Toronto, Ontario furniture maker Robert Akroyd on working in a big city, a small shop and lack of soul in much of the live-edge furniture today.
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Q & A with Robert Akroyd
How long have you been building furniture?
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
7 mm mechanical pencil, 10′ tape measure, ear plugs.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Power tools – furniture making is the retirement project I began when I was 22 years old and I don’t want to wear out my body any sooner than absolutely necessary.
Solid wood or veneer?
Solid wood. I’m still perturbed that it seasonally expands and contracts, risks warping and splitting, but I love making things from it.
Figured wood or straight grain?
Recently – straight-grained.
Twenty years ago – figured.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Depends on the project … but this decade has been more geometric.
Cherry. No, walnut. Wait … yeah, cherry.
Least favourite wood?
2×4s for building our shipping crates from the big box building center.
Photos by Robert Akroyd
Although asymmetric, there is a balanced feeling to this cabinet, as the wider, open side of the cabinet is less overpowering than the slatted, door side. Made with rift-sawn white oak.
Dining Table and Chairs
Made of grey elm and white quartz, this unique table was made to complement a sideboard Akroyd made for the client previously. The carved puzzle-like panels running down the center of the table are level so they can support stemware.
A client of Akroyd’s wanted a chair that was loosely inspired by mid-century Danish furniture. He designed and made this chair, which included mortise and tenon joinery and a pair of 3/8" threaded rods that hold the heavily shaped cap rail in place.
The heavily shaped cap rail.
Quotes from Robert Akroyd
My studio is a combined woodworking shop and retail store in downtown Toronto in a mixed-use heritage building filled with other makers’ studios, theatre companies, rehearsal spaces and the like. To make it work, my square footage is really, really small. The studio’s retail side is open to the public five days a week and visitors can come in and browse the pieces we have on display, as well as peruse the print and digital portfolios to see examples of past projects.
I tend to work a lot. Weekdays start by 8 a.m. when my assistants come to work but I love to be in the shop well into the evening. Sometimes that means being there to see the sunrise through the east-facing windows.
I love tools and machines that remove “toil”. As much as I enjoy the physical side of this job, there can be a lot of repetition and strain. I love my planer and saws for making fast work of what, centuries ago, would have been back-breaking work. I love my thickness sander for reducing the amount of hand-sanding. Festool’s Domino system makes cutting perfectly fitted joints almost too easy.
Sometimes designs seem to spontaneously arrive on the back of a napkin. Sometimes they take weeks of sketching and computer modelling and serious work to arrive at.
I currently live and work in a dense urban area, so I find that my work’s aesthetic is strongly influenced by architecture.
I usually begin with a pencil sketch – I still think best with a pencil in my hand. Next, I use a simple 3-D computer modeling program to flesh out the concept and provide a much more realistic visual presentation. Working and shop drawings are a mix of pencil- and computer-generated.
Make furniture for the people who will use it and live with it, not to impress other furniture makers.
I first discovered George Nakshima’s work in 1993 when I found a copy of “The Soul of a Tree”. I made my first live-edge piece shortly thereafter and have continued making them for the last 23 years. It saddens me to see that there is a lot of furniture made as “live edge” that entirely lacks any soul whatsoever and has merely been reduced to parody.
In a perfect world I would just do speculative work – wake up in the morning and make whatever interested me. My reality, however, is that I have bills to pay and doing commissioned work allows me to pay them reliably. I also like how clients can sometimes push me outside my comfort zones and try new materials or processes.
I have some customers who have almost shifted into a category of “patron” because we’ve built upwards of 15 pieces over the years for them, so the relationship is quite close at that point.
It’s likely that I’ll be including more painted surfaces in the future.
I wish there was still some semblance of an apprenticeship system in furniture making. Without over-regulating what is essentially a creative practice, it would be good to have some aspects of the field still represented as a proper “trade”. Offering a mix of alternating school study and work practice would better prepare young people for a life in woodworking.
Peter Fleming at Sheridan College has had the biggest influence over my furniture career. The objects I saw of Peter’s seemed to manifest both a deftly confident ability to craft in wood (and metal) and a solid understanding of contemporary design. As an instructor he has a considered and sophisticated approach that is much more like that of an architect.