Jeff Martin a master woodworker and craftsman sat down with Revolver to overview his craft and ethos.
Q: Could you walk through your background?
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest alongside a twin sister and with two loving parents. We lived in this house for about 10 years and it was amass with relics. Alongside wooden furniture made by my Dad, Grandfather, and family friends were all of these unusual items salvaged from the garbage. My Dad would take my sister and I out each Saturday morning to go root around the dump to find strange items for the home. We got to choose how to decorate this classic heritage house. We had burst propane tanks, an 8 foot Chef Boyardee head, animal skins, and a camouflaged tin boat littered throughout our yard. The innards of our house were even worse. But it all kind of came together in this fantasy land, timeless presence – like our fort had essentially been dropped out of a story that had once circumnavigated the globe in a zephyr.
We also spent a great deal of my time out in the woods and waters of BC with my parents; and my Mom worked and taught in the creative communities of the less affluent municipalities of Vancouver. The ocean, timbers, architecture, and art impregnated into the hills here is captivating. And we were raised with this consistent appreciation for setting – yet we were allowed to define it’s strange edges however we pleased.
Our neighbour was very similar in this respect. He had a 15 foot by 15 foot front yard which he mowed on a selfbuilt tractor-style grass cutting machine that had tank treads for wheels. It was about half of the size of the lawn itself. Now the neighbourhood is totally gentrified; craftsman style homes, perfectly pruned trees for ocean views, and yummy mummies in yoga pants.
Q: Where did your interest in woodworking come from?
My Grandfather is this incredible man, and I say so not just out of love for him, but by what he has accomplished. He was a world renown physicist and inventor for his work in the Nuclear Energy field. He was a pioneer of this industry, and it was his goal to create the cleanest energy possible. My papa devoted his life to it, and I wish that I could say that I had adopted his genetics for science, but I can’t.
He also handcrafted furniture in a little woodworking studio on a riverbank in Northern Ontario. It’s his simplicity, humility, and integrity which I’ve tried to make my own. There’s one table he built in particular. It’s this piece that started it all for me.
Q: Who were you most influenced by?
Oh, certainly George Nakashima. I had built a number of pieces for a show in East Vancouver, and people kept talking to me about how I’d captured the essence of Nakashima through my work without borrowing directly from him. I had to go home and look him up on Wikipedia, because at this point I was just building – no school, no interest in design, just an affinity for woodworking.
How he changed design is profound. I’m sure that hundreds of years from now, he will be as commemorated as the other most prolific artists since the bronze age. Since educating myself, I’ve realized there is an entire contingency of people in our industry with the same core values.
I gain constant inspiration from the likes of Brooklyn-based designer, Palo Samko, and the Washington outfit, Domestic Furniture and Architecture. I think America in general has these huge communities who are actively the most creative enclaves in the world. And I think it’s largely due to the fact that so many areas in the US have gone through a transformation to the dull normal suburban and even boring urban centres of profound mediocrity, that you – above most other people in the world are taking active stances against it. It’s incredibly inspiring. We’re just starting to catch on in Canada.
Q: Where do you find the inspiration for your work?
It’s simply the land here. I’m from the land here, I take resources from the land here, and I build with this setting, with this land in mind. From California up through BC, I see us as an aligned community of the Cascadia, rather than 2 separate nations running East-West.
Out East, in Ontario for example, there is quite a Victorian influence, but you travel west and the arts grows harsh, dangerous, violent, and quite arresting. The work of our classic West Coast artists like Emily Carr are in striking defiance to her peer group at the time. She adopted and openly accepted the influence of First Nations artists as her own, recognizing our vital role together as one people – instead of injecting a European influence into their aesthetic world.
Q: Could you describe your relationship with clients? How do you guide commission pieces through process, creation, finishing?
Generally, I’ll garner clients through past purchases – and help them develop new ideas just through the relationships we have with each other. I have a policy of keeping doors with these clients quite open. I’ll have them over for drinks, or vice versa solely to have some fun. The commission pieces arise out of this quite naturally, with a foundation of trust between two people – you’re chances for risk and success are greater.
And when it’s new clients I operate on the rule of three I recently read about. I’ll do the project if 1.) I like the client 2.) I like the project 3.) I make a lot of money. I’ve never been in a situation where all three are present – but if any two of those requirements are there I’ll do it – and if only one, then I have to move on. To add to this notion, personally, I must always like the project. That is a requirement of mine.
In terms of building I operate with human proportions in mind. The tape measurer is a crutch to be used once the general bulk has been cut out of your material. It’s a fine tuning instrument – and not something to build the piece entirely with. I build sort of intuitively I guess, I prefer to build without plans. You get a true sense and cost of the material when it’s being passed through a saw blade or struck with a chisel.
Q: What are your favorite tools?
My favourite tools are my set of Japanese sharpening stones. It’s like Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Q: Do you favor particular techniques? For instance western or Japanese schools of design?
I’m not entirely sure if I could communicate myself into one of those particular groups honestly. I don’t like geometric and cold modernity, and I don’t like the unskilled and looming qualities of rustic styles. I do like certain elements of Japanese woodworking, the complexity of their joints, appreciation of materials, and the length of intended use – which can be for thousands of years.
What I most naturally relate to is that of the traditional carpentry trade. Working through school to enter a Journeyman position – where you travel by foot for 4 years – working on projects that good people need done, with only your tools in your rucksack and clothes on your back – not able to take pay, only room and board. And through your career, building your canon of work to finally produce an anchor tenon piece of the collection – a masterpiece to be presented to a board for review. To see if your style and craftsmanship will be recognized as that of a master craftsman.
It’s these “schools of design” notions which detract from the hardship and perserverance of what we are – carpenters.
Q: How do you feel about the work you’ve done and your contributions to the craft?
I’ll be honest. Not good. But better with each piece. I’m beginning to own the designs more and more as the years go on – and that feels good. I’m beginning to understand it more now, and that is reflected in my work. I experiment now more with myself and my memories by incorporating elements into a design which represent a timeless sense of mystery. I’m experimenting with clandestine drawers and materials at different stages in their life cycle; fresh leathers, charred cedar, rusted irons.
Q: Do you see your work more as art or craft? Do you ever make fine art pieces?
I am certainly more of a carpenter who prefers to produce handcrafted pieces. To me, Michelle Blade is an artist, Manuel C. Caro is a craftsman. I aspire to that level, but my roots are in carpentry. I think we have a skewed perception of carpenters in North America.
Q: How do you balance function with design?
I try to mute function to a certain extent. None of my tables do more than what a table should do. I don’t have cable wiring, ac adapters, glass shelves, or really sleek drawers to the chagrin of some of my clients. I make items – which are functional in the traditional sense, with secrets buried in them to store your small private items or a single pencil. False bottoms and little drawers for the inexplicable or perverse. I don’t know, they are built for human beings.
Part of the functionality of the pieces is their durability. These are built with the highest quality responsibly harvested timbers available. And part of the design, such as the exposed joinery, is vital to the item’s life cycle. These pieces are built to last hundreds of years and are backed by a lifetime warranty.
Q: If you could only have one wood what would you choose?
What a disappointing world it would be. But I’d have to say orchard grown Claro Walnut root stock.
Q: What kind of treatments do you do post construction? Do you ever paint, oil or varnish items?
I use a custom blend of oils and beeswax polish, sometimes just beeswax. And I’d like to start working more with the elements. Charring, repeated soaking and drying, sun bleaching – I think it’s fairly limitless. But I never cover up the wood with a paint or toxic finish.
Q: We saw your surf boards you built with Grain. How was the process of making this similar or different to your other items?
It was similar in the sense of our core values and approach to limiting the power tools we use. But quite different apart from that. Mike, Brad, and everyone at Grain Surfboards have a wonderful thing going on. It’s an inspiration – and I try to spend as much time as I can with those guys, working on some of their more goodwill based projects. But those boards are ultimately designed on a computer screen. I like to craft and forge completely by hand, and let the wood join itself together – instead of glue and fibreglass.
For solid wood furniture handcrafted from responsibly harvested timbers take a look at http://www.jeffmartinjoinery.com
Photo Credits: http://www.theroguemuse.com/