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ARTISANS OF RUSTIC CRAFT: Making Adirondack rustic furniture runs in the family for Keene-based shop

May 20, 2010
ERIC VOORHIS, News Staff Writer

    KEENE — George Jaques started up a chainsaw, took a stance, and pressed the buzzing blade into the side of a yellow birch stump that sat squarely on his workbench. The amber colored stump quivered with outstretched roots that had been dug up from the earth, resting evenly on top of the bench like tentacles.

    It was Monday morning. Sun bounced through the spacious woodshop behind the main building of Dartbrook Rustic Goods in Keene. Two other workers, Chris Cross and Ted Keenan, stood by with tools in hand as sawdust flew into the air.

    Jaques finished drawing a deep cut into the knotted wood and quieted the chainsaw, explaining that the tree stump would be the base of a rustic bathroom vanity — a custom piece, fitted with a petrified-wood sink bowl and fountain-style faucet.

    Jaques was carving out the back of the stump to make a little room for a drain pipe.

    “Our main goal here is to make things that appear to be really old,” Jaques said. “We try to blend everything together ... all the materials, the wood, bark and some modern conveniences to create furniture that looks like it would fit in to any Adirondack great camp.”

    Another custom piece of furniture stood in the center of the workshop: a dining room table that seemed to go on forever — 18 feet long with intricate branch work and red willow trim.

    “This is part of an order for a private home up near St. Regis Falls,” Jaques said. “They had us build a bunch of different things — believe it or not, we’ve been working on the order for just about two years.”

    The table was nearly complete, according to Jaques. All it needed was a good dusting, a quick coat of lacer and the installment of a 200-year-old, 300-pound, barn wood top with a glowing stained finish that was polished out by hand.

    Jaques, a native of Keene Valley, has been building furniture for 22 years and is recognized as one of the foremost rustic artisans in the Adirondack region.

    He got his start after retiring from a career as a New York state trooper based in Ray Brook and comes from a family of furniture makers.

    In the 1920s, Albert Jaques, George’s great-uncle, started a business building rustic cedar benches, chairs, and tables next to the Ausable River in Keene Valley. Many of his pieces still grace the porches and great rooms of the Valley’s summer residences.

    Albert taught his nephew Gilbert the trade, who enjoyed a highly successful career as a prominent rustic furniture builder in Keene Valley. But despite the long history, George, Gilbert’s nephew, didn’t work with a piece of wood until he was 41 years old.

    “I was a little bored when I retired, so I stopped by my uncles furniture shop in Keene Valley and offered to help him out,” Jaques said. “Walking into that shop was a life-changing experience. I’m not sure where the last 22 years went.”

    Jaques said he learned quickly, working as his uncles apprentice for about a year, before Gilbert fell ill and passed along the torch to his nephew.

    “I picked up on it right away,” Jaques said. “But it did take some serious trial and error to figure it all out.”

    Jaques had a successful shop in Keene Valley for more than 15 years, and then decided to retire. About two years ago, however, an opportunity came to open a new furniture store, Dartbrook Rustic Goods, along with co-owner Jay Haws, so Jaques came out of retirement and has been in the woodshop ever since.

    “The nice thing is that Jay handles most of the stuff I don’t want to deal with: the bookkeeping, paying bills, writing checks, the business aspect of the store,” Jaques said. “Now I can spend most of my time in the shop and focus on making furniture. There are a lot of great furniture makers and a lot of great businessmen, but you rarely find someone who’s both.”


A team of furniture builders

    Jaques set down the chainsaw, checking over his work on the yellow birch stump, and stood off to the side. Furniture maker Chris Cross stepped in without a word, chisel and hammer in hand and continued to hollow out the back of the stump with steady hammer blows, taking off one strip of wood at a time.

    “The guys make a great team,” Jaques said. “We have a real can-do attitude around here.”

    After a few minutes Ted Keenan subbed in — the three furniture makers working seamlessly — and began rounding out and polishing the canal with a Dremel tool.

    “They do a lot of the work and I take all the credit,” Jaques said, grinning.

    Cross has been working with Jaques since he was in high school.

    “I started working for George about nine years ago,” Cross said. “When I started, I just did some lawn care and washed his cars … and then one day he showed me how to make a table.”

    Cross said furniture making came naturally to him and he began working with Jaques more often, learning different techniques of the Adirondack craft. He said he started with the small stuff, “chairs, lamps and things,” and moved on from there.

    “It came really easily so I kept with it,” Cross said. “Either I decided to stay or he didn’t let me go, but I’ve been working with him ever since.”

    Ted Keenan came to Dartbrook about two years ago with a lot of experience with log work and home building. He’s responsible for much of the decorative log-work in the Whiteface Lodge.

    “It was nice to stop building houses and start furnishing them,” Keenan said. “That kind of work can take a real toll on your body.”

    The work of  Jaques, Cross and Keenan can be seen inside the showroom of Dartbrook — dozens of book cases and dressers with glossy birch bark faces line the store among several tables with yellow birch stump bases that seem to grow up out of the floor. In the soft light of the rustic store, the birch bark gives off a metallic glimmer.

    While walking through the shop, Jay Haws said it is easy to talk about the big custom orders the shop does (some of their large tables can sell for $15,000 or $16,000) because they are so extravagant and dramatic. But he also said his aim is to create an environment that is friendly to everyone, complete with handmade crafts, for a reasonable price.

    “We have a lot of items — mirrors, end tables, lamps, frames — that are all handmade by George at a really good price,” Haws said. “I think people find it very rewarding to know exactly what they’re buying and who made it, to meet them face to face. And we’re trying to offer that to everyone.”

Where it all starts

    Later that day, Jaques walked up to a large two-story barn that sits on a sloping hillside behind the Dartbrook gallery and workshop. It’s filled with both the basic elements — long straight yellow birch logs, a year’s supply of birch bark, boxes of deer antlers, a rack filled with century old wooden tops — and also finished pieces being held for clients or waiting for a turn at the show room.

    It’s dark and the air is heavy with rich wooden tones.

    At the backside of the barn, a walk through kiln is filled with yellow birch stumps. Most were harvested by Jaques and his crew at various properties in the area.

    “It’s pretty neat to see these ugly hunks of wood,” Jaques said, knocking dirt off a moss-covered stump. “Can you believe that this stuff ends up down in the show room?”

    Most of the wood used in the shop is dried in the large kiln, a process that, according to Jaques “kills all the critters” and provides the wood with a durability that can’t be achieved through traditional air drying.

    “It really shrinks down the wood,” Jaques said. “Most wood is comprised of about 60 to 70 percent water, and this will bring it down to about 10 percent.”

    Although much of the materials come from the Adirondacks, especially custom work, most of the bark is from a suppler in New Hampshire, who strips trees that are being harvested. The barn wood tops are literally salvaged from old barns. The wood is aged naturally, relinquishing the character imparted by decades of wind, weather and rain — a true exotic wood crafted by nature.

    “We found one incredible piece that had been preserved in a horse stall under bails of hay for about 150 years,” said Hews, who is active in finding and restoring barn wood. “It had an incredible glow to it.”

    Another element that provides adirondack flair and interest are deer antlers, which come from farm raised fallow deer, which produce impressive broad-shaped antlers that they shed naturally.

    “The most important thing for a furniture builder is to have the materials,” Jaques said. “If you have the materials ready you can accomplish anything.”


Article Photos

A rustic table hand-crafted by George Ted Keenan carves out the back of a stump that will eventually become a bathroom vanity.

Photos/Eric Voorhis/Lake Placid News

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