I built a bar from scratch.
I have never even considered taking on a project of this scale, and there were many times that I sincerely doubted that I could pull it off, but I love a great story, and this one is a doozy.
I had been lobbying to build a new bar for Scorpio for a while, because quite frankly, it was ugly, dated, had no storage, and didn’t serve our needs. In truth, it was actually a set piece that we dragged in to serve as our bar. It was never intended to be a permanent fixture, though for five years it was. A large portion of the culture of our company is based in celebration, and the current bar didn’t reflect that culture, so I wanted to rebuild it. I just needed a great theme. Then Aaron Conrad, our artistic director, approached me with a vision of a new bar that would serve the emerging Arts Hub we were creating in our space. The bar was to celebrate a lost fixture of the Calgary arts community: The Auburn.
The Auburn Saloon, located in the heart of the theatre district of downtown Calgary, was a bastion to the performing arts scene in Calgary for many years. Owned by Jesse Glasnovic, The Auburn was a place of performance, installation, and gathering of a wide variety of artists from many different professions and disciplines. It was the unofficial bar of the theatre world, where many post-show celebrations, post mortems, and read-throughs were conducted. The Auburn hosted many events, and featured many different artists and their craft. It closed its doors in July 2013 as a result of rising costs of being located downtown. For more information on the Auburn, check out this article. http://calgaryherald.com/entertainment/theatre/the-auburn-is-gone-where-do-theatre-people-drink-now
This bar would not only celebrate the essence of what the Auburn represented, but with the addition of the emerging Arts Hub of which Scorpio is a part, it would give a new venue for members of the hub to meet, plan, and immerse themselves in the community of artists we are working towards bringing together. In that way, a tribute paid to an establishment of note such as the Auburn is quite fitting. We decided not to rename the bar “The Auburn”, because they aren’t the same. We named our bar “Spirit of the Auburn” to celebrate what The Auburn signifies.
This logo is a composite of the Auburn’s iconic tree logo, and the front door sign of the original saloon. I had a student photoshop it together in a graphics course I was teaching.
I put a proposal together with these themes in the front of my mind, and started to think of the design. My original plan was to model my designs on the Greene and Greene furniture makers of the early 20th century. Greene and Greene were a part of an undertaking in North America called the “American Arts and Crafts Movement”. This style offered factory-made furniture to average people that was beautifully designed and affordable because of modern manufacturing techniques. The pieces were custom-made, but with modern technology, to keep cost low. It is singularly unique because of the limited number of pieces left in archive, and to my knowledge, there is no example of a bar. I believed this was the right choice thematically for this project because the Arts and Craft Movement focused on beauty from limited resources, and craftsmanship with simplicity. I believe the arts in this city are committed to both of those tenants, and would fit nicely into the aims this bar seeks to achieve.
It wasn’t long before that plan went right out the window design-wise, because based on the materials I had, the budget, and the time frames, I didn’t think I could do justice to the Greene and Greene design. What I wound up with has whispers of that style, but overall, the design morphed and changed with new ideas and materials.
I faced a series of interesting challenges for this project. The most obvious is that I had never attempted anything on this scale, and committed myself to manufacture every piece of this bar from scratch. That imposed a learning curve even I was surprised by, because there was a number of techniques I had hereto never attempted:
The bar top:
The immediate problem I faced was what what to make the bar top out of. It had to be durable, because it would take a lot of abuse, but hardwoods are often very expensive, so I initially tried to source reclaimed timber, with very limited success. I happened to be in Lee Valley tools one day (where I buy the majority of my hardware) and came across a very interesting find: For reasons I’m not really privy to, Lee Valley decided to liquidate a whole pallet of torrefied maple and sell it off. Torrefaction is a process by which lumber is baked at high heat to bring the sugars to the surface and dry wood to stabilize and harden it. Maple on its own is fairly hard, but torrefying it makes it incredibly hard and stable. Normally, Lee Valley uses this wood to make shovel and trowel handles because it is strong and easy to work with. The moment I saw it, I knew the bar was going to be built out of it. The great part was, it was cheap! Lee Valley let me go into the back and rifle through the pallet, and pick the best, straightest pieces, and I got a great deal. As a weird side note, the torrefaction process gave the wood one more interesting characteristic: Because the sugars inside the maple burned, the wood smelled like maple cured bacon. Every time I came in from the shop, my wife Kate would wonder what smelled like bacon, and my cats wouldn’t leave me alone.
Planing and jointing the edges was a significant challenge, because it was rough sawn, twisted, warped and bowed in every direction, but with some careful planing, some creative jig building, (a fair amount of swearing) and some help from a few people, I managed to get a beautiful product. It was a process, but I really committed myself to highlighting the flaws in the wood. There were knots, holes, splits and cracks, but I wanted them all, because art isn’t perfect. Art is flawed and vulnerable, and this bar would represent the imperfect and ever-changing nature of art.
We kept the worm tracks, knots and other imperfections, because they looked cool and added a ton of character to the piece.
Next, we decided to add an accent wood to the bar tops. We went with African
Paduk, a hardwood species that is often referred to as “blood wood” because of it’s distinct red colour. Milling this wood offered its own set of challenges, not because it was difficult to work with, but because the dust that it created in milling got everywhere. I doubt I’ll ever truly be rid of the red dust from my shop, and while I was planing and sanding, my shop floor looked like the surface of Mars. I love the look of this wood, but it will be a long time before I work with it again, because the dust was ridiculous.
Bread board edges.
Another technique I had never tried was to add bread board edges to the tops. This is a very old woodworking technique that serves a couple purposes: One, to hide the end grain of the table top, which makes it more attractive. Two, to provide stability on the table top and reduce cupping by attaching wood at opposing grain directions, while simultaneously allowing for the natural expansion and contraction of wood in different humidity conditions. It is aesthetic as well as functional. And I have never tried it. It involved making a tongue and groove system on the edges of the pieces that the bread board would join into. I decided not to hide the joint, but to highlight it as a feature.
I have never even considered doing any sort of cabinetry, because the very idea was intimidating to me. It has to be very precise in order to fit together properly, and built to give strength and beauty. I considered a few different ways of doing it, with 2×4 skeleton, or repurposing a different cabinet, but in the end, I decided to try my hand at actually constructing the base cabinet using a mixture of traditional and modern joinery. I decided early on that I would use premium grade cabinet plywood, with a birch veneer. It is expensive, but would add greater stability over using solid wood, and because it has a veneer, it can be sanded and stained just like solid birch. Add to the fact that it comes with factory straight edges, and it was a obvious choice. Using traditional rabbets and dados, I gave the shelves extra support, and actually assembled the cabinets with pocket screws. It took a lot of modifications and careful plans and measurements, but what I ended up with was strong, square and had a lot of storage (something our old bar lacked). There were 5 in total- three ganged together to form the main bar, and two to make the rolling cart. Are these perfect? No. But they are strong and square, and all the imperfections are hidden by face frames and different trim elements.
Face frames and trim:
The further I got into this project the more I wanted it to be absolutely custom. I decided that I would not buy any pre-fabricated mouldings or trim, and create everything myself, from the face frames, which hid seams and edges and created a panel work on the front of the bar, to the accent trim pieces that would finish the bar. The face frame construction was pretty simple, and made very easy with a Kreg Jig and a lot of reclaimed cedar lumber. Way more than I ever considered. Fortunately, I had a good supply kicking around. To accent the face frames, I decided to add wood burnings onto each stile, and that decision haunts me still. It didn’t occur to me when I started that in order to have continuity across the whole piece, I’d have to do every stile. I spent days transferring and burning vine arrangements onto the face frames, and each one is different variations on a theme.
I did 15 stiles in total, and it gives a lot of subtle detail to the whole piece.
The trim was all hand made, and mostly made from shop scraps. I had a limited budget, and if I was going to even come close to meeting that budget, I would have to see what I could do with what I had lying around.
I used scraps from other projects to make corner mouldings, that featured my favourite signature joinery – the box joint. These were labour intensive and very finicky, but the end result was very pleasing.
I also found use for some paduk that was left over from the table top build. I put a roman ogee profile on it (which I use a lot, because I love it) with my router, and used it as base cap mouldings. I used scrap cedar and made corner mouldings. These caused a few assembly issues I wasn’t anticipating, but overall looked great. Finally, I made corbels or corner braces to help support the overhang of the bar. These were made of three parts – a 90 degree corner piece that was inlayed with a pattern, and two mouldings to fancy it up. These were tricky to make initially, because I had multiple set ups on the table saw, but once I figured that out, I batched out 17 of them fairly quick. Doing all of these things was a tremendous amount of work, but I consider it worth it, because this bar is absolutely unique. Even if I was asked to build an exact replica, I never could, because each piece is totally custom.
The rolling cabinet needed doors, because it is going to be where we store and lock up the liquor,. so I had to figure that out. I’d never built cabinet doors before, so I needed a simple way to make strong doors that looked good. I used my Kreg jig to build a frame, then used plywood to make a backer. The end result was fairly pleasing to me. They were even sized right to cover what they needed to, which I consider a bonus.
I used simple flush mount hinges to mount the doors, and it worked out great. Simple design, easy build, and looks great. Sometimes when I get building things I forget that simple often is better.
I don’t have a post about leather work, but the short story is, I picked up leather tooling as an enhancement to my woodworking. I think it adds a beautiful rustic quality to my pieces that represents the area I live in (the prairies). The story of how leather came to be a part of this build is heartbreaking, but I feel pays tribute to those who suffered through it. My friend Erin lost her sister Shannon last year in a tragic domestic violence murder that shocked our community. I didn’t know Shannon, but from what I do know is she was a beautiful, vibrant and talented woman who was taken in the prime of her life. Shannon was an actress, comedian, live action role-player, and an all-around wonderful person. While cleaning out Shannon’s house, Erin came across a large quantity of premium leather that Shannon was using to make some role playing costumes for.
Erin gave me the leather to do with whatever I wanted. I could not allow such a gift to go to waste, and knew immediately that I wanted to pay tribute to Shannon and who she was to the arts community in this city. Therefore I took that leather and incorporated into the bar. That element took me weeks to design and create, but if this bar was going to celebrate artists, and bring community together, then it was damn well going to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of a part of our family. Shannon, if you’re out there, I dedicate this part to you. Thank you.
Since I installed this piece at the Scorpio rehearsal space, people have frequently asked me if I enjoyed building this bar. I can honestly say that there were times that I thought I would never finish, and there were certainly times when I doubted myself and my ability to learn and apply the skills necessary to complete a build of this complexity. However, that said, I enjoyed myself immensely, and though I’m not a fan of receiving praise, I am very proud of this accomplishment. The bar is beautiful, traditional, modern, functional, custom made, and very sturdy; everything I could ever ask for in a piece of furniture. I think it will stand up as a classic piece that will pass through many years of changing styles and not date itself, because I paid special attention to build classic elements. I meticulously researched different styles and incorporated them into my own style. I was proud to burn my brand into the finished product, because I knew I had done good work. I have to thank Scorpio Theatre, and especially Keith Kollee, our bar manager for placing such immense faith in my abilities, and putting up the money to make this possible. This bar has already become the centre piece of our studio, and I hope that many plans, hopes and dreams will be made there, and many triumphs will be celebrated at the Spirit of the Auburn. It has a great story, it was fun to build, and it will see a lot of use in the coming years, and for all those reasons, I am grateful. Plus, at 2:30 in the morning, when we finally finished installing it, I got the honour of having the first drink.