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My day with Sam Maloof

Gary Ilmanen
Homepage: http://www.artwork.net

The day dawned bright and crisp Saturday. That's what they told me. I got up at 7:45. Still plenty of time to get dressed and drive to Upland, California--about 30 minutes from my house in Riverside. At 9am, I rolled up to the house. Or was it an estate? Compound? Campus?

I had heard stories about how spectacular the Maloof house was. Built in the height of the craftsman era, by and for a craftsman. It was registered as an historic monument some years ago. And they will be moving the entire place 3 miles to put the new freeway through. I mean, moving! They will cut the main house into 7 parts and MOVE it. But that’s another tale to tell.

I parked on the street and walked up the driveway. My first impression was that this was a place with a decided oriental flavor. The engineer in me overtook the artist and did some quick calculations:
{Path[Crooked] + NOT(Grass) + Trees[Stringy] + Design[Simple]} ==> Japanese Influence
OK, so I was right. Looking around, more confirmation... yep, small grove of bamboo, potted plants, raked dirt. Side garden with more raked dirt, minimalist decorations. Construction of natural materials. Incongruous, conflicting elements, or rather stark contrast, was provided by the Toyota fork lift parked at the edge. And the 70Gallon compressor wedged in between the rock and the bush.

Twenty-nine others came today, and we milled not lumber, but about in the courtyard until Mr. Maloof came out to greet us. He immediately struck me as a happy, friendly fellow. Unpretentious. He probably winces every time he is called "Mr. Maloof" instead of Sam, but is too polite to request otherwise.

We went into a small building and got the introduction and slide show. Some pictures were of the grounds and building from years back... you could tell right away because there was no smog in the background. I would guess 1965, but it could easily have been 1955. The House had very little vegetation around it (except for the groves) where now it was being overtaken in places. The avocado tree looked pretty much the same, though. The base of that thing has got to be 6 feet in diameter! But I digress. Again. Presently, I realized that I was resting my right arm on a small table. No... on a briefcase on top of the table. This was a handmade walnut briefcase, dovetailed, with a leather handle. Pretty nice work, except that the lid didn’t float, and consequently there were the beginnings of cracks in two places.The master craftsman had not made allowances for the cross-grain lid/side! The patina and wear whispered, "Hey! Lighten up! Sam made me a long time ago!" I smiled, and recalled how confused I had been when I first heard the mysterious statement 'allow for the natural movement of wood.'

Then there were some pictures of his work, and stories. Stories about the people from Corona Del Mar who bought one chair, then came back for 60 pieces to furnish their beach house. The one about the rosewood dining set he originally sold for less than $1000, and when the people died, brought $100,000 at auction. A lady from Texas, who said she wanted a chair like ‘that one with the horns’. She asked what he called that style. "Why, that’s my Texas Chair, Ma'am!" He talked about the waiting list for a piece of his ". . . at LEAST a year. Unless it's for a cradle! Babies don't wait. We drop everything when a cradle order comes in!"

The slide show ended, and I noticed that he was standing in front of a bookcase with a bunch of models of furniture on it. I had to ask the first question: Did he find models useful in the design phase? Actually, not really... he prefers to design in full-size, working out the kinks as he goes along. The models were made for customers who couldn’t quite figure out what he was describing. Sam then proceeded to take out several of the models and explain which customer each was for, the special design features it illustrated, and how the final product did or didn’t match up.

That done, we moved into an adjoining shop and were shown a three-inch-thick slab of wood, about 3x6 feet. "This will be a table top," he began, "and it really is a nice piece of wood. English Oak Burl. Heavy. Six more slabs under that one." I’m trying hard not to put saliva stains on it. He moves around to my right. "And this one... Brazilian Rosewood. Can’t get that anymore." My heart starts hammering. I’ve got to get out of this room. He read my mind, and we moved into a different workshop.

I managed to slow my pulse to just under 140, and took a seat. Since I was last in the previous shop, I was first out, and so I plopped down in the first row, left edge. Sam took his place at the chalk board that was balanced on the disassembled panel sander. I was able to get a better look at the man. Looked sort of old, but not the 81 years he claimed to be. Thick glasses. Shorter than average. No mustache or beard. Walnut shavings clung to his dark polo shirt. The Levi’s were the honest kind, not the Yuppie Bastard things you see so much of these days.

First, he introduced us to some of his shop tools... A big, green, jointer. He says that the Polish machines didn’t know they were supposed to wear out, but the cutting steel is crap, so he put some German knives in it. Behind it, a Hitachi planer/jointer. He paid $1600 for it, and, like rosewood, they don’t make them anymore. He claims the surface off of the Hitachi is indistinguishable from that of a hand plane. (He also mentioned that he didn’t have to joint after cutting on the Powermatic 66/Forest Blade combination, either) A big ole band saw a little further back. The boring machine (as if these weren’t!) was in the other room with the lathes.

Hmm, I say to myself, "Self, where are all the hand tools?" Awakened from my stupor, I scanned the area... AHA! THERE! Transitional Stanley planes on the wall. And an auger, and some Diston handsaws. Wait a minute! There’s a scythe and an adz, and some all-wood planes, and molding planes and ... they are all hanging WAY too high. Decoration. No painted saws though. OK. There’s a large cabinet full of chisels, bevels, marking gauges, screwdrivers, hammers, a half-dozen electric routers AND an early #71. I’m starting to feel better now.

Sam begins a description of how he is using scraps from chairmaking to make some small tables. One of the ‘fellas’ suggested that. The ‘fellas’ are the three guys that work for him. They have been with him for quite some time. The FNG, I mean the New Guy, has been there 16 years. It turns out that his son has no interest in taking over the operation, so the fellas are going to get it when he assumes room temperature. The table construction is, in a word, efficient. He uses a core to hold the legs. The core is square, dadoed on each edge, and coved on the corners. The legs are tenoned into the dado and form the table support too. After glue-up, all the corners get broken and everything is faired into smooth shapes, with a bit of hardline edge for contrast. This table is of Koa wood. Yep, from Hawaii. Wouldn’t you know it, you can’t get it anymore.

Where did he get it? A friend of his in Hawaii had one on his ranch. Some guy asked to buy it. The rancher refused. A few months later, his ranch hand was out in the back 40 (or back 4000) and reported that somebody had cut the tree down and WAXED the cut, leaving it to air-dry on his property! The Koa Rustler obviously intended to come back later and pick up a much lighter log. So the rancher hauled the tree out mailed it to Sam. Now, Sam has another friend who turns bowls and wants some of it. His comment: "I can’t believe that anybody would use such a beautiful wood to make a bowl!" Back to construction—he uses yellow glue, and epoxy-sawdust to fill knots, cracks or brad-holes. Well, that’s what he said. I didn’t see many knots or cracks, but there may be more in the large tables. Like the 8x20 foot one. He marks pieces out from patterns, combination square, and freehand. Layout lines are in ink -- ball-point pen. Some guy in the back asks him if he uses biscuits. The bile started to rise in my throat. I was thinking, "He uses all these machines... Puts out a lot of stuff, MY GOD! He just might!" As I began to gag, Sam replied that he had indeed received a Lamello from the manufacturer, and... (NO, NO, NO!) it is still in the box. He has no use for it, and uses dowels. (Ahhh, better.) He buys his dowel stock from the corner hardware store and pounds it through a grooving plate. (Ahhh, now I feel better... that is much more galootish than buying those darn spiral-cut pieces of crap.)

Sam says, "I hate going to tool shows. I always come back with too much stuff I never use." Then he tells another friend of his, who was a shop teacher. He made some ‘pretty nice pieces’ and Sam encouraged him to go into it seriously. So the guy takes a leave of absence from the school. He wasn’t making much of a go of the furniture business, but one day he came by and showed him this square that he had put together. Sam told him, "Make Tools, Not Furniture." Voila, the birth of Bridge City Tools.

More arcane discussion of seat angles, spindle assembly, and specially-made 3-degree router bits. Pinned dowels. Screws and Plugs. The funny joint he uses to hook the legs to the seat. Rocker lamination. He holds up The Form. Every rocker he has made (estimate-2000) has been laid up on The Form. Including the one that he did in zircote wood for an Atlanta gallery during the Olympics. Sold it to her for $17,000. She got $38,000. Is that right? She made more than he did!

We broke for lunch. Out to the courtyard, where the University of California Extension people had arranged for a catered lunch. We broke into smaller groups to chat. After about a half an hour, I worked my way over to where Sam was putting the finishing touches moves on a peach. "Sir," I began hesitantly, (he winced) "Would you mind me asking how you hurt your hand?" I had noticed that he was missing the end joint of the middle finger, and part of another, on his left hand. He gazed off into the distance, and said, "No, I'll tell you." (there was a long pause, during which several suggestions came up: Table saw, stock split, kickback) "No, no, none of those. It was the jointer. Stupidity, really. I'll show you how it happened when we go back into the shop." Presently, we went back in, but we never did get around to that lesson.

The afternoon session was great! We started with a demonstration of the seat blank assembly, then went on to some handwork. But first, a stern lecture about the hazards of breating dust. Sam solemnly dons his dust mask. After warning us never to do this, he showed us how he roughs out carvings on the bandsaw. Not just the profiles, but the shaping too. Then the dust mask slips down around his throat, and he somehow forgets to replace it. Well, his heart was in the right place. After the rough-out on the black-tailed beast, he moves to a bench and begins to fine-tune the wood with a rasp. "Nichelson #48 and #49's are the best, but they don't make them anymore. I could use a spokeshave on these, but Geeze, it would take forever!" In a few minutes, it was ready for sanding.

Well, what about dovetails? Don't need them much anymore, except for large case goods. Nowadays, anybody with the money for a Leigh Jig can turn out perfect dovetails in a jiffy. But they have no character. I looked around the bench, and saw a dovetail that had been cut in a scrap... decidedly crooked and leaning. I held it up. "This has character!" He reached around behind him and displayed a sample 3-tail joint that he had made the other day. "Once you know the process," he confided, "you can make them really narrow. But they just aren't that necessary for what we're doing these days. I don't use them anymore. The same with the pinned dowels. I'll only do that if the customer asks." (A pinned dowel is simply a dowel joint with a small ebony rod put through the pieces where the dowel is, effectively locking the dowel in place, just like a pegged mortice&tennon joint)

The group was too polite to ask prices. Sam volunteered little information on the prices of his pieces, and I think his lovely wife, Alfreda, handles that side of the business. He doesn’t price things by the car you drive up in, or the clothes you wear. I get the feeling that he will ‘give it away’ if someone doesn’t have much money but demonstrates love and respect for the pieces. Case in point--the music stands... the stands are the most labor-intensive item they do, but he has a soft spot for the arts. He cannot figure out just what is right to charge for them, especially for the 'starving artist types'. But in contrast: "I went back East, and I saw what the other woodworkers were getting, and I couldn’t believe it! So I came back here and I tried it... and then I believed it!" It sounds to me like the prices just might creep up until the demand drops off. And there is slim chance of demand dropping! Better get your order in now, folks!

After the shop work, we all were permitted to roam the grounds and house freely. Naturally, his house was furnished with genuine 'Maloofs'. I sat in almost all the different types of chairs, and found most to be quite comfortable. Sam explains his ergonomic design process: "I make it to fit me. Most people say it is just right for them too. I guess I'm just lucky to be average!" I was allowed into some of the woodsheds to see his new stash of AAAA curly maple, the zircote, rosewood, and, oh, you don’t want to know how many board feet! Lets just say that if it catches fire, it is going to burn one hell of a long time!

He designs 5 or 6 new pieces each year, and likes to spend 8 or 10 hours a day in the shop. The fellas do most of the production work... cutting from the patterns, assembly, shaping, sanding, finishing, packing and shipping. Sam knows that he won’t be around forever, and seems comfortable that the fellas will carry on after he is gone. "People tell me, ‘Well, after you’re gone, it won’t be a Sam Maloof!’ But I think it will be. We just won’t tell them I died!"

Had a great time, wish y’all were there. I bought his book and talked him out of the chair spindle he demonstrated making, and got them both autographed. Couldn’t afford to buy an entire piece of furniture!

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