Ottawa based furniture maker Alex Low on historical design, accuracy and the importance of sourcing his own logs.
Q & A with Alex Low
How long have you been building furniture?
About 20 years since my first mostly functional pieces of furniture.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
My interest lies in period and historic work, but I also make contemporary rectilinear pieces.
If you were not a furniture maker what would you be?
Definitely a machinist. A hermit machinist.
In order, what are the most important items in your shop apron?
Fastcap tape measure, Lee Valley adjustable square, 6″ ruler and streaming music.
Solid wood or veneer?
Shop-sawn veneer paired with solid wood stave core! I think veneer has a bad rap and has been convoluted by a marketing thing that says solid is better, mostly because proper veneering requires more tools and skill than edge-gluing up some boards. There are lots of scenarios where veneer makes far more sense to the longevity and integrity of a build than solid wood. I think it’s a case-by-case basis for me, and with the array of glues and methods available today, veneering is definitely a great option.
Figured wood or straight grain?
Figured, curly, blistered, feathered, rolling madness every time. Unless you’re planking a boat.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
I have drawers full of “one day I will restore these” hand tools I’ve picked up over the years. The list is long, too long. I will take the Veritas and put it to work; they don’t mess around!
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
I like both. Curves can be more difficult and beautiful, but well-made, clean geometric lines are also very appealing.
Quarter sawn white oak.
Least favourite wood?
The was a multi-year project with Low’s good friend Jon Brown, built in Trevor Henderson’s boatshop. It’s a replica of a J.R. Purdon “plank on edge” cutter from 1913 that’s held in the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. Low drove down and crawled all over the original, then set to drafting out a set of building plans with some lines taken by the museum as reference. The next three years were spent building on and off. The boat is framed in yew, with Douglas fir timbers and deck and planked in full length vertical grain red cedar. The spar is a single piece of Sitka spruce. The boat was sailed and showed at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival and then she was sold and shipped across the country to a customer near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
A customer from San Francisco commissioned Low to build a replica of a Shaker chest held at the Mount Lebanon Shaker museum. He was able to get the dimensions and proportions from archival photos of the original and adapt the design to the client’s specifications.
Quotes from Alex Low
I have a long interest in historical design, interiors and architecture. At one point I was accepted to the graduate school of architecture at Dalhousie University, but deferred for a year to learn how to build boats and never looked back.
I was very lucky to have an incredible woodworker and mentor in the sculpture department at Emily Carr – Rick Robinson. I remember being in the shop late at night when the power to the machines had been disconnected for the day. The bandsaw was so massive that you could spin the wheels up by hand and the momentum was enough to make a few cuts.
In my early days as a woodworker, I was obsessed with High Modernism – lots of sharp angles and perfect surfaces. Since then my interest has grown in historical and period furniture. Many of the techniques I learned from boatbuilding directly translate into curved and difficult furniture and millwork joinery. I enjoy precision.
My interest in historical interiors has me working on some millwork packages that include embrasure doors and floor-to-ceiling panelling. My goal with the machines in the shop is to remove or reduce the tinkering and setup times and focus my attention on the more artful details of the work. Ultimately, my dream would be to have two or three Martin floor tools that are set up via CNC, as opposed to rulers, setup blocks and micrometres. I buy the occasional lottery ticket with this in mind!
I think I get the same pleasure from a razor-sharp hand tool as a well setup 2,000-pound shaper cutting tenons.
Recently, we completed a few projects using furniture linoleum, which is an interesting material with a long history and low health/environmental impact.
The best part of being a woodworker is the vast number of processes, materials and techniques available to learn about.
Whenever possible I like to source my own logs, have them sawn and dry them myself. I use wholesale lumber when it’s practical, but quality is always a battle. Having the entire boule allows me to grain and color match larger projects, and resaw for bookmatching and other continuous panel work.
I'm lucky to have worked with some of the best carvers, welders, blacksmiths, CNC operators and textile/weavers around so I can call on their expertise if required to execute complex, large projects.
I pay very close attention to the details. Grain direction, orientation and selection play a subtle but important role in the work. I find the subtle details compound over the course of a build. There are many opportunities to hurry a process and the results will suffer.
I can’t emphasize how important looking at objects is to my practice. I’m lucky being in Ottawa because of the number of museums available. Medieval picture frames at the National Gallery; the handrail at the Museum of Nature; or a 3,000-year-old wooden box at the Museum of Civilization. Right now, I look up to the ethos and work of Brent Hull, Aspen Golan, Peter Follansbee and Nancy Hiller, to name a few.
I am constantly reminded of some of the many lessons I learned during my apprenticeship mostly pertaining to the notion that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know. I can’t remember if it was Ruskin or Chaucer who said: “The life so short, the craft so long to learn!”
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.