Upcoming Class: Introduction to Marquetry, Sept. 15-17

Introduction to Marquetry | Heller and Heller Furniture

After the success of the previous Introduction to Marquetry class, I am pleased to announce we are running a second class in just a few weeks. I will be teaching this scroll-saw based marquetry class at Nova Labs in Reston (1916 Isaac Newton Square W, Reston, VA 20190) on Sept 16 and 17th.

Introduction to Marquetry | Heller and Heller Furniture | students working on scroll saw marquetry during the course

We will cover design, cutting, layout, and glue up of pictures using the packet technique. I will also introduce the use of French style assembly boards to prepare the pictures for glue up.

This will be the second edition of this class in this location – Nova Labs and the Washington Woodworkers Guild co-hosted the first version in April this year – and we’ve learned a lot from the excellent feedback provided by our first group of students, so I am looking forward to trying out a streamlined and improved lesson plan.

If you are interested in attending, sign-ups are through this link: https://www.meetup.com/NOVA-Makers/events/242476379/

If you aren’t able to make the course – or even if you are – on the Friday evening Sept 15 at 7 pm I will be holding a free presentation on marquetry for those attending the class or anyone else that is interested. I’ll talk about marquetry through the ages, show some amazing examples, the various techniques that have evolved as technology has changed and how those techniques are still relevant today. I will discuss some of my own work in light of these techniques, and also cover a little design philosophy for the weekend class.

If you plan on attending this discussion we’d appreciate you signing up at https://www.meetup.com/NOVA-Makers/events/242476501/ so that we have some idea how many people to prepare for.

Introduction to Marquetry | Heller and Heller Furniture

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Furniture Education: How Wood Ages, Part II – Finish

Fine custom furniture | Dining Room Sideboard | Nesting occasional tables | See more at Heller and Heller Furniture
Today Dave is back with more on how furniture ages, and a little bit more on what you can do to achieve the look you want with finish selection.

Our last post talked about the tendency of wood to change as it ages, based on it’s interaction with the atmosphere: air and water.  Today we’re going to look at the biggest impact you can make on that change through control of those two elements in your home, and finish selection.

As we mentioned last week: Wood is made from a vast array or organic molecules. These molecules in wood react to heat, light, humidity, air, and all the things that touch the wood’s surface over the decades. A major purpose of finish is to provide a barrier to these things – it’s the “stainless” equivalent for wood. The type of finish and its stability in the face of those assaults change how quickly the wood reacts to its environment.

Let’s consider the environment first. Heat as a factor by itself is only significant at extreme variations, and otherwise mostly impacts humidity.

Humidity variations make the wood swell or shrink, and this occurs naturally as the seasons change the air from warm and humid to cool and dry. One of the biggest differences between high end furniture and mass market furniture is in care and understanding of wood as it handles humidity: properly designed furniture accounts for the fact that wood expands and contracts with humidity changes. So as long as your piece is built properly, furniture can handle changes in humidity, but cupping (curling of flat boards across their width) is a frequent issue.  Humidity control in your house is the best present that you can give to your furniture: a humidifier for the dry winter months, and a dehumidifier or air conditioner if summer humidity is high. My shop is humidity controlled at 40-50% year-round to ensure stability in my pieces as they’re being constructed.

There’s not much that can be done about air, other than encasing the piece in thick plastic. That’s just ugly or means you live in a museum, so let’s not worry about it.

Light we touched on briefly in our last post on this topic, but to reiterate: light accelerates the rate of change for wood tone because it contains UV rays. Because of the exponential exposure to light that exterior woods face, exterior finishes often contain a UV inhibitor – a photoreactive molecule that preferentially absorbs the UV so that the wood underneath doesn’t. That increases the longevity of exterior wood but at the cost of a thick, very yellow, surface coating. That’s fine on your ipe deck, but not so much on a cherry desk with inlays.

For interior finished: some oils are also photoreactive – they darken with sunlight. Linseed oil is very photoreactive, boiled linseed oil less so. Tung oil is a little reactive also. Before 1960, varnishes were made with linseed oil, so guess what color they turn? That is one of the reasons old furniture is so dark. It’s not actually the wood, it’s in the finish. Mahogany is red when freshly worked. “Mahogany” colored modern furniture is stained to be the color of old varnish on dark red wood, because that is now the color people associate with mahogany.

Cherry gate-leg table | Curly Cherry Federal Bookcase | See more at Heller and Heller Furniture

So how does this inform my work?  Since I make mostly decorated furniture, I want finishes that are very pale: with as little color shift as possible. Also, I prefer to use finishes that do not darken with time. I don’t use boiled linseed oil for both reasons. Oil based varnish is almost unavailable anyways these days due to air quality regulations that prohibit some of the key solvents.  That is a sad thing for custom furniture, but a good for society.

That leaves us with my preferred traditional finish: shellac.  You may have heard of shellac in the context of a nail salon, but it is an excellent finish with many desirable properties. Shellac ages pretty well, and also can be bought “super-blonde” – a very pale yellow. Unfortunately, water repellency isn’t one of shellac’s features, so I use it alone only when protection from water is not a requirement. When it is, I topcoat the super blonde shellac with water based polyurethane. I know that purists don’t approve. It looks a little plastic, because it is plastic. However, a thin coating protects the wood from water while minimally building thickness. The latest products are also “water white”: they add no noticeable hue at all*. They are quite an amazing improvement from their 10 year old forbearers.

In addition to how the wood itself changes color over time, it acquires additional character called “patina.” Patina is the result of the dirt and oil and dust and such that gets on a piece of furniture, then gets caught in the paste wax that is the traditional protectant for furniture in the house. Traditional paste wax is a pretty good means of polishing your furniture – much better than aerosol based furniture polishes that have silicone in them so that they level better.  Finishes, by the way, do not need to be fed. That is pure marketing gibberish. Clean your furniture when it needs it, and apply wax when it looks dull, or every twenty years, whichever comes first.

Proper care of your wood furniture, and understanding finish selection from the start, will mean that your piece will mellow and acquire character as it ages, ready to grace your family’s home for generations.

* A note: in hardware stores you may notice finishes advertised as “clear.” It should be noted, that this is NOT the same as “colourless.”

William Brown - What product do you use for the water -based poly?



Jenn H - Hi Bill!  Thanks for your question – Dave uses General Finishes water based poly.  He uses the Enduro Sanding Sealer, followed by the Enduro Clear Poly as a topcoat.  Both are spray application only, but he has been really pleased with the results – water white finish with excellent leveling and quick dry time.  I hope this is helpful!

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Furniture Education: How Wood Ages, Part I

One of the things we wanted to address with this journal was to educate our customers, so they can make the best decisions as well as having a little more understanding of a material we have all around us on a daily basis! Today’s topic is a two-part series on a topic that comes up constantly: what happens to wood as it ages? When you create a piece of heirloom-quality furniture, it is a good idea to think about how a piece will look 20, 50 or even 100 years from now. There are many factors that contribute to how wood ages, but today we’re going to look at the fundamental tendancies, by wood species.

How different woods age

cabinet of curiosities | Art Deco Jewelry Armoire | Heller and Heller Custom Furniture

Furniture looks different as it gets older. Aside from the patina, which woodworkers joke is dirt mixed with wax, there are some chemical things going on that change the look of furniture as it ages. As a Smithsonian Furniture Conservator once told me, “all wood wants to be caramel colored”.  This is a reaction to light and air.

You can think about it in this way: Steel rusts and aluminum oxidizes when exposed to air and water. Stainless (!) steel is called that because the addition of exotic metals to iron protects the metal so that it ages more slowly by being less reactive.

Wood is made from a vast array or organic molecules. These molecules in wood react to heat, light, humidity, air, and all the things that touch the wood’s surface over the decades. A major purpose of finish is to provide a barrier to these things – it’s the “stainless” equivalent for wood. The type of finish and its stability in the face of those assaults change how quickly the wood reacts to its environment, and we’ll talk about finishes with respect to aging in our followup post.

As you might expect from materials that have different chemical properties, different wood species react differently to typical conditions. To extreme opposite examples would be ebony and cherry – Cherry is in a hurry to age, ebony much less so.  No finish can stop cherry from reacting to light. Fresh cherry is the color of raw salmon – not a pretty picture. In six months it is a medium red, and in two years it is a glorious rich dark but variable reddy brown. Ebony looks the same at five years as at five days.

Cherry Jewelry Box | Heller and Heller Furniture

Maple turns golden, as does ash and oak; walnut actually lightens with time. Most brightly colored woods soften: purpleheart turns a mellow brown after some decades. All of the old furniture in the Louvre was once bright purple and bright yellow. A tad garish by our standards, but to 18th century royalty, it was the ultimate status symbol.

Sometimes people ask me to stain the piece I am making for them, to match their other furniture or just to be the color they want. I prefer not to, since the wood will change color with time, as will the other woods that they may be matching to. Since the finishes are different, as are the underlying woods, they will shift differently than my piece.  The folks that sell kitchen cabinets in 47 different colors know that the cabinets will change color with time, but that is not their problem – it takes too long. Also, the whole room changes, so it’s harder to notice.

One thing that is very important with furniture is to not leave an object on the piece for an extended period, especially at first. This is even more important if the piece sits in direct sunlight, and exceedingly important on cherry furniture. The shadow mark from the object will be extremely difficult to remove – that doily pattern could be a permanent addition to the tabletop.

The other piece to this puzzle is the finish selection, and we’ll be back to discuss it next week.

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Mothers Day in Charlottesville: What to do

Hiking Charlottesville | Heller and Heller Furniture

Mother’s Day is right around the corner this weekend, and we thought we’d share some ideas for our favorite simple things to do in Charlottesville with Mom.

Brunch or Ice Cream on the Downtown Mall

This is a no-brainer on a nice day, though it sounds like we’ll have rain for this weekend. The Downtown Mall has tons to do, so we thought we’d share just a few of our favorites:

Charlottesville Arts | A cooperative gallery | Charllottesville Artisans

Photo Credit – Kearby Chen

  • There are dozens of food options on the mall, but we’ve been enjoying Brasserie Saison as a great new selection! The Belgian eatery has delicious fries that are 200% Owen approved.
  • Chaps Ice Cream is a staple, with old-school treats and delicious coffee.
  • Visit the Cville Arts Coop for a last-minute gift, or let Mom choose something she loves!  The Coop has handmade goods of every sort including some fabulous quilted cards that come highly recommended by Elizabeth. You could also pick up one of our fine wooden wares, as we’ve recently restocked our most popular items.
  • For other cute gift ideas, we also love Rock Paper Scissors and Caspari. (as Elizabeth put it: Moms love Caspari.)

Visit a Vineyard or Cidery

Mothers Day Vineyard | Heller and Heller Furniture

This family loves a good vineyard picnic more than I can say. We’ve been to many over the years, so here are our favorites!

  • Veritas Vineyard – this one tops many list for good reason.  The scenery is lovely and the house cheese plate is tops. Wines are really excellent, and there are plenty of spaces to picnic if you’d like to bring your own food and sit outside.
  • Afton Mountain – a smaller vineyard with excellent wines and friendly tasting staff.  They recently finished their enclosed patio area in addition to their extensive picnic grounds, this one is absolutely a family favorite.
  • King Family – The Crosé is a wonderful glass on a warm and sunny day (or if you wish it were a warm and sunny day!) and they also have an excellent patio setup.  The winery is absolutely packed during the polo season (which kicks off Memorial Day weekend) so now is a good time to visit when it is slightly calmer!

Bold Rock Cidery | Heller and Heller Furniture

  • Bold Rock Cidery – The cidery offers an excellent tasting, and the building is beautifully nestled with decks and terraces, and lots of seating.  This is definitely a family-friendly space!

Go for a hike

Hiking Charlottesville | Heller and Heller furniture

If your mom is into outdoor activities that are slightly more strenuous, try a hike!  There are tons of trails are Charlottesville – these photos are from a family hike we did in 2013 at Crabtree Falls (which is also dog-friendly!)


Hope you and your family enjoy an excellent Mother’s Day this weekend, wherever you may be celebrating.

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