Ian Laval on using locally sourced woods, restoring a sailboat and ‘cheapo’ products that Canadians seem to love.
Q & A with Ian Laval
How long have you been building furniture?
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Classic domestic furniture in native timbers.
Tell us a couple interesting things about your personal life.
Twice I sailed the Atlantic in a small boat, which is what brought me to BC in 1999. I lived for several years in Pakistan and West Africa as a Reuters correspondent. Restored a 16th-century vernacular house in northern Engand.
If you were not a furniture maker, what would you be?
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
Tape, pencil, marking tool.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Solid wood or veneer?
Solid wood. If you have the whole tree, you have solid wood, veneers and inlays.
Figured wood or straight grain?
Both, for their own purposes.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or freshout-of-the-box Veritas?
I have a Veritas shoulder plane, Veritas scraper, Stanley combination moulding plane, a Stanley compass plane and an ever-so-sweet Norris plane.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
I prefer straight lines, restrained curves and delicately proportionate shapes.
Least Favourite wood?
None. They all have a purpose.
This English oak desk is 72" long. Its drawers are veneered with sawn English oak burr.
Laval made this desk – one of many bureaux he’s made over the years – from a Garry oak tree he harvested on the Saanich Peninsula, Vancouver Island.
Quotes from Ian Laval
My shop is 20 ft. x 11 ft., well insulated, heated.
I like to be in the shop not long after 9 a.m. and leave routinely between 5 and 6 p.m. I tidy up before leaving, make sure hand tools are back in their regular spots so I can go straight to them next morning, clean the bench top, maybe leave myself a note for next day. I want to start a new day, not return to the old one.
I like my heavily worn-down 7/8" firmer chisel (Stanley); a steel square with a heavy stock stamped 1900, made by my engineer grandfather in Glasgow, Scotland and in continuous use since then by my father and currently me (“You don’t know what 90° is, son – this square knows,” he used to admonish me).
I enjoy using local trees, sawing them sympathetically in a traditional way (mainly quartering) and making frequent use of 1/8" veneers sawn on the bandsaw from crotches, burls etc.; then ironing and using them on writing-desk fall-fronts, table-tops, etc.
I have to say I struggle with occasional comments that “West Coast” would sell more – but if that means waney edges and thick proportions I’ll probably stay an outsider.
Spend the greater part of your time understanding wood – where the tree grows, where each piece of wood comes from in the tree, how it’s processed for each function.
I feel some woodworkers mistakenly use dowels in place of a mortise and tenon. Machine-cut dovetails are also overused. Waney edges are also overused – they are immature wood containing the tree’s plant sugars – not best for long-term survival.
I don’t think it serves the craftsman to agree willy-nilly to do anything less than your best, even if that’s the only way to get the business.
Business in the UK was non-stop over 25 years and well-rewarded. Canadians – at least in the West – seem generally disinclined to pay a time-served handcraftsman even $20 an hour for a job that may occupy many weeks of intricate workshop time when cheap imports are available.
Recently I’ve gradually wound down my furniture-making and am instead doing a three-year refurbishment of a NW Pacific sail-boat (should be back on the water about mid-2017). The cultural connection with a small and still-viable group of highly skilled traditional boatcraftsmen is very satisfying.
Thomas Moser, Edward Barnsley (UK, died c. 1980 – offshoot of UK Arts and Crafts movement) made timeless furniture of unassailable quality.
Edward Barnsley has had the biggest influence over my work. Beautiful, delicately restrained shapes. There are many others making beautiful pieces today in BC, across Canada and the US – but are they more for a too-small, elitist market at the wealthy end of society?
For me the most fulfilling part of making includes having beautiful local wood, to indulge the imagination in a piece of furniture the tree seems to call for, then to spend six weeks honouring the tree and making it to the best of our ability – and then better. Of course, you never totally get there.
I’m most proud of a series of eight writing desks (fall-front bureaux) – all except one (in American black walnut) made entirely from native trees felled, air-dried over years then kilned and processed at my shop.
I’m currently very much enjoying rebuilding my boat – basically using East Indian teak and yellow cedar – and connecting with a different set of incredibly talented NW Pacific boat craftspeople.
I hope Canada is past the worst of ‘cheapo’ and that Canadians will once more see the universal relevance of home-grown skills and abundant materials.