Imperfections give way to the artistry of a woodworker

Howard Neighbors

March 24, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

In A Reverence for Wood, author Eric Sloane writes, "I derive a certain pleasure from an awareness of our gift of wood. Besides giving me its chemical and utilitarian benefits ... the tree and its wood are a most necessary part of my life's aesthetic enjoyment."

Archaic? Outmoded? Just plain strange?

Meet Ellicott City resident Kirk Mercer and you'll begin to understand this appreciation for wood, evident in the artistry with which he shapes it into one-of-a-kind tables.

Mercer, 52, began building 8-by-10-foot wooden speedboats to race on the Magothy River when he was 10 or 12 years old. "They weren't much to look at," said Mercer. Still, he enjoyed working with solid woods.

"Everything is particle board and veneers now," he said.

Today, Mercer makes unique tables out of solid pieces of exotic woods, preserving the natural lines. Utilitarian pieces such as cabinets and entertainment systems never inspired him, though he has made a few. During the course of one of his early projects -- a table made from the lower part of a tree stump -- he found himself getting progressively more enthused about the wood grain revealing itself after innumerable hours of work.

Mercer studied photography in college, which may be a factor in his well-developed eye for the potential in what first appears to be an uninteresting hunk of wood. His wife, Helen, talks about how Kirk would often stop the car to get out and look at a particular tree he had noticed on the side of the road when the family was taking a trip. She said he is often working with a wood piece -- whittling it, sanding it, examining the grain and in the process creating an artistic work.

"I started experimenting with wood," Mercer said of beginning his hobby in earnest. Most of the slabs of exotic woods such as big-leaf maple and burl root come from Oregon and other Western states. Mercer purchases them from woodworking sites on the Internet. Mercer might look at a piece for weeks, months -- even a year -- before purchasing it.

"I like to keep it as natural as possible," said Mercer, explaining how he likes to envision the piece in the slab, asking himself, "What can I make out of this?"

"What the mills want from a tree is volume and uniform boards for high-end cabinets," said Mercer. This is the wood we typically find at a home-improvement warehouse, used for shelving or other do-it-yourself projects. "I like to keep the natural edges and color variation in my pieces," he said.

Still, the hobby involves an element of risk. Depending on how long ago the wood was cut, it may be dry, gray and difficult, if not impossible, to see the grain. A lot of the slabs appear pretty horrendous on the outside. "There's no way of knowing what you've got until you open it up," Mercer said. "But that's what is so interesting about it -- you don't know what you're going to find."

Mercer uses the asymmetrical lines of the natural wood and the imperfections as design elements in his tables. Perfection is not his intention -- he leaves that to the factory lines of mass-produced furniture. Instead, he finds visual interest in the "wind shakes" in Mesquite.

"Mesquite is a very dense, stable wood, the color of mahogany, almost," said Mercer. When the wind blows violently, the inside of a tree twitches, breaking down the wood fibers and creating striations. To the mill, the integrity of the wood has been destroyed.

"They consider it a defect, and I consider it an opportunity to keep the piece whole. I don't want to hide it. I want it to stand out as an artistic statement," Mercer said.

Mercer uses butterfly joints, chiseled out by hand in a contrasting color wood, and places them where there are natural cracks or hollows, allowing the table to expand and contract over time. He could easily use a matching piece and make it nearly invisible to the eye, but that is not the point.

"When you really do it right, a joint like this is quite something," he said.

When asked about the time it takes to complete one piece -- two to three months -- Mercer acknowledges that his tables are not the kind of projects he would want to mass produce. Everything is done by hand, from the planing and sanding to the rubbing and oiling.

He continues to buy large slabs -- most recently two pieces of solid walnut for $400. Mercer enthusiastically explains how the pieces are a "book matched set" -- two pieces cut consecutively from the same tree so that when you lay them out, side by side, they are a mirror image of each other. In these, he sees a dining table.

Mercer has given many of his pieces to family members but might sell pieces in the future.

"I'd like to make it a part-time business," he said, looking ahead to when he might retire from his job as director of supply chain management at Polk Audio. To date, he has kept his pieces in the family.

"I really like it when people come in here," and touch the finished projects, said Mercer. His tables invite the tactile sense; it is hard to believe something so varied and visually dimensional can be so smooth

Running your hands over the surface of one his tables is in fact homage to the tree and Mercer's hours of craftsmanship, perfectly befitting someone with a reverence for wood.

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