil. Unlike the shop, the house almost looks like a museum, with beautiful fir beams above, marble and maple floors below, exotic wood finishes all around and Richards furniture and art collection highlighted by a accurate lighting.
The main floor is open, with a large independent wardrobe that separates the kitchen and living spaces, with art objects on one side and kitchen furniture on the other. The second floor is a partial mezzanine which houses the master bedroom, the bathroom and a small library. The basement houses a delightful guest suite.
Above both floors are exposed trusses with wooden frames made by Richards in light fir, old development, recovered from submerged trunks. The porch also has a half-timbered roof, also in antiqued cedar, also recovered.
During the day, the clerical windows on the roof of the roof illuminate the trusses and help the other windows to bring natural light. At night, the whole house – Richards’ trusses, furniture and sculptures, the shop window and both floors – is illuminated by a large system of low voltage lighting fixtures that he designed and installed.
After years of late at night and patient work, Richards is comfortable on his five acres, feeding chickens and ducks, grilling grass-fed steaks on the veranda and transforming his carpentry career into a new direction.
While his work has recently turned to sculpture, Richards is one of the most successful furniture manufacturers in the Northwest Pacific and has valuable lessons to share with professionals and hobbyists.
The former is not falling into the planning stage. Richards’ brainstorming process begins with a series of rough sketches. “Once I think of dedicating myself to something, I start working on proportions and details with scale drawings,” he says. The third step is the life-size drawings, which records on MDF and rests against the wall for a better visual perspective. A favorite trick to perfect a design is to “divide a piece in the middle and try different shapes, proportions or details: one version on one side, the other on the other”.
The designs are just the beginning. “I make better decisions when a piece is sitting in front of me as a three-dimensional object rather than a 2D drawing,” he says. “So I find a way to mock the options with scrap pieces, cable ties, duct tape, whatever.” In addition, he notes that the designs look different when you move away for a few days or more, let go of your subconscious mind and return with new eyes and new solutions. “Procrastination can be a good thing,” he says.
Words of wisdom for aspiring professionals
The main challenge for full-time carpenters is to find customers who can pay for high-end jobs. In the beginning, Richards worked for friends and relatives. He was also fortunate to have a wife with good work in an elegant restaurant. Many of his early pieces went to his customers.
After that, he had another lucky break. Near Seattle was the country’s oldest and largest carpentry cooperative, Northwest Woodworker’s Gallery, where Richards drew inspiration and connected with customers. Closed in 2016, but the website (https://www.nwwoodgallery.com) still promotes former members.
Once connected to customers, Richards tried to convey his passion and talent by telling them about the materials, the process and the potential of an idea. “You have to feel comfortable with rich people,” he says. “Enter with confidence, au pair. I’m not a seller. I pass them through my wallet and tell stories. There is no difficult sale. “
Once they got involved, he treated the customers well, welcoming them to visit the shop, sharing photos of the work in progress and, in the end, always delivering too much. As a result, many of his customers have become lifelong friends and patrons, purchasing multiple pieces over the years and supporting him during the 2008 market crash.
A related key to success, he says, is to take excellent pictures of his work and create a powerful portfolio, both in print and online. For today’s professionals, it also recognizes the importance of an active social media feed.
Part of treating yourself as an equal was to estimate your time on a project, evaluate it accordingly, and take payment in a series of 25% deposits. The first one gets a project according to the schedule, the next one is paid when the drawings are approved, another comes when the construction is half finished and the last 25% is payable on delivery.
As for what to build and how, there are many paths, he says, each with its own compromises. “I am at one end of the spectrum, I make one-of-a-kind works of art. But I know people who live very rewarding lives by making simpler projects that they can efficiently produce on a limited production basis. Some have developed specialties, such as example shoji screens. “
Regardless of their personal path, they see common traits in successful professionals, or “survivors”, as they call them. “They have a strong inner drive to create, work hard and manage their businesses with a high level of integrity. If you are not strongly motivated to do this job – strictly for the personal rewards that come from creating things and being your own boss – it’s probably not your thing. If you have that boost, it can be a very rewarding lifestyle. “
He adds with an ironic smile: “A spouse in solidarity with a regular salary helps a lot”.
A new direction
A couple of years ago, Richards stopped looking for furniture commissions and started making pure sculptures on specs. “I decide the price when I’m done and there is no time pressure,” he says. “It’s a reward for paying my dues and developing a toolbox for manual skills.”
The design process is also more free. “I start with a blurry idea, start playing with wood and see where it goes,” he says.
He is not sure if he will be successful as a sculptor, but Richards is taking three years to develop a portfolio and find out. Furniture tends to be seen as a profession, not as art, and the hope is that the new work will find different galleries and places, and will get the prices appropriate for the fine arts. “I’m still following my heart,” says Richards. “In this way, it is no different from the past.”
Asa Christiana is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, she now lives and works in Oregon. Follow him on Instagram @buildstuffwithasa.
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