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Fine Functional Furniture (Posted On: Friday, June 09, 2006)

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Inspired by a picture of a Pioneer ‘Sawbuck Table’, Charles Davies (of Charles Davies Custom Fine Furniture and Built-Ins) reworked the design and construction to mesh with the clients’ taste and their need for a high-use dining table where they, along with their extended family, could gather comfortably.

The table is all solid quartersawn white oak and measures: 9’L x 45”W x 30”H, with a 1 ¼” thick top. The entire piece is designed along the grain, meaning that the visual power of the grain (the ‘medullary rays’ of the quartersawn white oak) was factored in from the very beginning. According to Charles, “The grain pattern always plays a huge part in the overall look. Even if you’re working with relatively plain wood, which is not the case here, the grain pattern has a big impact on the success or failure of a design. Selecting and sawing wood with care is like good joinery: they are both necessary to turn an idea into fine furniture.”

In terms of the joinery, the tabletop is attached to the base in such a way as to allow for natural expansion and contraction (wood expands and shrinks through seasonal variations in humidity), without compromising its integrity. And, to ensure the base can handle the weight of the solid top, Charles constructed a web frame apron out of 2” material using lap joints, and a lower stretcher, which is mortised through the legs with pegs. This ensures a very stable base that will not loosen up over time. As per Charles, “Wood movement is often forgotten in furniture design, and the consequences can be disasterous. No one wants, for instance, a cracked or bowed tabletop.”

In addition to considering the grain pattern and joinery, Charles foremost remembers the age-old directive that form should follow function:

The primary function of a dining table is to serve as a comfortable place for people to eat. So, a well-designed dining table has to follow certain rules, sizes and conventions. I consider things like how many people the table needs to accommodate, what size table the room can take, how I can create a strong table without making it clunky, the size of the apron, etc. There’s a lot to consider. For instance, an apron is important in terms of strengthening a table, but I can’t make it so large that it gets in the way. Likewise, I need to ensure that table legs don’t get in the way either. Function is first and foremost to me.

Charles is currently working on eight custom chairs (two of which are arm chairs that will double as occasional chairs) to fit the clients, and their custom table. Making chairs to “fit clients” means one of two things to Charles: He either designs chairs using proportions he knows to be comfortable (as in this case) or he designs individual chairs for individual backs based on individual measurements. Now, that’s custom! According to Charles:

The list of possible discomforts from a badly designed chair is really long. That’s foremost in my mind when I start a project like this. It’s also crucial to know where a chair takes the most stress, so that those joints can be made strongest and will last. I wouldn’t ever want chairs I’ve designed to end up in the landfill because they’re tortuous, or their joints come apart, stretchers break, or they squeak and wobble. I think the trick is to know not only comfortable proportions, but also how chairs take abuse and where the stress concentrates.

Notoriously difficult to get right, many woodworkers don’t attempt chairs. Charles credits his ability to passion, drive and the awesome training he received at Creative Custom Furnishings in Toronto. There he trained under old world craftsman, mainly from Italy, that grew up in their fathers’ cabinet shops, grew up cutting trees down with hand saws, and honing and honing their skills with hand tools. Charles feels very fortunate to have had the training he’s had:

When I first started at Creative I was totally green, just having my cabinetmaking papers from Humber and very little practical experience. They had me start out making couch frames, because as Tony, the foreman, would say ‘you can’t possibly mess those up!’ I moved on from there, gradually working on more and more complicated one-off pieces, in a wide variety of solid woods, some exotic, and veneers and laminates.

Today Charles owns his own cabinet shop (located 7km west of Thornbury) where he designs and builds custom fine furniture and built-ins (including kitchens). He makes his pieces in their entirety, turning legs, hand carving, creating his own custom moldings, etc. And, just as he feels strongly about hand making a piece in its entirety, he’s not interested in moving into production: “Production is not for me. I enjoy the creativity and challenge of producing one-off pieces. We have a lot of fun here.”

Charles Davies’ wife, Karen Armstrong, is also his partner in the business. She’s the finisher, finishing pieces by hand, as opposed to spray, for a rich aesthetic. Charles maintains: “My wife’s finishes have a great deal of depth and richness, a special warmth that you just don’t see in production finishes. She credits her father, a professional artist, David C. Armstrong (check out his web-site at:, for teaching her everything she knows, but I think her talent comes naturally to her.”

Charles and Karen welcome interested parties to their cabinet shop and showroom, by appointment.

Located 7 km West of Thornbury • By appointment


Submitted by Julie Card, Business Manager & Partner


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