Q & A with David Atkinson
How long have you been building furniture?
About 30 years.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Anything from toys to furniture to decorative things to musical instruments. My forte is decorative boxes and trays. Most of the time it’s my marquetry that clients want.
Tell us a couple interesting things about your personal life
I have made wooden items for some notable people from military leaders to premiers to a member of the royal family. My work has found homes on every continent, with the exception of Antarctica. I have made a number of guitars and basses (one guitar with a marquetry-finished body and headstock). I am a performing bassist and I routinely perform with my own custom-made basses.
What are the three most important items in your shop apron?
The three most important items in close proximity to my hands would be: Paper – complete with pencil and drafting instruments (or, alternatively, a computer with suitable CAD software); my hand-built treadle-operated marquetry fret-saw; my vacuum press.
Solid wood or veneer?
Marquetry is my forte, so on one hand I’d say that veneer is the way to go for me. On the other, I wouldn’t make table or chair legs, or structural components from anything other than solid wood.
Figured or straight grain?
I’m happy with either. It depends on what effect I’m trying to create.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
I have a few vintage that I really only keep for sentimental reasons. However, I have collected a nice set of hand tools, from planes to chisels and knives. I have a lovely Veritas shoulder plane that I would hate to make do without.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
I have a penchant for the curved form and I’m unfailingly attracted to symmetry.
Autumn Crab Apples
Atkinson made this bed for one of his daughters as a wedding gift. The cherry frame houses marquetry panels depicting some of Atkinson’s own crab apple trees. (Photo by Dean Palmer)
Tiger Meets Tiger Swallowtail
Made on speculation, this tray portrays a playful scene where two vastly differing creatures meet. (Photo by Bob McFee)
Quotes from David Atkinson
Due to wall and other structural considerations, my studio is not all in one piece. I have a workably large enough space for most of my work. In adjacent spaces I have a vacuum press, thickness planer and jointer. I also have a small finishing room. The main studio is small by many standards, but very serviceable when everything is in its place.
Normally I work all day and into the evening at times. Much depends on how busy I am. I have been known to work seven days a week at times.
My favourite activity is the act of designing, both from the artistic side of things and the engineering side.
My designs tell people I’m a person who is a tad over-focused on detail, symmetry and precision. That I’m a bit nerdy when it comes to things engineering.
Being a gardener and unofficial bird watcher, many of my designs come right from my back yard. I will develop designs based on photographs I’ve taken.
My design process usually employs developing an idea and possibly making several drawing studies. I normally design with a CAD program where I can easily manipulate line work and scale.
Don’t be afraid to explore an idea. It might work or it might not, but much can be understood from going through the process.
I have no preference between speculative or commission work. I’ll work concurrently on both much of the time if there are related operations involved.
My favourite four woodworkers would be Michael Fortune, Stephen Haigh, Silas Kopf and Terry Johnston. Whether it’s a great sense of design or wonderfully executed marquetry, all produce work nothing short of inspiring.
I would say that there are more people in Canada who want hand-crafted items compared to years past.
I’m not sure if that indicates a general change in attitude or just that my work is becoming more noticed.
As with many things I do, I am self-taught in the art of marquetry. Flying by the seat of my pants is pretty much my modus operandi.
Early on I spent a lot of time just looking at the work of other marquetry artists trying to figure how they did what they did. I still do; observation is a great tool.
Don’t copy me. I would find that upsetting ... But only because it’s best for anyone to do it his or her own way. I would encourage anyone interested in pursuing the art to experiment with abandon.
Of all marquetry styles, I personally prefer more contemporary work. I’ve never been that fond of the same old same old although that’s not to criticize the more traditional forms of the art.
My treadle-operated marquetry saw is a very important tool. The reason I use this type of cutting system is to reduce stress on my hands and shoulders. The one I use now is a fourth-generation setup. I spent a lot of time designing it based on what I learned from its three predecessors.
I find that completed artworks can become quite bowed from all the assembly and veneer tape. Keeping them temporarily pressed encourages them to be more co-operative for gluing to their respective substrates.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
I had purchased a David Atkinson marquetry picture of a lute on a chair, by a window (“If music be the food of love, play on”) created and purchased in 2007, and still love looking at it everyday. There’s some sort of streaking on it. I’d like to know your suggestions on how I can clean and protect it properly. Thanks, Chris from Stratford, Ontario.