Alec Williams uses a chop saw in the beginning stages of creating a piece of furniture at his shop in Central Point. Williams and many other members of the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild will show their work at the annual woodturning show in Ashland. - Jamie Lusch

The elegance of fine wood

Twenty-five years ago a friend asked Alec Williamson if he'd help him remodel his kitchen. Williamson enjoyed the woodworking part of the project so much he said that if he could make a living doing it, he would. His friend asked what he was waiting for.

"The next day I had two customers, and I've been doing it ever since," he says.

Williamson's custom furniture will be among the fine woodworking pieces on display and for sale at Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild's fall show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Great Hall in Ashland. The 29th annual edition of the popular event promises new work from some of the Rogue Valley's top artists and craftsmen.

The show is scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 28-30. It opens at 10 a.m. each day, and closes at 7 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.

Williamson says his philosophy is to try to achieve an elegance of design that complements the natural beauty of the wood.

"I like to come up with designs that show that rather than doing a lot of carving," he says.

You can see that thought at work in the 1,300-square-foot shop Williamson built at his home near Central Point. His production runs to furniture pieces such as tables and entertainment centers that have some utility or function. Many of them show a strong Asian influence he figures he picked up growing up in Hawaii.

The legs of a table, for example, swoop out gracefully at their bottoms in a reference to classic Chinese design, as do the contours of a small coffee table Williamson is finishing on commission.

The table is crafted of maple and canary wood, an exotic cousin of legumes, the pea family, that typically boasts dramatic streaking. Williamson drills four corner holes in the top of the table's sides using a Forstner bit, a bit with a sharp center point surrounded by a cylindrical cutter. The bit bores a very precise hole, courtesy of that fine point and its sharp edges.

He positions the table top upside down on the sides, and after some careful measurements, removes it. He inserts little gizmos known as "centers" in the holes. When the pieces are placed in contact again and rapped with a mallet, the points give the woodworker the exact spots to drill for the dowels that will subsequently fasten the pieces together.

Williamson readily shows a visitor what makes things work. The secret of a lot of these organic curves, for example, is something called bending board. It's a composite, but unlike regular plywood, which runs layers of grain crossways to each other for strength, all the grain runs the same way, yielding a product that's just what the name implies. To form, say, the end piece for a coffee table, Williamson cuts bending board to size, shapes it over a form of his own design and later glues it to shape.

If you can think of something for woodworking, it's probably here: benches and drill presses, an edge sander, a morticer, a jointer, a wide drum sander, a 20-inch planer, 16-inch band saw and on and on.

It is Williamson's kingdom. Light filters through a south window. Line drawings and diagrams line a bulletin board. A woodstove sits near the window. The smells are all fresh wood and resins and tung oil. The floor is soft with sawdust.

"It's my work," he says. "When I'm not doing my work, it's my hobby. And when I'm not doing that, I like to come out here and hang out. It's my favorite place in the world.

Perhaps the piece-de-resistance of the whole set up is a massive workbench he built for himself a while back.

"It's what I wanted," he says.

When it was new and sleek and shiny, a woodworking student was admiring it.

"You don't actually plan to work on that, do you?" the student said.

Williamson said he did. Then the student set a cup of coffee on it. Causing Williamson to just about go through the roof.

The items he sells at shows range from a small jewelry box for around $300 to large tables in the $3,000 to $5,000 range.

He says most of his work comes from commissions, but almost all the commissions result from people seeing his speculation pieces at shows such as the Ashland event and similar ones in Salem and Portland. Before accepting a commission he goes to the customer's home and checks out the space for which the piece is intended. People sometimes think they want one piece, he says, when what they really need is another. It's all in knowing how to look at it.

Admission to the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild's show is free. Call 482-4829 or see siskiyouguild.org.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at bvarble@mailtribune.com or at 776-4478

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