We should probably expect that any woodworker out of California will do things a bit differently, will march to the beat of a different drum sander or whatever. But even taking that into account, Victor DiNovi, a professional woodworker and contractor out of Santa Barbara, still falls way outside the borders. He builds his own power tools, makes furniture by subtraction and uses the kind of wood most of us wouldn’t touch. It’s not like he’s trying to make a point when he steam bends the rules of woodworking – he’s just trying to build furniture that meets his own particular designs and standards. In fact, he tries to be a very practical woodworker when it comes right down to it.
That’s why he builds furniture, even though it can look a lot like art. “I really enjoy taking practical, common things and making them into sculpture,” says Victor. “That seems to evoke strong responses in people. It’s easy to make a piece of sculpture and people will agree that it is sculpture. But it’s difficult to make something they see every day and have them respond as if it were art.”
Art in the Family
Victor has a strong background in art. His father was a mosaic artist and his brother is a musician. He discovered woodworking when he was five and, while his father didn’t teach him how to work with wood, there was a strong strain of doing-it-yourself throughout his family. “Nobody in my family ever hired a building contractor,” he says. It’s ironic, because Victor ended up working as a contractor, building custom homes in Laguna Beach, before he hit upon his current career path.
Back in 1971 he entered the Laguna Beach Arts Festival with some of his furniture. Suddenly, he started getting treated like an artist, and he liked it. As a contractor, he had to compete for business; as an artist he could create pieces that were more expressive, more in tune with his creativity, and customers weren’t as concerned about price. He decided that pursuing a more artistic path while still keeping his woodworking at a very practical level “was a much more enjoyable way to express my skills,” says Victor.
Furniture by Subtraction DiNovi’s Technique Really Gets Down to the Grain
To create his particular kind of furniture, Victor goes against the grain, as it were, of the rest of the furniture-building community. Most furniture building, he says, is an additive process. The woodworker cuts the pieces, sands them, makes them fit together and finally adds them all together to make the piece. Victor, on the other hand, looks at furniture building with a sculptor’s eyes and uses a subtractive process. He designs the general shape of what he wants and then assembles a massive glue-up of chunks of wood into that shape. Then he fires up his grinder and goes at it.
In the end, he grinds away a lot of material. In its rough, glued-up state, a piece of furniture will weigh almost twice what it does when he’s finished. But the results are plain to see: an interesting marriage of sculpture and furniture, a blurring of the distinction between art and practicality.
Make Your Own Power Tools
Not only does Victor follow his own path in sculpting furniture, he also finds himself adapting tools so he can get the results he wants. One of his primary tools is a handheld grinder, which he uses to trim a lot of material from the rough blank he glues together. He also uses a Makita 11″ hand held power planer to shape his pieces, which, he admits, “was never meant to be used as a sculptural tool.” Though Makita doesn’t make the model anymore, having the motor right over the cutter head made it an ideal tool for his purposes (once he removed the cover plate).
Victor has adapted a lot of tools for his use. He built a power chisel out of an air hammer and some sharpened steel. He also uses the abrasive pads designed for auto body work. And while he runs into a lot of woodworkers of the Krenov school in California who eschew the use of power tools, Victor is not about to give up his. He understands that it’s partly philosophy that keeps these woodworkers away from power tools, but it wars with the pragmatic side of his character. “I’m a very practical woodworker … I can’t help thinking that if, 500 years ago, someone went to Michelangelo and said ‘Listen, I’ve got these air compressors and power chisels. Do you want to try them?’ he wouldn’t say ‘No, I’m a purist and will do this by hand,'” says Victor.
And he wonders aloud if the anti-power tool woodworking camp doesn’t overemphasize the aesthetics of working exclusively with hand tools. “When I go at something with a heavy grinder,” Victor says, “and 15 minutes later I’ve taken an enormous amount of material off and done a lot of shaping, that’s just as satisfying.”
Wood No One Else Wants
Since Victor doesn’t use traditional methods or tools for making furniture, it lets him use a lot of wood that other woodworkers won’t touch. For example, he looks for highly figured wood with a lot of different grain patterns and varying densities. If you’re using shapers or cutters, this kind of wood can cause a lot of chipping and blowout. But his technique of grinding everything down with abrasives allows him to work this high-character wood without difficulty.
He calls his style of furniture design “curvilinear,” and it’s not difficult to see why. “When you work wood in curvilinear shapes, you really accentuate the wood because you’re cutting across the planes, the natural layers, and you’re creating a lot of movement because of that,” says Victor.
“People respond to the grain of wood. Even if they don’t respond to the quality of the design and workmanship of my furniture, nobody can not respond to the quality of the wood. It’s something people are drawn to naturally. Fine wood is like a beautiful woman. There’s no way to really define what it is, how it affects you, but it certainly does affect you,” he adds.
With a guy like Victor, who does so many original and innovative things with both his tools and his finished pieces, you begin to wonder where he gets inspiration. He’s been influenced to a great degree by Japanese and Oriental woodworking, he says, but mostly in terms of design. While his pieces don’t resemble Oriental furniture, the Japanese ethic of creating furniture that come straight to the point without a lot of elaboration figures strongly in his work. Charles and Henry Greene also influenced how he approaches his projects (Look for a Greene and Greene desk in the Sept./Oct. issue of Woodworker’s Journal). Their work helped him see the continuity of purpose in a house and how all the pieces of furniture in it should work together to form a whole. Victor still works on houses when a special project comes along. The way he sees it, a house is simply a big piece of furniture.