Museum Review: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia


Virginia Museum of Fine Arts | Photograph by Bilyana Dimitrova

We like museums. In particular, I like museums with excellent Decorative Arts collections. This tends to not be what other people look at – I haven’t seen the Mona Lisa in my last half dozen visits to the Louvre, but always see the furniture, for example. Last year I did review some of the finer museums in Paris, but I’m way behind. We’ve seen a bunch since then (in Paris and elsewhere)! In an effort to potentially help out a Decorative Arts sort looking for a museum to visit, I will occasionally note ones that we’ve visited and liked, and what we liked about it.

I’m going to start with the local high point – the VMFA in Richmond. Its heart is several really substantial private collections that were donated to the Museum, which have been supplemented by acquisitions to round them out. It has some really odd stuff, but also some very fine and focused items.

Let’s start with the Faberge exhibit, just returned from a long circuit around the country and China. Lillian Thomas Pratt purchased these in the 1920’s and 30’s, buying them from dealers as they were smuggled out of the USSR. The workmanship is extraordinary. Five of the 52 made are in the collection. This is supplemented by a solid collection of enameled items made by Faberge that Russian royalty had owned. You can check out their Faberge items here.

Ruhlman corner cabinet | Virginia Museum of Fine Arts VMFA | Photo by Heller and Heller Furniutre

The Lewis collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco objects is the main reason that we keep returning to the VMFA. The Art Nouveau jewelry, silverware, and furniture is really fine. The Art Deco furniture is also quite good, though I do not like how some of it is displayed. It is too far and dark in the display areas to really see the most intricate pieces. It’s fine if you just want to see it, but it’s not good if you really want to appreciate the details. By comparison, in the Musee des Arts Decoratif in Paris you could get close enough lick the pieces, though I don’t recommend it. Lesser museums treat furniture like its jewelry, rather than something made out of wood that was designed to be used. Enough whining, but don’t expect to see everything clearly, or bring binoculars.

Art Nouveau Furniture | Virginia Museum of Fine Arts VMFA | Photo by Heller and Heller Furniutre

There is also a good Arts and Crafts collection – mostly American but a few English and Secession pieces. Furniture, pottery, silver and some textile pieces, along with some Tiffany windows and lamps.

Decorative arts museum | Virginia Museum of Fine Arts VMFA | Photo by Heller and Heller Furniutre

You can see their general Decorative Arts into the American + European Design collection.

There is a very small collection of fine 18th century American furniture, as well, though I couldn’t find a reference to it in the VFMA website.

It also has a very nice restaurant overlooking the grounds, and has had some interesting travelling exhibits since we’ve been visiting. It’s a great place to visit if you have a couple of hours free while in the Richmond area, and is worth a trip if you like Art Nouveau.

Just a quick reminder – there’s still time to sign up for Dave’s veneering course at Waterford coming up April 1-2 if you’re interested! Get more detail about the course here.

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Introduction to Veneering Class, April 1-2

Four way veneer matching | Tabriz inspired wine table | Heller & Heller Custom Furniture

Waterford is a historic town near Leesburg VA, about an hour west of Washington DC. The Waterford Foundation runs a Heritage Crafts School. This year it will feature five classes in each of four months on a wide variety of traditional crafts. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ll be teaching an Introduction to Veneering class at the Waterford Foundation on April 1-2, 2017. Since you’ve asked (only kidding), let me tell you a little more about it.

Here is the course outline.

  1. A brief background on veneering and the objectives of the course.
    1. Why veneer?
    2. Design opportunities
    3. Material constraints
    4. When and where to use and not use
  2. Cutting veneer with and across the grain
    1. Managing cranky veneer; flattening
    2. Avoiding losing short grain pieces
  3. Matching veneer
  4. Taping concepts and alternatives
  5. Book match, slip match, rotational match
  6. 4 way match : diamonds and stars
  7. Make a panel with a four way match
  8. More complex matching: concepts
  9. Substrates
  10. Glue(s)
  11. Crossbanding and edging
  12. Adding edging to your 4 way match
  13. Let’s glue it up and then go home!
  14. Look at the results, clean it up.
  15. Hammer veneering. Demos then let’s try it.
  16. Sequential hammer veneering: traditional techniques.

First I will cover why we would veneer, and when we shouldn’t. Then some technical issues and the basic design palette. Brief talks will be followed by much cutting and taping, and hopefully not too much hair pulling. Veneer can be frustrating because the different wood species act so differently. Solid wood is also like that, but you are unlikely to work with three, four or more species in an hour, where that is very common with veneer. Experience provides confidence in knowing how to deal with different characteristics, and I’ll try to pack in as many different peculiarities as I can during the class.

Four way veneer matching | Take home panel from the class | Heller & Heller Custom Furniture

The end result of the day will be a 12×12”panel with a four way match central pattern, surrounded by a thin fillet with a crossbanded edge. This is a very traditional configuration, commonly used in Federal furniture. Drawer fronts are often a simplified version of this approach. Once you can do this, the more complex options should be comprehensible, and doable with a little practice.

On the second day we will clean up the panels that spent the prior night in a vacuum press drying, and I’ll talk a little about sanding and finishing. With only 1/40” of wood, sanding is a delicate subject.

The last subject will be hammer veneering. This is the traditional method – before modern glues were invented it was how nearly all veneering was done. It’s quite different and unfortunately requires additional tools. In certain situations it greatly simplifies achieving complex results. I’ll do a little demo then everyone can try it out.

The two pictures in this article both show four way match veneer patterns. The small sample board shows four different edge banding woods, to show some design possibilities. The tabletop also includes some marquetry, an advanced veneering technique that I also hope to teach a class on this year. Ignoring the inlaid patterns though, this is exactly what the class is teaching, in a larger scale.

If these topics appeal to you I’d encourage you to sign up. I’d like to hold this class in Charlottesville as well but need to figure out how to do so in my congested shop. At this time, the Waterford class is the only one that is planned.

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March Happenings

A view of our patterened wooden wares | Heller and Heller Furniture

I’m back! It is time to let the world know that I’m still thinking about woodworking, and actually doing it also. Posts over the next while will show the two really cool commissions I’ve made in the past six months, some smaller items that help pay the bills, and some classes I’ll be teaching this year.

But in this first post of the year let’s consider what I am committed to doing in the month of March:

The Chantilly Craftsmen’s Classics Art and Craft Festival on March 24-26 at the Chantilly Expo Center. It will be my only show in Northern Virginia this spring, and I hope to see you there. I’ve got some new Keepsake boxes sized to hold greeting cards and letters, and marquetry, and lots of new chopping boards to go with my jewelry boxes and decorated woodenware.

inlaid maple keepsake box for cards and momentos | Heller and Heller Furniture

On April 1-2, I will be teaching an Introduction to Veneering class  at the Waterford Foundation in Waterford, Virginia. This class for experienced woodworkers will introduce veneer as a decorative material. Students will make a four way matched panel with fillets and cross banding. This will teach cutting, arranging, and adhering veneers to a substrate.  Students will also practice traditional hammer veneering, which is a preferred application approach for certain types of veneered panels.

Veneering is not difficult and it does not require a large number of tools. It does have its peculiarities, mostly based on the unusual properties of wood that is 1/40” thick, so isn’t completely sure its wood any more. If the design possibilities of veneer appeal to you, this class will help you get on your way quickly. There is a limit of 8 students in the class, and there are currently still openings.

Later in the spring I also hope to teach a two day Introduction to Marquetry class in collaboration with the Washington Woodworkers Guild.  Finding a location is the current constraint to holding the class, but I am hopeful that it will proceed. We will be using scroll saws to learn the packet cutting approach to marquetry. I’ll post more information as the class gets closer to reality.

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Meet the Maker: Cville Arts Co-Op!

Well this is a momentous occasion – a blog post by studio manager Elizabeth!  Elizabeth has been spearheading our involvement with the Charlottesville Arts Cooperative Gallery and is on the blog to share a little more about her experiences there. – Jenn

Charlottesville Arts | A cooperative gallery | Charllottesville Artisans

Photo Credit – Kearby Chen via Google Plus

Heller and Heller has continued to evolve since its inception. Initially every item made was custom made for a client. I’ll leave the discussion for another day on why Dave now makes a significant number of items artisanal items for customers we have yet to discover. Beautiful end grain chopping boards, end tables, trays, shaker boxes, marquetry boxes and pictures have all become part of the product offering. A necessary evil once you start down this path is that in order to make sales you need to have inventory. Rule of thumb is that you sell 1/3 of what you have on hand when you do a show. So, once you have inventory you need to sell it in order to make more stuff. This is the challenge. If you do arts and crafts shows then you need to pay the fees, travel to wherever it is, spend the time at the show, spend money to eat (and stay), take everything down and drive home. If you sell on the internet no one can touch or feel your items, you are essentially selling a picture,  you are competing with mass produced items and heavy items like chopping boards have a not insignificant postage cost associated with them.

Charlottesville Arts | A cooperative gallery | Charllottesville Artisans

Enter the Charlottesville Arts Cooperative Gallery – this is a store full of art and artisanal goods created by artisans who share a storefront space and operating costs and labour. Heller and Heller joined and set up our space there at the beginning of March. (Readers of the blog will remember that Dave was in San Diego the second half of February at the American School of French Marquetry)

So we now have 2 months experience at the co-op. The store is open 7 days a week and working members share the store hours – there are no paid employees. In order to keep Dave in his studio making more items, I volunteered to work the store hours. So here I am, post retirement from the corporate world, working retail for the first time in my life. Based on H&H April sales, the hours I worked and the difference in commission for a working and non working member – I earned $1.52/hour. But it’s really not that bad! I spend my time in the store surrounded by beautiful things. There are roughly 50 different artisans working in 20 art forms from clay to wood! Every artist is located here in Virginia, making the store perfect for visitors looking for something special to take home.

My favourite so far was the lovely English lady buying herself a leather handbag. She mentioned she was performing at the Paramount that evening so I checked the paper when I got home and figured out she was with St Martin’s in the Field performing with Joshua Bell! (probably a good thing I didn’t know or I would have been swooning at her feet!)

There are another kind of customer as well – those who live in the area and are very familiar with what’s available – the man who came in to buy a hand held wooden cross to take to his mother the day his father died, the couple who bought a lovely stained glass for a wedding present wrote the card they bought while we were packaging and ringing up the sale.

Charlottesville Arts | A cooperative gallery | Charllottesville Artisans

While the appreciative customers are a real plus for spending time at the co-op, sharing the space with other artisans and their spouses is also a big benefit. Everyone seems happy to share their experiences and creative ideas. After all, the dream of every artist is to spend time doing the thing they love and create something that others will value enough to spend money on. Fellow artists are wonderful critics because they have both an aesthetic appreciation and an understanding of what the public appreciates.  The intent of the co-op is there in its name – working together to sell everyone’s work. The jurying process is key to making sure that the quality is high and that offerings from each artist are different enough from each other to prevent competition.

Charlottesville Arts | A cooperative gallery | Charllottesville Artisans

So far I’ve been working weekends – busier days so the store has two people working. You’ll find me there twice a month among the ceramics, glass, jewelry, silk scarves, artisanal lotions, oil paintings, ink drawings, scenic photographs, knitted goods, copper bird feeders, pewter ornaments, leather bags and of course the wood!

If you’re in the neighborhood, enjoying the beautiful downtown mall in Charlottesville, don’t be shy – stop in and see us!

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Modern Woodworking: Using Photoshop for Veneer Patterns

Woodworking today (as evidenced from this blog) is about more than just crafting heirloom furniture!  Maintaining an online presence is essential for helping customers to find you, but this also opens up the possibility of working with clients who are not within simple travelling distance to the shop. To communicate with your clients during the design process you need to be able to send images via email that are realistic and as explanatory as possible.

One of the many tools of a modern woodworker is the subject of our blog today – Photoshop!  Image manipulation can make it fast and easy to show a client an exact look at their options. Dave is here today to talk about a recent example of using Photoshop to give a custom veneer matching options.


Patterned furniture is one of the best uses for veneer. Photoshop gives us the chance to manipulate photos of pieces of veneer to see how a pattern would look, or lets us apply the same pattern to different parts of the same piece of veneer, to see which we like the best. I did this recently and would like to show you, my charming reader, how it came out.

I received a commission to build a copy of a piece that I originally made in 2005. The customer wanted a slightly larger version of exactly the same table. I was able to procure some fairly dramatic French walnut from Certainly Wood , who had supplied the original veneer as well.




Picture 2 shows the table top as it exists. Most of the details will remain the same, but the central veneer will be different, and there are always many ways of cutting small radial slices.

walnut veneer slice

Picture 3 shows the veneer sheet. It is very similar to the original one.


Picture 4 shows a sized cutout, for finding interesting patterns. Since the central section is 40” wide, the pie slice is 20.5 inches long. We have 13 sheets of veneer to work with, so each pie slice is 4.9” wide( pi*d/26). Note that this picture shows the cutout on the whole sheet. This is so that I can replicate it later – non-trivial with vibrant patterns.


Picture 5 is a closeup, which I will take into Photoshop. You’ll notice that it’s photographed on a blank, solid background different in color from the wood – this makes manipulation in Photoshop easier, as it is easier to distinguish the veneer slice from the background.

I cannot teach you to use Photoshop. It is a bear. Bears are powerful and cranky, just like Photoshop. If you are an expert user what I’m doing is trivial, but I would encourage basic users to get some training ( has very good video tutorials) and figure this out. It’s worth the hassle.

photoshop blog pix-3

The piece of veneer is cut out in Photoshop, just as it would be really.  I make a big tabletop (canvas) to work on, copy the segment in, place it, and then copy it in again. The layer can be rotated so that the edges just line up. You can either keep doing that, one piece at a time, or copy the  new larger piece and copy that in fewer times. Eventually, either way, you will have all of your segments in place.

photoshop blog pix-5

Now comes the cool part, new to me this week. A picture of the top can be turned into a layer, and the center removed, using the eraser or magic wand tool. Adjust one or the other so that the picture pixel width is correct, then overlay the picture of the top – with the empty hole – over the semicircle of veneer slices you made earlier. Voila! That is how the tabletop will look.

I made three different ones for my customer, based on patterns I saw in the sheet. They are shown. The third one has reversed slices, to make the larger pattern.

Boston Federal Hall Table | Veneer Detail | Top Pattern | see more at

photoshop blog pix-6

photoshop blog pix-7

Veneer is a wonderful way of generating patterns and this technique lets you see the outcome with much higher fidelity than other methods I’ve seen.

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