Ottawa, ON furniture maker Jacques Breau on straight-grained woods, selling his work and the benefits of working in an 85 sq. ft. shop.
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Q & A with Jacques Breau
How long have you been building furniture?
In a way, since I was a child. My father built most things in our house (doors, kitchen, beds, trim, etc.) and I remember ‘helping’ from an early age. 12 years ago I got into it seriously.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
My favourite things to build lately are overly complex wall-hung cabinets. I specialize in building furniture where making money is inherently impossible.
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
Because my last few shops have been on the small side of things, I haven’t worn my apron much lately, but when I did, I could do with only a pencil, a six- inch ruler, and a small sliding square.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
When I need to mill up 100 bf of lumber, I prefer to use power tools. When I’m cutting dovetails, or fit- ting parts, I prefer hand tools.
Solid wood or veneer?
Solid wood has its place, but can be limiting in terms of design, but veneering is an awful lot of work. A mix of both techniques helps me solve construction problems without dramatically changing a design.
Figured wood or straight grain?
I’m not that attracted to highly figured woods.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh- out-of-the-box Veritas?
I don’t own very many fresh-out-of-the-box things, be it in the shop or in the house, so it would have to be an inherited tool, of which I have a few that we’re my great grandfather’s.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Subtle curves overlaying well-proportioned shapes.
Breau made this English brown oak, imbuya and maple cabinet to hone his curved cabinet skills. The hardest part of the build was routing the faceted rebates that hold the pieces of flat glass in the curved door rails. (Photo by Ingeborg Suzanne)
The overall design of this table was inspired by a bridge on Hwy. 20 in Quebec. (Photo by Jacques Breau)
Quotes from Jacques Breau
My current shop is in the basement of our apartment; it’s 210 square feet, and just over standing height, for most of it. It’s a fully functioning shop, with everything I need, just at a limited capacity; that is, a 4" jointer. There’s just one small window, and it’s sort of cold, but it’s a place to work that doesn’t cost me any more to rent, so I can’t really complain too much.
My dream shop would have lots of windows, 10' ceilings, enough room for all my machinery, a comfortable assembly area, wood floors, in the vicinity of 1000 square feet, and paid for. That being said, having a shop in or close to my house simplifies doing glue-ups late at night.
My first shop was in my grandfather’s house, in what we called “the office”. I had a planer (in the basement) and a router, plus my hand tools.
My second shop was a 450 square foot basement in an L shape. This was in our first home, and is probably the best shop I’ve had. It was equipped with my larger machines and had some good dust collection. The next shop was an 85 sq. ft. monster in a back porch, and was probably my most productive space. It had a full complement of smaller machines, and I never had to look very far for a pencil; and since it was adjacent to the kitchen, I could make dinner while I worked.
I don’t know very many people in the general public who know what studio furniture is. There is a distinct lack of spaces showing furniture made by Canadians in a small one-person operation.
Storage is a big issue. The tool kit becomes very sparse and limited to things that actually get used; this means that all the less useful tools need to be stored elsewhere in the house, the same goes for materials.
Not being able to do two things at once was a real challenge in some of my past shops. Often the simplest operation eats up all of the available space in a small shop. This slows things down consider- ably, and since I’m slow to begin with, the pace crawls along.
I love a good bandsaw. Vintage tools are what attract me when it comes to machinery, and nothing tops a bandsaw with a snowflake door.
One thing that I always get a kick out of is the reverse entropy of furniture making.
Disorder holds true at the very beginning of a project when perfectly assembled planks get busted up into parts, but after a while I start gluing things together, and there are fewer and fewer parts scattered about the shop, and what started as a few pieces of lumber, then a lot of parts, slowly begins to become one piece of furniture. All of a sudden, horizontal surfaces get cleaned up, and then the shop is empty.
The regions I’ve lived in have influenced my work. A bridge on Highway 20 in Quebec made it into a coffee table design, or subtly like the worn-down Appalachians drawing me to delicate curves in my work.
I’m designing speculative pieces in my head all the time, although most never see the inside of the shop.
Brad Goertz from Edmonton is a great Canadian maker. Internationally I like Jens Risom, James Krenov, Hank Gilpin, Jere Osgood and Tage Frid. These makers all make objects that I think are classic in line and feeling, but just a little different. There is a funky calmness to their work that I admire.
My biggest influences are Robert Van Norman, James Krenov and Scandinavians as a whole. My parents also played a big role in my work. My father brought me to the material, and my mother gave me her exacting approach to craft.