When he bought his first house "in
complete disrepair," all Jason Straw owned for tools "was a
socket and a screwdriver." As he continued buying rundown
houses, Jason moved up to "a one-car garage, with a router and a
table saw." As he dealt with the wood floors and the "old-school
carpentry" in these historic houses, however, he started wanting
to "not work so hard all weekend."
A natural progression from his
carpentry, he thought, was to build "a picnic table or
something." Jason hied himself off to the library, where he
found project-specific woodworking books -- that he thought were
"extremely boring." Then he ran across one of James Krenov's books. "He talks about woodworking, but makes it
romantic and poetic," Jason said.
With few woodworkers in his area, and a
lack of apprenticeship opportunities from those who were, Jason
decided he needed a formal education in woodworking. While staying
with a friend in Denver during the economic recession ("when the
economy took a dive, I figured working on houses was going to dry up
for a while), Jason worked for Newell Design Studio for a time.
"At that point, I found out James
Krenov had a school in California." After his first application
to the College of the Redwoods, "I didn't get in initially, but
luckily, somebody dropped out, and they called me -- probably because
I called them every week to ask if somebody dropped out. I was the
first one at school every morning, and usually the last one to leave
at night, for nine months."
During the summer break from the
program, Jason took a course in boat building, and he was one of five
students selected to return for the program's second year. He
finished many projects during his time of schooling, because, he
said, "I felt like I needed to build my body of work."
Jason also spent some time studying
with Brian Newell, who taught him complex furniture: "I learned
how to do compound curves, compound bends; he got me started in
carving, and weird marquetry, and exotics, like all the rosewoods."
Jason's piece Incunabula is one
that he describes as "a Brian Newell knockoff" -- and "my
departure from Krenov aesthetics, with a lot of straight lines."
In that piece, "I used pretty much every trick of the trade:
bent laminations, veneer, carving, marquetry and inlay, compound
pieces...it's where I learned I could pretty much do anything with
"It was a no-holds-barred
situation to make that piece," he said. The lack of a particular
tool or machine, "wasn't going to stop me from doing something.
With hand hand tools, jigs, rasps...like Sam Maloof said, he would
use his teeth if necessary. I really had to use my teeth on it."
Although Jason was speaking
figuratively about his teeth in this case, he notes that different
options don't always occur to people. "People think the
challenge is 'how to get a machine to do "this," when
really, the challenge is how to get your hands to do "this."
Sometimes, you just sharpen a chisel and go for a while."
When he grabs a chisel and goes for a
while, Jason might be carving out arms on a chair, or a decorative
motif. Overall, "the techniques of a decorative nature are the
things that I'm drawn to -- any technique that brings out the art."
Jason is clear, in fact, that "I
want my piece to be art, foremost. Some people will spend $1,000 on a
painting that took two days, but they won't spend that on a chair
that took a week, because they don't see it as art. I'm trying not to
have that argument; I'm trying to show that my work is art. But
unless a piece of furniture is decorated, people will often overlook
it, like it's a piece of factory furniture."
In fact, every few months, Jason's shop
in Gainesville, Florida, is part of the downtown art walk. He sets up
pieces from his own work, a bamboo furniture maker for whom he does
finishing, and a community hobbyist for a "mini-exhibit."
"There's a fire afterward, and it goes from 7 [in the evening]
to 2 in the morning. The shop's lit with mood lighting, and it's a
really nice time."
In addition, Jason said, "I think
it's a way to stay relevant within the community. Part of the problem
of anybody in business is just letting people know that they exist."
Also, for him, "It's important to show my work. I get a jolt of
energy, and I feed off it. The smallest amount of appreciation really
does me a world of good."
Jason also thinks of energy in another
way: "The shop has a 24-kilowatt solar array, and I tried to
design the shop to be as passively cooled as possible," he said.
When it comes to environmentalism, he said, "I try to be pretty
responsible. I try to be a leader, or at least a role model."
Most of the woods he's used in pieces
have been Forest Stewardship Council-certified walnut or maple --
generally, maple for casegoods because of its wide availability and
appeal; walnut for furniture, because he personally enjoys working
with walnut and prefers its aesthetic. "I'm not using exotic
woods for chair legs," Jason said. When he does use the exotics,
he's slicing his own veneers, "and I can get a small piece of
wood to cover an entire tabletop."
The only finishes he uses are
domestically produced water-based finishes, and he does not use glues
or plywood with formaldehydes. Actually, he said, more than
environmental choices, "these are selfish choices: they're first
and foremost for health concerns. I don't want to be breathing
formaldehyde, or cutting plywood made in China and breathing who
knows what. If it's not good for the environment, then it's not going
to be good for me."
What is good for him are the classes he
has been teaching for the past couple of years in woodworking basics,
getting people comfortable with machines and, often, having them
build a Krenov style sawhorse. "We go over traditional and
respected joinery techniques," he said. "All the classes
have been a great learning experience for me."
Overall, right now, Jason said, "I'm
doing a lot of things while waiting for things to pick up for me."
He's working on a line of furniture, and "I'm plugging away at
everything until I find something that sticks."