For Andy Pitts, woodworking is a second
career. In his first career as a U.S. Navy officer, he was an
engineer trained to operate both a nuclear reactor and surface ships.
With that background, "I'm a very linear thinker," Andy
In 1976, after building a bookcase for
himself and his wife, Andy decided he really loved woodworking and
that it was "something I'd like to do the rest of my life"
-- and began to plan accordingly. "From that point on, I was
learning about woodworking and collecting tools."
After retiring from the Navy in 2002 as
a captain, he built his own workshop, went through the legal
necessities "to call myself a business," and started doing
craft fairs and farmers' markets, and joining organizations to get
his name out there.
At first, "I started out building
pieces very square: tables with right angles, and so forth. Then
something happened -- I'm not sure what -- and I started thinking
more in curves."
For instance, a rolltop desk he built
several years ago for an architect is "very rectilinear,"
Andy said. His first successful piece after his migration toward
curves, the "Chest Sans Sides" -- in which the drawers are
the sides of the chest -- is "curved and graceful. I got into
bent laminations and complex joinery. I rarely do straight anymore,"
For the most part, however, Andy
focuses on collaboration with the clients for his pieces. "What
really drives me is what the client wants. I consider myself as the
guy who can make it happen," he said.
Part of his collaboration sometimes
involves helping the client figure out what it is they do want -- as
was the case two years ago, with clients who had a large persimmon
tree on their property that needed to come down. "We were able
to get 14" wide planks out of it," Andy said. "It's
unusual for a persimmon to get that large." The clients knew
they wanted something built from the wood, but weren't sure what.
"It turned out that what they
could use was a large shelf unit to display some pottery, with some
drawers, to go on a large wall space where a grand piano used to be."
By resawing poplar into 1/8-inch strips to build up a core, then
veneering the persimmon to the outside, Andy was able to create a
bookcase type unit with curved sides -- and a height dimension of 72
Andy owns a WoodMizer LT15 sawmill and
a solar kiln, which allow him to create and dry lumber from trees on
clients' property. "I like to use clients' trees," he said.
People call him if they are building a house and a tree needs to come
down, or if a tree is dying. And, despite forestry being one of the
main industries in his area of Virginia, "I don't cut down any
trees just to make lumber. I don't have to.
"I live in Virginia along the
Chesapeake Bay. A lot of hurricanes and Nor'Easters come through, and
constantly blow trees over. People know I have a sawmill, and they
call me; if it sounds like good furniture wood, I take it."
One client's wood is still in the
drying process, but it has an interesting story. The walnut tree came
down during the building of an addition onto a house that had been in
the family of Chesapeake Bay watermen for generations. As Andy was
milling the wood, "I heard the pitch of the saw blade change. It
wasn't steel -- I recognize the sound of a nail. I lifted the plank
off, and it looked like someone had used red caulk to caulk up the
tree. I'd never seen that.
"It turns out it wasn't caulk; it
was Grandpa's boots" - the red rubber boots worn when pulling
oysters. "When he finally retired, he left 'em in the crotch of
the tree, which is where he left them every night to dry out. The
tree grew up around them, and I was cutting through them."
It's likely Andy will try to
incorporate that "red caulk" into whatever the final
destination of the walnut turns out to be. "I always try to do a
new technique and a new challenge with every piece," he said. He
has experimented with ebonizing, on pieces like a "Shadows of
the Night" chest with cattails and dragonfly, and has also been
putting carvings into his pieces lately.
In fact, shortly after he'd taken a
class on carving at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship from
British carver Chris Pye, a church in New Jersey contacted Andy with
a request for him to make a Paschal Candle Stand with carvings on
The stand needs to support a candle
that's over 30 inches tall and usually about 2 inches in diameter,
used at times like Easter, Christmas and other special days in the
church. The carvings on all four side panels of the Candle Stand for
the New Jersey church were favorite motifs of the people for whom it
was a memorial. Andy has done Paschal Candle Stands for other
churches as well, including his own, and says he enjoys doing such
Of course, he's also still coming up
with other ideas. He's a member of the Furniture Society, which Andy
touts as a great way to network and, during the 2006 annual
conference in Indianapolis, he participated in a bus trip excursion
to Columbus, Indiana -- a town, where, in the mid-20th century, the
leaders of local business Cummins Engine led the push to make the
city a showcase of architecture. One of the sights on that bus tour
was the Interstate 65 Gateway Bridge, "and someone on the bus
said, 'Someone's going to build a table that looks like that
Andy, in fact, built two of them: one
from ash, cherry and red oak; the other from cherry, holly and red
"The artistic part is what I try
to put into the project," Andy said. "I don't try to
gravitate toward any one thing."