Norton Interview: Fine Woodworking

Fine Woodworking: An Interview with Waclaw (Willy) Maliszewski of London Joiners, Ltd. as found in the published book:

Fine woodworking: an interview with London Joiners, Ltd.'s W. MeliszewskiSurfaces – Visual Research for Artists, Architects, and Designers, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1996

by Judy A. Juracek

Waclaw (Willy) Maliszewski fell in love with fine woodworking while studying history in England, and then worked for a variety of cabinetmakers and Ébénistes throughout Europe. At his shop in Pound Ridge, New York, he uses the formal techniques of classical cabinet-making, gold leaf, boulle (marquetry), jeux de fond (geometric inlay), frisage (the joining of larger panels), pietre dure (stone-inlaid wood), and chinoiserie, as well as the rustic techniques found in French Provincial and Early American cabinetry. Mr. Maliszewski’s fine wordworking projects include antique conservation, antique restoration, the authentication of antiques, and the construction of custom contemporary furniture and interior woodwork.

Would you describe your work?

I work in two general areas: fine woodworking – the building of new cabinets, boardroom tables, bankers’ suites, and that sort of thing – antique conservation and antique restoration. In both areas, I am known especially for my work with color and wood. I don’t use stains, because a stain lies on the surface of the wood and does not penetrate the cells of the wood. It is basically a powdery oil. Therefore, light refraction is extremely limited, and you get a two-dimensional look. A walnut stain from the can will only give you a flat walnut color. If, however, you color the wood with a chemical dye, such as one made with walnut hulls and cream of tartar, or other ingredients, it goes deeply into the wood and enhances the color potential of the wood rather than imparting its own color. It reacts with chemicals in the wood and, therefore, does not produce a solid color. The same technique applied to walnut lumber from different parts of the country will be different because of the different minerals and chemicals taken into the tree in various soil conditions. It is possible to achieve a desired color per specifications by use of certain chemicals derived from natural substances, such as cochineal (insect abdomen), alkanet root, cream of tartar, and potassium dichromate.

How did you learn this process of coloring wood?

It is traditional. The fifteenth-century Italian artist Vasari wrote about these fine woodworking processes in his book on technique. In eighteenth-century Paris, in the artisan’s quarter, people knew the techniques of the Low Countries’ textile industry, which was renowned for its tapestries and lightfast colors. This knowledge influenced the Ébéniste – the French term for a cabinetmaker, which really distinguishes between the cordon-bleu-chef-cabinetmaker and the short-order-cook cabinetmaker. The modern wood colorist, Georg Frank, working in Paris in the 1920s, collaborated with an Ébéniste who had a commission to reproduce furniture from the Louvre for a middle-eastern emirate. The problem was how to color a piece to get the patina of ages into the wood. Frank studied the wood, the magnificent product of many years of sun fading the original chemical enhancement of the wood. He knew that when the furniture was made, knife grinders and tanners worked upriver, and he concluded that coming down into Paris via the river were large amounts of ferrous sulfate and tannic acid that had found their way into the wood during the finishing process. Frank had the idea that he would use ferrous sulfate and tannic acid as a base with other chemicals to treat the wood to get the look of the original furniture. He was perfectly successful.

How do you decide what dyes are needed to enhance a piece of wood?

If it is a beautiful piece of wood, then it doesn’t take much to get the wood to speak. But, then, not everyone can afford the finest woods in the world. These are scarce to begin with, and to use them for an architectural element that calls for lots of wood would be very difficult. But if you take poplar, which is less than the price of pine, but an extremely stable wood, and rub on to the wood first a 15-percent solution of water and cream of tartar, and then apply a solution of ferrous sulfate (white vinegar in which you have dissolved steel wool and brazilwood extract), it will chemically turn the poplar a rich leather brown that is very deep in the wood. Different cuts of poplar will react differently, and other chemicals, such as potassium dichromate, will turn the same board into faded English walnut.

If the process reacts differently in various conditions, do you have much control of the end result?

Yes. You work first on sample boards to determine the exact proportions and steps in the process. When you buy a load of cherry, for example, with mixed parts of the tree, they will all show color a bit differently. Because these samples are from the actual wood lot, they also demonstrate to the customer the varying characteristics of wood. If the client picks a color on a two- by four-inch sample, and that piece happens to be quarter-sawn, it looks a certain way. So it is your duty to produce samples on all the types of wood that will be used on that job.

Is this technique applicable to larger commercial jobs?

Yes. For the fine woodworking project at the Roger Smith Hotel in New York, the specifications were for stained wood. I did a series of samples using dye made with the cochineal insect, which is the base ingredient for many types of reds from golden reds to purple reds. The red is light-fast – the reason the British Redcoats’ coats didn’t fade is that they were dyed with cochineal. I was able to show that by dyeing, rather than staining, Honduran mahogany for the entire hotel lobby, we could achieve a multicolored wood with a deep color quality that glistened like a cat’s eye stone-an effect called chatoyancy.

When the job is too large to do alone, how do you manage to get a crew to produce uniform coloring?

Like a chef running up and down the range of a very large restaurant, tasting everybody’s work. With something like French polish on large scale, you have to use some shortcuts. It is possible to bring it up purely in traditional methods and do an entire lobby or several floors of a hotel, but the cost would be prohibitive. Fine woodworking shortcuts make it affordable.

What was your training?

I studied fine woodworking and fine cabinetmaking in several countries – England, Ireland, Italy. When I was young, I took Eurorail around different countries and worked in cabinet shops, boat yards. I practically swept floors for Ébénistes. I worked for the Pietelli family of Florence. Their Italian version of French polishing is superior, but the family would not tell me the process. In the artisan section of Florence, people pull down their blinds so that neighbors who are in the same business can’t copy the techniques. The same families may have been neighbors for hundreds of years. Years after I had worked for the Pietellis, a young member of the family was hitchhiking around America, and he came to my shop in Pound Ridge, New York. He was penniless, and he wanted to go to Hawaii, so he worked for me for several weeks. I had him exactly where I wanted him – Hawaii demanded the Pietellis’ technique.  So he showed me the fine woodworking process of the Italian version of French Polishing.

Can you tell me, without betraying a confidence, what is the difference between French and Italian polish?

The basic difference is the concentration of lac. Lac is the excretion of the lac beetle, different from what is commonly called shellac. Shellac is really a highly refined commercial product. I have ‘buttons” of lac from Kazakhstan. The French Polishing technique uses much more alcohol and a thinner concentration of lac. The Italians have a very thick mixture, which requires more mineral oil. The application process is more difficult, but the results are much better. There is a controversy about where French polishing started. Most furniture historians say it began in France, caught on in England in the early 1800s, and reached America by 1840. But there is evidence of lac finishes in fifteenth-century Italian work. So you wonder when it really did come in. Did it come to the West with Marco Polo? It was used in the Orient for hundreds of years before Polo.

You restore important pieces of furniture. How do you approach this work?

In antique restoration, If actual pieces are missing, I have the antique tools to replicate the missing part. And I use wood that is as old as the piece. I have a whole collection of antique veneers and woods of many species taken from other pieces of unsalvageable furniture. I don’t believe in stripping the finish unless it is absolutely necessary. You must determine what the original finish is, to see if it can be built up on the existing finish.

How do you decide what that original finish was?

There are several techniques. Experience usually tells you. But a drop of a certain chemical turns a different color for various finishes. Oil is the most difficult to determine-is it linseed oil, cottonseed, fish oil? You use a combination of chemistry and instinct. Again, it is a little like being a chef.

How do you authenticate an antique piece of furniture?

First of all, there are dealers selling an amazing amount of English and French eighteenth-century furniture, much more than was ever made. Where are all of these pieces coming from? A lot of reproduction furniture was made in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1840s, the Industrial Revolution produced a wealthy middle class that desired the objects that the landed estates already had. Many pieces were made over again. They are old, but not authentic. So how do you determine authenticity? There are many things that make the piece speak to you. Saw cuts tell. Lazy spots tell: underneath a lock you find areas where the reproductionist wasn’t very diligent in covering the trail. At first you may have the impression that you are looking at an original. Great artists are producing reproductions as we speak. In some cases, the piece may be old, or it may be made out of old wood in shops that change and embellish certain features. They are so good at what they do that it is extremely hard to spot. You look for band-saw marks. But one of the first band-saws was working in Paris in the eighteenth century. So seeing those saw marks doesn’t necessarily mean a piece is modern. You catch them in their lazy areas – inside a joint, under a hinge. I have actually seen intentional things underneath hinges – messages from forgers who want their work to be known.

How do you approach a commission for custom-designed woodwork?

I have a collection of rare woods, and the piece may be designed around one of these. More often, the client comes in with drawings or just a verbal description. For example, a real estate developer’s office, Peter Friedman Ltd., that deals primarily with European clients buying property in New York, wanted an Old World look for their office. This could be done in two ways – by using traditional woods and joints, which would have cost a lot of money, or by taking some commercial shortcuts, such as using Carpathian elm veneer on a solid substrate, biscuit joints instead of mortise and tenon. We took that approach. I did the drawings and executed the work. This was basically a trust relationship. In another case, a project for Hotel Roger Smith, the contract was as big as a book. The signing took three or four months and, before it was signed, the clients had a panel of various outside experts review every detail. This contractual process had little room for the artisan. It was very hard to deal with the process they set up and not just open cans of wood stain. However, I do understand that it can be very dangerous for a client to give the artisan free rein. In my experience, other than having a direct reference, the best thing to do is to look at the artisan’s truck or workshop. If the place looks like a rats’ nest, or if the cabinetmaker has a sloppy kit with only generic tools, that is the kind of work you are going to get.

How do you strike a balance between showing a client enough to be sure that they know what they are going to get and still having the artistic freedom to do more than a merely competent job?

The customer has to rely to a great degree on the artisan’s reputation. It is also the artisan’s responsibility to educate the customer. I had one customer pick out wood for an apartment that overlooked a park. The color samples were done in the winter when there was no green foliage. When the actual work was done, in the summer, an enormous amount of green was going to be reflected into the room from the park and affect the color. It was my responsibility to tell the client what would happen. You also have to know how stable the color is. Wood will change as it matures, and take on a life of its own. I show customers samples of wood that has been dyed and aged.

Have you ever advised clients not to use specific woods?

Yes. An old building heated by radiators can produce havoc with the pines. There are a lot of environmental factors. If there is a sun-drenched exposure – in modern architecture, there are a lot of windows – this can destroy not only antiques, but any sort of paneling. I then recommend that the windows be covered with a protective film.

What are your most important research sources?

Specific books include Bruce Hoadley’s Understanding Wood and Vasari’s Vasari on Technique. A number of old books, such as the London Guild on joiners and Cabinetmakers, would comprise a several years’ apprenticeship in the very old methods of joinery in everything from a staircase to a church door. The antique restoration aspect of my business has given me the opportunity to see everything that can go wrong with wood construction and to apply antique finishing techniques to modern work. I have learned a lot from old artisans. One fellow told me a simple trick to remove a screw that has been in something for two or three hundred years: just heat it up with a soldering iron. When I heard that I thought, “Of course, you can break the bond without breaking the screw.” Much of what one knows is just picking up things over the years.