Cabinetmaker improvises with used lumber

February 09, 1992|By Linda Lowe Morris

David Klein grabs a rag and gently starts to wipe away th fine layer of sawdust that has settled on top of a cabinet he calls "Circus."

"This is made of oak wainscoting from a confessional over in St. Elizabeth's Church in Highlandtown," he says.

He walks around the cabinet, parked in the middle of his woodworking studio here in an old Hampden mill, and turns his attention to the front. "This beautiful red barn wood came from a 150-year-old barn up in Harford County. It must have been a gorgeous barn, you can just look at the wood."

He peers inside.

"These green boards in the shelves come from Mayfield, from an old 90- or 100-year-old slaughterhouse right off Harford Road, kind of like a series of little garages, built-on and built-on. And the back comes from a building at Guilford and Baltimore Street on the Block. An artist friend of mine had his studio there, and they had some of this wood on the office walls."

He goes on, identifying the source of each board and hinge and door pull -- "the provenance," he says, grinning.

Every board in every cabinet he makes comes with stories attached -- where it came from, what it used to be, how he got ahold of it -- because every piece of lumber he uses has been used before.

He picks up a board, black with big pale gray spots on it, a piece of shelving salvaged from a hardware store that burned. "When I find great pieces of wood like this," he says, "it is so valuable to me. I mean, I guess you could make this kind of thing, but that's not my trip to make it. My trip is to find it."

David Klein's idea of a good day is to be standing in a Dumpster outside an old house being renovated. In there he can usually find the raw materials for his cabinets: old wood coated with layers of cracked paint or varnish.

He takes these and pieces them together with the reverence and the techniques of a master cabinetmaker working with rare, precious woods to make what he calls "jazz cabinets" -- so called because for him the creative process is total improvisation.

"I love jazz, and it's kind of how my work comes together. I make it up as I go along. There's no normal form for me. I just kind of let it rip."

To demonstrate, he walks across his studio and picks up an old wooden panel, carved with Gothic arches and painted dark green many decades ago. "Isn't this great? I can't wait to do something with this."

He props up the panel and then goes off rummaging through a huge rack filled with wood. Not just any board will do. Even working with what other people consider trash, he is as selective as a jeweler picking through gems. He finds something he likes -- two boards coated with paint the color of honey but chipped and cracked to reveal hints of the layered colors underneath.

"I really love this wood," he says, coming back. "It came from Lombard Street, Corned Beef Row. This is the kind of thing you get real greedy about and you want thousands of feet of it. But after this I'm never going to be able to make another cabinet out of it."

He places the honey-colored pieces on either side of the green panel and steps back, squinting and shaking his hands. "I've got to see it first," he says. "I put boards together until they start really looking good.

"It evolves like a puzzle. I don't sit down and design a piece on paper and say OK, that's what I'm going to build. The wood I use, since it's all found materials, has a lot to do with the amount of changes I make. I may have some wood I want to use but once I get into the building of it, I may find that the wood's a little too twisted or warped and I can't use it. To have all the sizes work, that's really a scary part of this for me. Boy, it either works or it doesn't."

Mr. Klein, who grew up in Baltimore, had been doing custom carpentry, primarily restoration work, for more than 10 years LTC when he decided to move into woodworking and set up a shop in his basement. "I just started making things, and before I knew it I started making the rectangular wall cabinets."

Some neighbors saw them and asked him to make cabinets for their kitchen. "There were 14 different cabinets and they just gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted. It was a wonderful experience to have someone say, 'Yeah, we like what you do and you can do anything you want,' to put that kind of trust in you. When I got into the kitchen is when I really began to get a sense of things. I started seeing where I could go."

While he was working on the kitchen, he realized he needed a larger work space. "Some of the kitchen cabinets I couldn't get into the basement. I had them in my dining room for like three months at a time. I'd have to cut a board, run upstairs, fit it, run back downstairs, cut another board, then fit it upstairs. But I kept myself in shape during that time."

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