Brian Holcombe started woodworking at a tender age and designed his first piece, a jewelry box for his mother in 8th grade.
He has been inspired by Japanese Sashimono and furniture of the Ming Dynasty. He loves working with hands and sees it as a way of honing his skills and learning more about the materials.
Interlocking joinery is his distinctive feature and he has worked on a number of things such as cabinetry, casework, tables, boxes, art framing and traditional Japanese sliding doors known as shoji
His traditional working technique and ideas intrigued us so we decided to pick his brains to know more about his journey in the woodworking world.
As a teenager, my brother and I used to visit exotic woods dealer, Willard Brothers Woodcutters. We collected various woods for small projects and this began to spark the interest in woodworking.
I continued to frequent Willard Brothers and one day I stumbled upon the work of Ru Amagasu. Ru’s talent for working with ‘live edge’ furniture was on full display and in the middle of the showroom floor was a large desk of padauk and wenge woods, the desk was built in his grandfather’s style.
There I stood, mouth open, in sheer awe of this desk glowing beautifully in dark red. The joined architecture of the base provided a stark contrast to the freeform top and made for a beautifully balanced display in the elements and properties of wood.
There it was standing gracefully and encouraging me to inquire further. Ru struck up a conversation with me and showed me all of the details of this beautiful desk and the steps and considerations he took in creating it.
That was the moment at which I knew woodworking and my life would be intertwined.
My first woodworking project that I can recall, was a walnut jewelry box I made for my mom while in the 8th grade.
I later made a follow up to this jewelry box by building a jewelry armoire for her.
I came to woodworking with an interest in seeing my design work come to life more than I desired to explore joinery or construction details, while that has changed to a large degree I still explore woodworking from the perspective of a designer wanting to create an image in the physical form more than anything else.
I woodwork for the challenge it presents. The process of continuously surpassing new hurdles and solving those problems is most important to me.
The early morning hours are usually spent with my thinking through how best to accomplish the details of my work. When building The Butler’s Desk, for instance, I can recall having spent many a morning thinking through the desk support.
I built the support in the shop, of course, but every detail was thought through while standing in the shower.
My favorite book is ‘Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use’ by Toshio Odate. Odate-san describes his experiences as an apprentice, which was often daunting, but is something interesting and insightful to the reader. His experiences, while often harsh, can be viewed with both empathy and humor.
My job is often unrelenting, requiring almost continuous work including nights and weekends. I cannot actually recall a moment in which there was not something to do in the workshop either in the way of jobs or maintenance or preparing for a show. This is something that I love about the work, but it can at times be slightly trying.
The most rewarding aspect of my work is in my interactions with my clients. I greatly enjoy every step of the process. From talking through the initial concept of the project to delivering the finished piece and every step in between. The reward in satisfaction of a happy client is enough to keep one going through all of those long hours.
Woodworking, even when completely separated from design, is both art and science.
A great example comes to mind in using a tool known as the hand plane. A hand plane can be a very technical instrument, with scientific study behind each aspect of the blade, chip breaker, and wooden holder (dai).
Yet it becomes very clear when observing a talented user that the use of a plane is an art. Much like a ballet, one can plan out all of the steps but the talent makes it come alive.
Hand tools and traditional methods are an important part of my work. Hand tools connect the maker to the process while allowing freedom of form.
Working by hand encourages a constant pursuit of new facets and understanding of the material while continuously honing the maker’s personal ability and skill.
As I progressed from an aspiring designer who happens to woodwork into a woodworker with a design fetish, I began to form a greater understanding of wood as a material.
My search for understanding led me into an intense study of traditional wooden joinery. This exploration enlightened me as to the knowledge and depth of understanding of our forebears. Truly they used this material in a way that plays to its strengths and so entirely and thoroughly that it practically must be studied.
Objects so outwardly simple as a Windsor chair or Japanese shoji screen show us their complexity and how completely the material has been considered as we dig beneath the surface.
This topic fascinated me so much that I began to incorporate more and more traditional joinery into my work up until the point where I am currently using traditional joinery exclusively.
I’d like to build a traditional Japanese tea house. One of the products I make are shoji (Japanese sliding doors) and one great benefit in teaching oneself is to create something in a completely traditional fashion which provides the logic of the design as it is produced.
Maintaining that traditional approach can be immensely rewarding and insightful as multiples are produced. I’d like to do the same, on a larger but related scale with a tea house.
I am currently working on a unique dining chair design. This design is something I have been planning and honing towards for over a year and will finally be able to release it very soon. I’m excited to show this design and will show it first on my blog.
As a beginner woodworker, I think the best thing you can do is to put away all of the machines and learn how to do the most basic tasks with hand tools (that’s something even W. Patrick Edwards agrees with and he’s got tons of experience to back it up).
This knowledge will help you to form an understanding of process and material that will be unmatched by putting material through a machine.
I think every woodworker should know how to quickly and accurately prepare a board and cut joinery entirely by hand.
To learn more about myself, my work and teaching visit my website. www.BrianHolcombeWoodworker.com
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