Rustic furniture for today's mountain lodges and log homes doesn't have to be old. And it doesn't have to be expensive. Rustic is a synonym for rough, so even the novice builder can make it look good.
Laura Spector of Fairfield, Conn., with nail gun in hand, figured out how to fashion willow and bittersweet into benches and love seats. Then she joined other hobbyists in a course taught by Dan Mack at Museum Village in Monroe, N.Y.
"I learned the mortise and tenon construction method, which is a more refined technique than the nail gun," Spector said, "and I got to meet a group of people who have empathy with trees."
Mack, of Warwick, N.Y., was a college journalism instructor in 1978 when, with no training, he took up furniture-making. Today, Daniel Mack Rustic Furnishings are sought by collectors, and Mack is author of "The Rustic Furniture Companion: Traditions, Techniques and Inspirations" (Lark Books, $26.95), which features the works of about 40 furniture makers in the United States and Canada.
He says rustic furniture--made from branches, trunk, bark and roots of trees--is currently popular and easy to find. Or to make. Mack suggests looking for pieces at regional crafts fairs and garden centers and, for really deep pockets, antiques stores.
"We do a lot of second homes," Mario Costantini of Milwaukee says. "Rustic furniture has the same appeal as four-wheel drives and log homes."
Costantini's La Lune Collection of 600 designs is sold through decorators.
Old pieces such as those by Thomas Molesworth, who worked in Cody, Wyo., in the 1920s and 1930s, are very collectible. At a recent auction, Mack said, some Molesworth pieces made of burls and juniper logs brought brought five- and six-figure prices.
Quirky, one-of-a-kind pieces from camps once owned by wealthy Americans in Maine and the Adirondack Mountains in New York also are to die for. Also in demand is mass-produced rustic that was popular with the middle class around the turn of the century.
But why buy the furniture when you can make it? It is one of the few techniques equally adaptable to hobbyists and journeyman cabinetmakers, Mack says.
"I can teach the woodworking skills in a day or two," he says. "Most people have hammered before, and if you break the process down, no single step is very difficult. You can nail, wire or wrap with twine to make joints."
Twig or stick style, made from slender branches nailed together, is the easiest. A piece can be completed in a day, from finding the branches to nailing them together.
Mortise and tenon, or hole and peg, construction takes longer and requires more skill. The wood must be dried so it won't loosen as it ages, but in the end it has a more finished look, Mack says.
Logs and trunks produce twig on a grand scale, but it takes heavy machinery to move and cut.
Bentwood furniture, typically made from fresh willow, alder or cottonwood, requires a form to which the fresh wands are bent and nailed.
Bark applique and mosaic twig work is like veneering.
"Technically, it is not difficult to do," Mack says, "but it requires someone who is sensitive to form and color and has a capacity for tedium because it goes on forever."
Furniture made from gnarled wood such as California's eucalyptus and manzanita and from roots and burls is akin to artistic creation. Each is a unique work, reflecting the natural form of the wood.
Mack says one way to get started in "rusticating" is to add a rustic finish to a pre-made piece. He suggests starting with a piece of unfinished furniture or a picture frame. Sheets of bark, available by mail from Good Wood of Bethel, Vt., can be tacked to the surface, with twigs bent and shaped into initials as decoration.
Dan Mack: (914) 986-7293. La Lune Collection: (414) 263-5300. Good Wood, Bethel, Vt.: (802) 234-5534.