Nick Barna from Chelsea, Quebec, on Scandinavian design, growing his business and being pragmatic.
Q & A with Nick Barna
How long have you been building furniture?
I started making very simple things for myself as soon as I had my own apartment. I didn’t have any money for furniture. It wasn’t until more than 10 years later, in 2009, that I started taking commissions from friends. I bought a table saw and combination jointer-planer and didn’t look back.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Clean, functional, modern wood furniture and fine cabinetry with a lot of solid wood details.
If you were not a furniture maker, what would you be?
A Buddhist hermit.
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
I think the three most indispensable items I always have in my apron are a Blackwing 602 pencil, my 6″ Starrett square and a 16′ tape measure.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
I’m not an “either or” type of guy. I’m pragmatic. I like quality tools that do their job well. In my shop we have a MiniMax panel saw and Japanese hand planes. A wide range of tools gives you more options to get a particular task accomplished well.
Solid wood or veneer?
Again, each has a place in my shop. I do a lot of pieces in solid wood with traditional joinery and no fasteners. I also do pieces that rely on veneered parts to even be possible to construct in a lasting way.
I don’t have a personal favourite. I do like certain woods for certain types of pieces: chairs in ash or oak; casework in walnut; tables in maple.
NB Easy Chair
The back legs of this white ash chair are partially turned on the lathe, then steam bent and shaped on the router table. The seat and back are vacuum formed with veneers in two parts each. Fitting the arms to the angled and curved back legs was especially tricky with this piece.
Harris Console Table
Grain graphics play a large role in this simple yet stylish white oak table. The drawer fronts are cut from a single piece of straight-grained wood and the grain of the base rail curves to follow the curve cut into its lower edge. Although you can’t see it in the photo, the grain in the case is continuous.
Quotes from Nick Barna
In the past six months I have moved my shop from an 850 square-foot home studio to a 1,600 square-foot commercial space. I have also grown my staff from one craftsman and one part-time assistant to three full-time craftsmen. That means there is a lot of work going on in a space that size! We’re a tight team and we help each other out a lot.
I have a special fondness for Japanese tools - especially the hand planes and saws. A panel saw is also an incredible tool that has made a big difference in my shop.
I’m a pretty decent craftsman, but my true passion is in design. I always get excited to design a new piece. I draw inspiration from everywhere. You never know what the stroke of inspiration or the small detail might be that can really bring a piece to life. Of course, there are certain styles and types that I often go back to: mid-century Scandinavian furniture (Hans Werner, Borge Mogensen, Alvo Aalto); Italian modernists (Carlo Mollino, Geo Ponti); the Japanese woodworking tradition; Shaker furniture; and even Chinese antique pieces all continue to inspire me.
I want every piece to be something to be proud of – from the making to the owning. That means each piece is well designed - pleasing and functional, well made from good materials, and durable enough to give a lifetime of happy use. I tell my clients, “These are the pieces of furniture that your children will want to inherit.”
All my designs come from a certain need. Usually, it’s a request from a client, but sometimes it’s something I want to do for myself. I need for there to be that problem-solving aspect to it or I have a hard time figuring out what to do. Sometimes an idea comes right away, but some of the most interesting designs have come when the client doesn’t like the first ideas. Sometimes it takes five or six drafts to get to that one that hits the mark. Most of the process is in my head. I will percolate on an idea for a few days and then draw it out in SketchUp. Then I figure out how to make it. Some pieces, like chairs, are more difficult and require full-size drawings, mock-ups and a lot of trial and error.
Don’t be afraid to try new things. You have to go for it with ideas that you don’t know how to make work to find something that is really outstanding.
I have no time or respect for copycats. It’s a very real and sad problem in furniture making. I’m not talking about making a piece for yourself as a hobby but passing off other peoples’ designs as your own work.
Woodworking can take a while for people to become proficient at. It’s a skill that is so tied to patience.
I have been lucky to work in museums and get to see and handle some incredible pieces of furniture. I can remember seeing a few pieces by Jere Osgood that just blew my mind. The world is full of amazing pieces if you go looking for them.
In the world of woodworking, you have to do good work, be kind to people and learn how to do business, too.
Recently I had the opportunity to make a beautiful credenza – one of my very first designs – for the Canadian Mission to the United Nations in New York.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.