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Big Leaf Manufacturing

The Seattle-based woodworkers use years of experience to take artistic risks

by CH Contributor in Design on 10 June 2013

By Sam Bovarnick

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Roy McMakin opened Big Leaf Manufacturing in 1997 as a workshop for his furniture and architecture firms, but now maintains a level of independence that allows it to take on commissioned projects. Seattle-based Big Leaf has since established itself as one of the finest specialty woodshops in the world, and we recently paid them a visit to see how they go about crafting such refined sculptural objects.

Big Leaf was commissioned by the San Diego Public Library to outfit their reading room, and when we stopped by the workshop, their finishing room was filled with glowing blue wood furniture in various stages of assembly.

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For the library commission, McMakin collected discarded furniture from the streets of San Diego. Back in Seattle he worked with Big Leaf’s General Manager and Design Engineer, Scott Graczyk, to conceptualize customized reconstructions of those same found pieces. "If Roy comes up with a crazy idea, we’ll figure out a way to do it," Scott explains, "And although we don’t advertise being available to other artists, we’re certainly more than happy to do that. We have a really good capacity to take something from a minimal idea and develop it completely to have a finished, delivered product."

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Graczyk engineers projects up to the point that Big Leaf’s small team of highly specialized woodworkers can carry out the rest independently. And though he has been with Big Leaf since the beginning, the company depends on the experience of its employees to deliver products that are hand-constructed. (One of the Big Leaf team, Kade Hone, is a fourth generation woodworker.) From wood selection, to upholstering, to carving out detailed trim, Big Leaf relies on experienced eyes and honed skills.

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Despite the focus on years of experience, Graczyk says a lot of the work is experimental too, the team takes risks. He explains the process: "'OK, I’m going to make this kind of choice and that takes me there' and the more experience you get, those [become] more educated kinds of decisions." Despite the trial and error, at the crux of their operation is years of practical knowledge that allow them to take chances while always delivering a professionally constructed product.

Images by Sam Bovarnick

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