The details of how a piece is made, some of which are not necessarily obvious from surface inspection, add up to make a great difference in the overall quality and durability of a piece of furniture. Same goes for timber structures like fences, gates, houses and other buildings - the outcome is a result of obsessively considered decisions made along the design and build process. Carefully chosen materials, a design wrung out to the most minute details, put together with the highest quality techniques of solid wood joinery. That's what we do. Azuma Design Build blends art, form and technique to create joined structures of lasting value.
Factories produce uniform products in high quantities because it is logical and efficient - and profitable - to do so. The consumer ends up with reduced choices however, and after a while everything in the built landscape starts to look pretty much the same - because it is. The model of production becomes the model of our lives. Most of us spend our time living in sheet-rocked boxes surrounded by furniture composed of chips, dust, plastic, and cardboard, working in cubicles with plastic baseboard and foam ceiling materials. The industry spends great energy marketing their products to convey uniqueness, quality, functionality and individuality when in the end is it all mass produced and revolving around fashion trends. .
Now, the odds are, if you are looking at this page you are not interested in a product churned out by a factory. You are a client looking to commission a special piece. You're not looking to surround yourself with soul-less uniformity.
As a craftsman, I am not entirely alone in my field, and if you are not a specialist in carpentry and joinery, you may not have any means to assess my work, as such, other than looking at the surface appearance. While it is to be hoped that the surfaces and initial appearances for my work attracts your attention, it is the details which set our work apart from others. we look back to the past and study the best examples so that we can look forward and design with timelessness in mind.
The problem with a lot of descriptors for finely made wooden structures, be they buildings or furniture, is that the terms have been so widely adopted by industry salespeople that they have largely lost useful meaning. Indeed, in an age of keyword search optimization, peppering a site with terms like ‘handmade’, 'artisanal', ‘hand-crafted’, ‘bespoke’, ‘traditional’, ’craftsman’, ‘legacy’, ‘heritage’, etc., is commonplace. And such terms, though they might suggest a small shop making things in some sort of ‘olde timey’ way, are largely misleading if truth be told. A term like ‘handmade’ can span the gamut from a product in which hands touched it at some point, to a product in which the raw materials were hand-logged, dragged out of the forest by hand, sawn in a pit by hand, and so forth. A lot of companies will show images of hand tools in their marketing material and yet a hand tool rarely touches the things they make - indeed, it is probable that no one at the company knows how to sharpen the tool by hand. It's a decoration meant to convey something, but the meaning has long since been lost.
With the above marketing buzzwords being largely meaningless these days, the usual way to attract attention is to shout louder and more often that the rest. One could alternatively quietly and strongly advocate for something they believe to be right and trust that people will recognize great design and construction when they see it. We choose the latter path. What we make testifies to who we are.
Real trees, like people, are unique individuals. The wood we obtain from those trees is not a uniform product, and may behave unpredictably as it moves through the stages of conversion from raw log to finished timber component. Working with solid wood is a little like the work of the shepherd. It is not really possible to fully control the material, but with careful choices in logs or boards, by paying attention and having a strategy, the wood can be corralled, so to speak, so that it behaves in a predictable manner over its years of service. Choosing wood, therefore, is not a simple matter akin to choosing wallpaper or fabric. Depending upon the application, certain woods are going to be better choices than others, and the only way those choices can be made well is by having long experience with different woods in different situations, and by the study of historical pieces and old buildings to see what worked and what did not.
Factories desire to work with materials which are predictable and reliable, and can be fabricated with the lowest amount of skill possible. Thus, solid wood is largely avoided, and products are made from wood sheets, dust or chips bonded together with adhesive. These sort of products, veneer, plywood, fiber board, chip board, laminated veneer lumber, etc., solve a lot of problems for the producer, but inherently they are what they are. Because the inherent nature of the products is unattractive to most customers, tremendous efforts are made to get them to look like something they are not, namely solid wood. Solid wood is the thing considered high quality and thus they seek to simulate it. If they were proud of the actual materials they used, then they would express them more overtly in the things they made. This simulation of solid wood by synthetic products can be done with considerable sophistication, and many consumers have a hard time telling the difference as solid wood items have become less common in the built environment.
At Azuma Design Build we make no use of those products which masquerade as solid wood. Instead we only use solid wood. We use solid wood in those less-obvious places where most companies would put plywood, like the backs of cabinets, the bottoms of drawers, the cladding on a roof. This approach stems partly out of a belief in being true to materials in how we work.
Additionally, it has long been common practice to employ showy woods in the most obvious exposed locations, and cheaper secondary woods in places you don’t see as readily, like the insides of drawers, the shelving inside a cabinet or closet, the backing, the framing on the underside. We don’t do that - we're not trying to fool you with surface appearances. We use high quality wood throughout. A cabinet built by Azuma looks good from any angle. If you climbed into an attic we built, or a crawl space under the living room floor, you would see the work is done to a high standard with proper materials.
The Azuma way is to use simple honest materials and put them together meticulously with an eye to art and an eye to durability. A well-made piece is a joy to own, all the more so if it is beautiful. And if is suffers damage somewhere down the line, it is going to be repairable.
We might say our business revolves around joinery - we are joiners - however, sad to say, but that term no longer means anything to most people, as it is a trade which has largely died out. I have certainly received enough blank stares by this point in response to stating I am a joiner'.
Joiners put wood together with joinery.
When you look at the situation, it is apparent that the vast majority of woodworking businesses out there are not actually 'working wood' as such. They are working with synthetic materials that look like wood by virtue of their skins and they are putting these materials together with metal fasteners and adhesives. In fact, the core activities of most woodworking businesses involves grinding their material, gluing it together, and spraying it with a plastic coating. There is little to no joinery going on, even though it is a core technique of traditional woodworking.
Metal fasteners are essential in architecture, despite the romantic notion of a house with ‘no nails’. Believe me, there are nails in there somewhere…. Metal hardware can be beautiful and is useful in furniture, however that’s about as far as it goes with us in terms of our use of metal.
Look Ma, No glue.
We don't employ glue very much. Our ideal, especially in furniture, is ‘glue-less’ construction. This type of approach developed in the Ming period in China and has proven itself through pieces which have stood up for 400~500 years or more. All the framing in our pieces is assembled by way of mechanical all-wood connections -joinery- and no glue. That includes the drawers. Sometimes wide panels are needed in a species which does not produce wide boards, and in those cases a few boards might be glued edge to edge to form a wider panel, but that is about as far as we go in terms of using glue.
Not to say that modern adhesives are not wondrous in certain ways, however when it comes to joined wooden structures, glue, if it is not reversible, can make demounting and repair of that structure difficult or even impossible. Glue is not as reliable as well executed joinery. If a piece is to be built to last, then it must be built so that it can be readily repaired. Metal fasteners can have a role in certain applications, but generally not glue.
There are forms of joinery in which the wooden parts interlock to some extent, however what really holds the parts together is glue. In other words, the wooden interlock itself is not structurally sound. Connections which fit this description include dowels, biscuits, splines, and such common joints as carcase dovetails and finger joints. We preferentially choose joints which provide all wooden mechanical interlock, without requiring glue in most cases. We are unique in North America in our use of pure joinery to put our pieces together. Take a look at our joinery gallery for more.
There are makers who employ joinery, but almost all use glue with the joints regardless. It is as if they don’t really trust the joinery. Indeed, since most of the joint is internally hidden within, it may not be apparent that it has been poorly cut, and glue therefore ‘hides a lot of sins’. We take the opposite approach, cutting joinery to have tight tolerances in the realm of thousandths of an inch, and when put together are connections that can be relied upon. If it is joinery, it should hold together with joinery, otherwise, it should be called something else, like ‘glued connections’.
Hand Planed Finish.
As noted above, in most shops, the bulk of the work involves grinding with abrasives, and glueing materials together. We don’t grind very much, instead we slice. Think of wood as a bunch of fibers layered one upon the other, in some respects like the hair on a man’s face or leg. Now, how many out there would think it a good idea to try and sand the hair off of their face? The abrading is just that - lots and lots of tiny scratches, leaving, no matter how fine the abrasive, a fuzzy surface.
Whereas what we are looking for is a clean slice. A clean shave leaves the smoothest surface. A smooth surface does not wet as readily, and does not pick up dirt as readily. This is particularly important when it comes to wood in outdoor settings. Sanded wood degrades noticeably faster than planed wood when subject to wetting and drying cycles.
While almost all wood shops have a power planer to dimension wood, that type of machine has a rotary spinning cutter which leaves a surface with mild ‘scalloping’. Unfortunately, this surface finish is now often the standard final finish - you will see machine-planed surfaces in the vast majority of architectural millwork installed these days. It’s unfortunate. We always finish with a stationary blade which travels along the grain of the wood, pulling a very fine shaving and leaving the cleanest most smooth surface. We have many type of hand planes along with a specialty Japanese machine called a ‘super surfacer’ to accomplish this work.
Custom Truly Means Custom.
At Azuma there are no product lines, nor are pieces made in batches or runs. Everything is a ‘one-off’. Each piece is made for the specific requirements of the client, and design is the process by which we determine the details governing the construction. We strive to create something unique, a masterpiece in its own right. Unlike most architects, instead of making general drawings of a house and leaving it up to another builder to interpret those drawings and accomplish the work, we do everything ‘in-house’. The person making the piece also prepared the drawings - and wrote this section you are reading. This allows for the least opportunity for errors in communication and the greatest opportunity to create something truly special and individual. Good design starts from a determination to deeply care, both about the client's needs and the project in view. Nothing ever good comes from carelessness, after all.
We Don’t Just Build ‘Anything’.
If you come to us looking to build a deck, or want a house with a flat un-pitched roof, we are going to do our best to talk you out of it. We’re not looking for just any project we can get. If the project means we must shortchange our values as craftspeople, or use wood in an unsustainable or ill-advised manner, we’re going to try and talk you out of that. If you are still determined after we have made our case, then we are not the people to take on the work and will bow out.
Each material has a particular fitness for a task, and with wood, different species has different fitnesses for different tasks. You can't disconnect material from the form, or vice versa. We respect the unique attributes of the materials with which we work.. If you want us to make to a Japanese soaking tub or any other water-containing structure out of American red oak, we won’t do it. If you want us to frame a building with birch saplings, we’ll say no. This company isn’t just about building anything just to get paid, it’s about creating works of lasting value and integrity.
We know wood and how to put it together, and how to best to employ it to make things that last for generations. We are very open to exploring all sorts of project ideas, and will endeavor to help our clients realize their goals in the best possible way. We're committed to providing the highest possible value to our clients.