Handcrafted Matters

After 10 years in south Florida, Dave Morreale and I wanted to   slow the pace of our lives, and to live and work quietly. Chaos doesn’t drive the human spirit very well. The solution was easy as it turned out; we moved back home – to the Finger Lakes region, that is, where we both know the lakes well. I grew up in Canandaigua, and Dave spent many summers on Keuka Lake. After the stress of a large metro area, we get a kick out of hearing complaints about the “traffic” on summer weekends. After ocean sailing, we smile to hear “the lake is rough.” After hurricanes like Andrew, what’s a little snow?

We settled on 20 acres near the end of the Bluff overlooking Keuka Lake, which is exactly 1.2 million miles from Miami as the crow flies. The dreary hunting camp on the land has been renovated into our lovely little home. We even learned to grow and harvest grapes on an acre of vineyard, a truly gratifying experience for us, and we’ve learned to appreciate the neighboring grape growers whose vineyards mean so much to the Bluff. Finally, we built the workshop and started Country Lane Woodworking. For 30 years Dave has worked with wood, as a carpenter and, in Florida, as a designer/builder of custom interiors on luxury yachts. Dave is also an accomplished artist like his mother, and a photographer like his father, and on his own has begun making jewelry, primarily silver with turquoise, lapis and other precious stones.

Now he’s using more of his creative talents to handcraft custom furniture and decorative boxes in fine woods. Part of our marketing includes selling our products at juried arts and crafts fairs, many of which are fundraisers supporting programs that are very dear to us – arts education. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of educating children in artistic expression, and one of our favorite things is to have kids come into our show booth wide-eyed, with lots of enthusiasm. Their interest is obvious, but the future of educating them in the arts is not as clear.

The focus of the work is on the beautifully grained figured hardwoods native to this area – walnut, cherry, maple and others. Working with respect and understanding for nature’s artistry, Dave keeps designs simple to showcase the beauty of the wood, crafting the years of his experience into the details of the piece. To create something new he will visualize and actually build it, step by step, in his mind first, seeing the grain and color in a single piece of wood, as it becomes the finished box. Visualization is a cornerstone of any artistic medium, even one that is accomplished with saws, steam and sandpaper.

Innovation is combined with craftsmanship. Thoughtfulness is joined with creative talent. All are evident in the more unique pieces, and, while he uses traditional methods of wood joinery, he has been working to develop original techniques that allow for more interesting and unusual designs. Creativity is one of the most important elements because he believes in keeping design options open. Some pieces are made of mixed woods, while others incorporate turquoise, stone, leather and metal.

Inspiration is everywhere here – in the silent shapes of the ancient hills; in the colors of the seasons; in the movement of our sparkling lakes; in the magical mix of natural elements. In our years here, we have met many quiet, creative people, living and working and staying because it would be impossible for them to go anywhere else for very long.

Our market box is reminiscent of the old farmer’s market peck baskets, but we’ve added strength, versatility and some beautiful hardwood mixed for grain and contrast. Each market box is made over a period of several days, following traditional steps and techniques.

Step One: The first step is to select a single piece of wood from the rough cherry, hard maple or walnut, and to cut it to size. Wood quality and grain are critical elements, and it’s important to visualize patterns in the finished piece so that a picture forms of the natural design that will flow evenly around all four sides of the box. The final selection is only complete after the rough planks are put through a thickness planer, when the pieces of wood are at a more workable size for matching grain and color. The wood is then cut on the table saw into the pieces that will make up the four sides of the box, and at the same time, a bottom piece will be cut as well. The size of each box can vary in height, width and depth during this step. Cutting in the finger joints is done by hand using a homemade jig, allowing for carefully matched joints of equal size, that fit together to form the corners of the box (Photo 1).

Step Two: The two long sides of the box must have a strong opening centered on top to hold the steamed handle. Using a drill press with a mortising attachment (Photo 2), a series of small square holes are cut to a depth of 1 inch, creating a socket for the handle ends.

Step Three: Steaming the handles to bend and fit into the box sides begins with a strip of wood that is 1/4” thick. Oak and walnut work best for this process and the strips must be defect-free to insure success, since we’re going to be reshaping the natural wood. A metal barrel with slits cut on the sides and filled with water to 4” below the slits is placed on a propane burner (Photo 3). The strips of wood suspend over the steaming water for about 30 minutes, allowing the steam to penetrate the fibers of the wood. The strip is then bent around a form (Photo 3), made in the shape of the handle and left to dry in the new shape.

Step Four: The individual parts to the box are complete, and the assembly process can begin. Each finger joint is glued and the four sides are clamped to hold the box squarely until the glue dries (Photo 4). The bottom of the box is installed, using glue and a few small brad nails to secure the fit and insure the strength.
Step Five: After dry fitting the handle to the mortised holes, it is glued into place, and two small plugs are added on the sides. The plugs are installed with glue, and then chiseled flush with the sides of the box (Photo 5), adding detail, contrast and strength to the finished piece.

Step Six: Sanding, sanding and more sanding. This step can’t be overstated, and there can be no shortcuts here. Starting with 100 grit and working up to 220 grit insures that the final finish will be perfect by eliminating scratches and prepping the wood surface for its oil finish. Boiled linseed oil, thinned with turpentine is applied at least six times, each with 24 hours of drying time in between. Hand rubbing the finish with a soft cloth creates a beautiful patina and brings out the detail of the figured grain.

The finished product (Photo 6) is designed to last, staying on in a home through generations to come. The market box is a little like us…getting better with age.

photographs and story by Diane Dailey

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