Made With Pride. Michael Colca Gives His Furniture Something That Mass Producers Can’t.

Thursday, September 14, 2000 | Posted by Michael Colca

The Austin America-Statesman / Michael Barnes

American-Statesman: You make arts-and-crafts furniture in a traditional manner. Tell us about the revivalist movement and how you got involved.

Michael Colca: At the beginning of the 19th century, mass production was beginning to be employed in all areas of manufacturing, including what had traditionally been the artisan fields. In general, mass production methods resulted in loss of quality and individuality and gave rise to a groundswell of discontent and a feeling of detachment with the product itself. The British architect and designer William Morris was able to articulate these sentiments and his writings are largely credited with beginning the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and America in the latter part of the 19th century. Toward the end of the 1960s, in an age of abundance unequaled in human history, we saw a parallel with the original Arts and Crafts movement and a similar groundswell of dissatisfaction with mass produced goods. This time, however, there was more of a societal fear of being plugged into The Machine of mass production and the loss of the heart and soul of the artisan. I see the same environment in place today. I was drawn to the revival of this movement by a desire to make things that we, as a people, could be proud of. I was searching for something worthwhile to do that would allow me to create items through the work of my own mind and hands and feel the satisfaction of that creation.

How much time do you spend on each piece and why?

It varies - a piece of furniture such as a Highboy will take 250 hours to build, a Medina bed 95 hours. The process begins with a careful selection of materials. Parts are selected for how they will work structurally and visually in the finished piece. I look at the grain and flow, the pattern of the grain, of each piece and select each piece of wood for the characteristics it holds. These are then roughed out to near their final size, cataloged and set aside to equalize for a few days. Parts are then milled to the final size. Next, the careful cutting and fitting of the joinery - mortise-and-tenon and dovetails - provides the structural integrity for the piece. This part of the process must be completed very carefully, not only to ensure the beauty of each joint, but to also ensure the tightness that will provide the lasting sturdiness of a truly fine piece of furniture. Each part is then sanded to 320 grit (very fine) to allow the true character of the wood to emerge. The piece is then assembled. This is always an exciting time in the shop when you get to see for the first time (especially on new designs) the full effect of the wood choices. Then comes the finishing. For pieces that are not exposed to moisture we use a hand rubbed oil finish that is applied in four coats, sanded with 400 then 600 grit between coats. We do this in order to bring out the silky finish, the tactile sensuality of the wood, as well as to showcase the grain and flow of the overall piece. For pieces that will be exposed to moisture such as table tops, we sand to the same level, but then apply a final coat of pre-catalyzed lacquer to prevent staining and water rings.

What are the advantages to such a meticulously crafted piece of furniture?

The advantages of such a meticulously crafted piece of furniture can really be summarized by four qualities: character/beauty, sturdiness, individuality and appreciation.

Character/beauty - With a finely made piece of furniture there are always pleasant surprises over the years from the subtle play of grain in the design and the balance that it creates, to the hues and patina of unstained clear finished wood as it continuously matures. Fine work inspires in each of us the desire to live up to a higher standard.
Sturdiness - These pieces of furniture will hold up to a lifetime of use and then some. The joints remain tight, the legs don't wobble, and the silky action of the doors and drawers continue to operate smoothly and cleanly.

Individuality - Each piece, by virtue of materials, design, finishing and aging, is unique. You're not going to walk into someone's house and say, "Oh, I have a chair exactly like that." Each piece is an expression of its owner and of me, the artisan.

Appreciation - Depending of course on the treatment it receives and conditions in which it's kept, these are pieces of furniture that appreciate in value over time. These are originals, not prints, so to speak.

Is the cost prohibitive?

My prices are competitive in the fine production furniture market, but to put it in context, you should expect to pay roughly 40 - 70% above what you might see for a mass produced item. A bed, for instance, might run you $3,500. However, for the reasons listed above, you're not buying the same piece of furniture that you see in the local furniture store.