Sean Headrick: Custom Furniture Designer & Craftsman
by Doug Hall & Elena Vega
Doug Hall: Sean, thank you for taking the time to share yourself with us. We have always been impressed with your level of craftsmanship and the fact that you are primarily self-taught. How did you get started in woodworking?
Sean Headrick: My earliest memories of woodworking are of receiving a carpenter's toolkit from my grandfather when I was about 8 years old. I think it had a saw, hammer, square, and a couple other pieces. I remember being pleased that I could cut through a board with my new saw. As a teenager I worked at a hardware store in my neighborhood. I was always given the jobs building racks for pottery, and things like that. That taught me fundamental skills that were the foundation of my woodworking knowledge.
DH: At what point did you begin to work professionally?
SH: When I graduated from high school, I began working in restaurants. It provided me with a decent wage, and allowed me the opportunity to keep pursuing woodworking as a hobby in my free time. At about age 25 I was given the opportunity to enter the carpentry trade helping a friend of mine who was building a house in the mountains. I found it to be the most satisfying work I had ever done. After finishing the house, I went on to work for a couple home remodeling contractors before employing myself as an independent carpenter. From then on, I continually specialized to the point I'm at today.
Elena Vega: I know you are basically a "one-man operation". Has that influenced the way you approach a project?
SH: When I approach a project, after getting an idea of what the client is looking for, I get a clear mental image of the finished product. Through the years this image has become defined by my personal style as well as guidelines I have adopted from past architecture. I think I have been able to develop my style without the compromise of working with other designers. Not that compromise is a bad thing. I probably have a thing or two to learn about working with others.
EV: You have developed an amazing ability to work with the Google SketchUp design software in a very short time. How did you come to use the program? Do you have prior experience with CAD or other design software?
SH: I think they made SketchUp just for me. I found out about the software from my wife who works at Google. I had brought home several versions of CAD type programs to help streamline the design process, and make changes and estimates in my work. I would inevitably become frustrated, and abandon the effort. When I was introduced to SketchUp, it made total sense. All the tools and methods for creating a model were very intuitive. I think it is especially suited to woodworkers, furniture makers and cabinet makers in particular, because the methods for creating a model are similar to milling parts for furniture or cabinets. I think if there is such a thing as "virtual cabinet making", SketchUp is it.
EV: How have you implemented SketchUp into your work? Do you use it for most of your designs? Has it been useful in communicating with your customers when doing custom designs?
SH: Most of my work is designing and building period correct cabinetry and furniture for houses built during the early 20th century. By modeling the environment that the cabinetry is going to be in, I can relate to other architectural aspects of the room, like the heights of doorways or windows. Essentially you can build in a "real time" environment, and make the project relate to the space it will inhabit. From a client's standpoint, being able to see how a finished project will look makes it much easier to have constructive conversations on how to proceed. Any changes can be made easily, and typically within the duration of a meeting you can tailor a cabinet to reflect the needs of the client. There are also several tools that can make a presentation much more impressive. There are also cost and materials estimating tools. I rarely will do a project without first building it in SketchUp. The time spent in preparation is typically paid back in terms of building efficiency and confidence that everything will work out as planned.
DH: You recently did a demonstration of SketchUp software at our Saturday Mornings at Highland series. What was the reaction from those who attended? Do you think the program could be helpful for the home/hobby woodworker?
SH: I was excited when you guys asked me to fill in for the "Introduction to SketchUp" class. I had been so impressed with the software that I told anyone who would listen how terrific it was. The class was really a great experience for me and I think I was able to answer a lot of questions and show practical examples of its use in everything from cabinetry to turning forms and construction of basic furniture pieces. I think my effort was well received by the people who attended, and I would very much like to do more of this type of thing in the future.
EV: Your designs seem to be influenced by Arts & Crafts and Art Deco styles, and many of your SketchUp models feature Stickley furniture. What draws you to these designs?
SH: I've always been drawn to the proportions and details of Arts & Crafts period furniture. Specifically the Stickley interpretation of the original designs that had originated in England. I believe his motive to make furniture that would appeal to the masses while staying true to the ideals of the founders of Arts & Crafts theory culminated in some of the most well designed furniture ever produced, especially in mass production. There is a concept in the Japanese design known as Wabi Sabi, and it relates to a set of ideals gathered from observations of nature and natural elements that result in a timeless, sophisticated, beautiful design. I feel like the qualities of many of Stickley's designs reflect these ideals. As the Art Deco movement followed closely behind, I think it shared many of the proportions that made Arts & Crafts so pleasing to the eye. Being more elegant, the Art Deco style shows examples of how to apply the Arts & Crafts ideals to a wider, more delicate design scheme.
DH: How do you decide what elements to use from an influence?
SH: I pride myself in being able to identify the style or combination of styles a client uses in their home. When designing pieces for clients I try to use the same concentration of design elements to influence the design of the piece. When designing my own pieces I try to recreate the process the original craftsmen were in when building the pieces that influence my designs. I believe you can abide by a strict set of guidelines dictated by a specific style while still having limitless creative opportunities to express your ideas.
EV: Your work features beautiful hand-cut dovetails and mortise & tenon joinery. Is that a result of form or function?
SH: I would say its form AND function. With today's adhesives, a well fitting traditional joint will outlast any mechanical fastener. The beauty of well crafted exposed joinery is difficult to explain. It imparts a subtle complexity to an otherwise ordinary form. I think it provides a visual representation of the strength and integrity in a piece. I think people who don't have a working knowledge of joinery are still able to see the strength of a through mortise and tenon, or dovetail joint.
EV: What made you decide to incorporate leaded glass into your work?
SH: I’m not real sure what specifically, but a lot of the work I was starting to do a few years ago was interior trim and built-in details in the 1920’s bungalow style. With the popularity of “art glass” at the time it was common to this type of work, and was a detail that I wanted to incorporate into my pieces. Yes. I had a project a few years ago that required some leaded glass panels at the clients request. I had a pretty good idea of the basic concept of leaded glass but had never done it, and frankly was a little intimidated at the thought of trying to cut glass. Once I got a book on the subject, and started constructing the panels I realized it’s a pretty straight foreword process. The glasswork really provides a nice detail that helps to make pieces look truly authentic.
EV: Do you do the glasswork yourself?
SH: Yes. I had a project a few years ago that required some leaded glass panels at the client's request. I had a pretty good idea of the basic concept of leaded glass but had never done it, and frankly was a little intimidated at the thought of trying to cut glass. Once I got a book on the subject, and started constructing the panels I realized it’s a pretty straightforword process. The glasswork really provides a nice detail that helps to make pieces look truly authentic.
EV: Tell us about your finishes. How do you achieve such an authentic-looking, "period appropriate" look?
SH: With all of my Arts and Crafts period pieces I start with quartersawn white oak. Stickley was adamant about this species and preparation of the material because of the durability, stability, and the beauty of the ray fleck design that is most pronounced in white oak over other oaks. I'll normally sand all the parts up to about 220. The finish I use is a two-part process that was described in an old copy of Fine Woodworking magazine. The first part uses a water based dye such as TransTint that gives a base color. I use a reddish brown color, and a "mission" brown color in this stage. The second step uses a walnut color gel stain. After the first step has dried, apply the gel stain and you’ll instantly see a fifty year old finish. This process also accentuates the ray fleck pattern in the oak. After this some type of clear coat must be applied. I use a hand rubbed gel-type polyurethane that I believe is the most appropriate finish for this application. It keeps the warm quality intact that I feel is lost with sprayed on or even brushed on finishes. As a final step I apply a coat of walnut colored paste wax that is buffed out for the final finish. Experimenting with different concentrations of dye will give you the largest variable to the end result. I mix the dye with denatured alcohol in a water bottle until it starts to tint the sides of the bottle for about 10 seconds after you shake it up.
DH: I understand that you are providing all the woodworking portion of a restoration of a 1948 Chevy Woody; what has that experience been like?
SH: Regardless of the project, I always try to find some way of increasing or perfecting some aspect of my craft. When I was presented the opportunity to build this Woody, I was excited because it would provide me with an entirely new set of problems than what I typically face on the average built-in cabinetry piece or bathroom vanity. It has proved to be challenging. I have about half of the car to get patterns from; the rest has disintegrated over the past 60 years. The more pieces I make, I find I can get into the mind of the original designers, and the processes for making the parts becomes easier to understand. I get a certain level of satisfaction building something that has the functional requirements of a vehicle or piece of machinery, as well as the joinery and overall aesthetic of a piece of furniture. It seems to satisfy, to some extent, my need for building a boat. I started a blog at http://rebuildingchevywoody.blogspot.com to help other people out with the techniques necessary and the tools needed to reproduce entire Woody bodies or the wooden components typical in many early model cars.
DH: Describe your shop and how you handle work flow.
SH: My shop is a 500 square foot detached garage behind our house. I use a hybrid cabinet saw, and a band saw. A variable speed drill press equipped with a six inch cross vise allow accurate mortising. A cast iron router table designed to attach to my table saw serves as stable shaper, as well as providing additional support for ripping down large sheets of plywood. Outfitting the router table with a good powerful router allows me to do the work of a larger shaper set up. Over the years I have become more successful at finessing the flow of business through the shop. A large part of this is understanding the different aspects of designing and building furniture, and how to keep the process flowing from project to project, through design, construction, and installation. I think I have always been fortunate to have a steady workload that I was able to manage.
DH: Is there a particular piece of equipment that you consider extremely important to what you do or certain tools you find indispensable?
SH: I probably have a few hundred different tools in my shop, all of which I would consider to be indispensable. I think a lot of tools have several functions they share with other tools, but each one also has a specific purpose that makes it unique. Although, I would say the router, whether in a table or used freehand is my most useful, versatile tool. It can perform more functions than any other single tool, from joinery to profiled edges and custom moldings. Using bearing guided bits, you can make duplicate parts, flush trim the backs of cases, and create accurate fast rabbets. The uses are really too many to list.
DH: What advice would you offer someone working in a small shop? Perhaps using mobile bases, multiple task work stations, etc.
SH: Everyone's shop needs to accommodate the work they do most often, allowing efficient movement from one operation to the next. I think this is something that has to develop over time. For my shop, a table saw and outfeed table make up a central workstation. Storage in the outfeed table allow me to store all my router bits and accessories, layout tools, and enough space for power hand tools that I use frequently. I keep a portable planer on a base that allows me to roll it out of the way when not in use. The router table I use is mounted into the extension wing of the table saw. Keeping all these major tools in a central location make for an efficient workflow, as well as allowing efficient collection of dust and wood chips. The rest of my stationary tools lie around the perimeter of the shop.
DH: Any overall recommendations on equipment/tool selection? How should someone decide what to buy?
SH: There is a lot to consider when getting a machine or tool for your shop. Size, accuracy, level of automation (Do you insert block of wood into slot "A" and push a button). All of these considerations often have a price attached to them. Don't do yourself the disservice of buying a machine that will aggravate you to the point of giving up on an otherwise fun project. Most home improvement centers have a line of tools for most small to medium-sized shops that can stand toe-to-toe with much higher priced competitors. With the internet, a search about the tool you are interested in will provide you with lots of reviews and customer forums that can be useful in making an informed decision.
DH: What advice would you give a woodworker who is trying to advance to the next level of his craftsmanship? Is working with other knowledgeable woodworkers an advantage? Are classes with known instructors beneficial? Do you rely on any woodworking resources such as books, clubs, forums, etc.?
SH: Books! From the beginning of my career I've relied primarily on books to further my knowledge of woodworking. That, along with being always conscious of what you are doing and how you could improve on your efficency or accuracy in the future, is the best way to improve. I always wanted to be able to cut good, nice fitting dovetail joints by hand, without spending as much time fitting the joint as it took me to cut it initially. With something like this, practice is about the only way to learn the subtleties of the skill. I find that most aspects of woodworking are the same in this respect. You will find you have questions learning any new skill in woodworking. Upon setting out to learn a new technique your questions will be in the broad terms of different approaches and particular viewpoints of the “correct” way to do it. A class specifically about the technique you want to learn is a great way, especially for beginners, to introduce themselves to the concept. For people who already have already gained knowledge of different skills, a well written and illustrated book on the subject is all that is needed. Once you understand the general technique and have begun to sharpen your skills, speaking to someone who has developed their own methods can help you figure out any specific problems you may encounter.
Sean Headrick currently lives and works in Oakhurst, a neighborhood in Decatur, Georgia, with his wife and two dogs. He may be contacted through his website: www.headrickdesigngroup.com.
View a gallery of Sean Headrick's work
Visit Sean's blog about rebuilding a 1948 Chevy Woody
See Sean's SketchUp models in the Google 3D Warehouse