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Q&A with Reed LaPlant

by: Verde Home 9/10/08

A few weeks ago I had a chance to sit down and speak with local furniture producer Reed LaPlant about furniture design and issues of sustainability. What follows is the conversation that ensued. If you are interested in continuing this discussion or would like to start a conversation about another topic related to design, sustainability, or furniture please log on to our new community forum. Both Reed and I will be checking in frequently.

Dovetail Joint

What is the first thing you look for as a sign of quality in a piece of hardwood furniture?

    “For me, it’s joinery. But I think a good finish is true indicator, and an overall attention to detail.”

You often hear people talking about dovetail joints as the premium joint. Do you have a preferred joinery technique and if so why do you use it and what are the benefits?

    Dovetails are the premium, but they are incredibly time consumptive for most people. I use dados and rabbets; they’re very strong, very true, and they’re reasonable for my budget-conscious client. I also prefer them aesthetically – especially on my work, which is very rectilinear.”

Let’s talk about sustainability. What are your preferred wood species? Do you look for FSC certified woods? Are they difficult to find?

    “To begin, I choose strictly U.S.-grown species to minimize shipping – a major factor in sustainability as I see it; and I think some of the American species happen to be the most beautiful, e.g. Black Walnut or American Cherry.  I do look for FSC certified material, but it is not as difficult to FIND as it is to OBTAIN -- particularly here in the Southeast. There are suppliers that prefer to purchase it from their distributors, but they don’t demand it. And since certified materials tend to cost more – a cost passed on to the consumer – smaller stores don’t stock it. But as consumer demands change, so will the market. More and more of my clients are thinking about these things. In the mean time, I ask my suppliers, expect their honesty, and choose species that tend to be responsibly harvested.”

Are there woods you avoid using and if so why?

    “I avoid all non U.S.-grown species as I mentioned above, especially “exotics”. But I also make a lot of decisions based on function and on aesthetics. For example, I wouldn’t use knotty pine on a table; I don’t care for the look or for the softness of that species.  It can be used well, it just doesn’t work well in that which I am trying to achieve.”

From a structural standpoint, are there any woods that do not hold up well in the southern climate?

    “I can’t say that I am extremely well-versed in this, but I have not had any problems because I use species that are grown here. Also, I use a lot of reclaimed material – lumber that’s been sitting in a barn for a hundred years – which, by the time I work with it, has generally done most of it’s drying and cracking, etc.  Further, my designs are coincidentally a little more conducive to allowing wood to expand and contract, as it is wont to do.”

Very often the ideas of Green, Sustainable and Organic are thought to be the same but occasionally the broader concept of sustainability can be in conflict with the idea of organics or natural.  The use of polyurethane as a long lasting finish comes to mind here.  Could you elaborate a bit on the balance a sustainable producer must strike when attempting to create heirloom quality?

    “You site a great example: an oil-based polyurethane finish.  I use it.  The levels of v.o.c. (volatile organic compounds) present are, although increasingly reduced, troublesome for me.  There are “friendlier” finishes out there.  BUT, I know that this finish is incredibly durable and reliable, and, in my opinion, beautiful.  I’m betting the piece won’t have to be refinished in our lifetime and beyond.  Therefore, the cumulative impact is arguably less than that of a piece made with a less durable finish.  Further, I make my decisions based on the fact that I don’t typically spray my finishes, and that I am not a high-volume manufacturer; I produce about twenty pieces in a year, all finished by hand.  The idea is to make smart(er) choices based on your specific setting.  I believe that would make a huge difference.”

Veneers are often downplayed as being inferior quality as compared to solid hardwoods but from a sustainability standpoint the practice creates more useful board feet from potentially exotic hardwoods.  I have also heard the argument that a properly cross plied veneer will have more dimensional stability that a solid piece.  What do you see as the pros and cons of using veneers?

    “If and when I use veneered plywood, I make no apologies.  It is durable and, for the most part structurally stable.  From certain producers (e.g., Columbia) it is sustainable and safe (no formaldehyde).  Those are some pros.  The cons, in my opinion, come mostly from the manufacturer; bad glues are used or it is packed with toxic preservatives.  I hate to specify when speaking ill, but “China-birch” is, in my opinion, an awful product.  It delaminates, it’s unstable, and the veneer is dangerously thin.  People buy it because it’s cheap.  But they’ll suffer in using it.”

What advice would you give to a novice woodworker?

    “Be patient and be deliberate.  Expect to make mistakes, but work confidently and be mindful of the desired end result.  Reuse your mistakes (it saves money and materials).  Know your options, and make smart choices.  Work with someone if you can.  And again, be patient.”


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