Balance, for now

It was harder than I had anticipated. But that’s because I didn’t think it through.
Paul Epp

I wanted to visit a furniture factory in Cambodia, and that isn’t what the tour operators usually handle. I’m not sure they quite believed that was what I wanted. But I was stubborn and I prevailed.

The facility that I visited was the wholesaler in a village of furniture sellers. And the furniture doesn’t vary much from shop to shop. It is solid wood and often quite massive. The table tops are usually at least four inches think, so they don’t need support rails. They sit on top of one or two round pedestals. The turnings are large in scale, especially in comparison to what we in the West are used to. They are often 12 to 16 inches in diameter, or even larger, and turned with profiles that are a variation of valleys and bumps and other details that turning tools are good at. If the diameter isn’t adequate for the size of the table top, they are secured to a simple ‘x’ base, with the legs extending horizontally outwards.

Factory may not be quite the right description. The building was a polebarn type construction that held up a roof. No walls were needed, nor a floor that differed from the rest of outside. The most surprising aspect was how much was achieved with so little. The principle or initial tool is a long-barred chainsaw. It was used to break out the stock from the wood slabs. It probably made the slabs too. No sawmill required. There was a smallish bandsaw, which profiled the various linear elements and would have given the round table tops their geometry. The table saw was true to its name: a simple wooden leg and rail table with a sawblade piercing the top. No machinery supplier was getting rich off of this shop.

A portable, electric hand-planer provided the smoothness that was desired and then various electric hand sanders finished the job.

The second most important tool would have been the lathe. I had wondered about that. The turned pedestals, and their cousins, the stools and side tables and various other vertical furniture pieces are all made from unlaminated, solid-wood stock: sections of tree trunk (or limb). And these are heavy, and initially, out of balance. The material-handling problem was solved by mounting the tail stock and head stock directly to the floor (the ground) on embedded timbers. The round sections of tree could simply be rolled along the ground and then cranked in tight between the centres. No forklift needed. The lathe operator sat in a pit, with a loose toolrest spanning the pit, which included the distance between the centres. When different lengths were turned, the dead centre was simply moved over and reattached to the timber at a new location. Various pulleys between the electric motor lagged down to the ground provided the changes in speed that might be desired. That motor also ran the table saw.

And that was pretty much it. In keeping with this scale of operation, it was likely that the business was family-owned and operated. That eliminated the requirements of safety regulations, union requirements and so on. It might be tempting to call it streamlined, but it would never have become complicated enough to need any. A lot of wood work was pushed through this shop. The other neighbouring shops then finished their orders to their own specifications.

Another thing that surprised me was how little variation there was in the designs. I think that the companys’ strategies mostly rely on cost/ price to be their selling advantage. But this shouldn’t have been a surprise. The designs that were being replicated were ones that were proven to sell. The market knew what it wanted and what it wanted is what had been made and used before. I imagine that this will change, along with increasing prosperity, urbanization and globalization. The resorts and restaurants that buy wood furniture will look for their own expressions. Western-educated customers may also seek a different look. That’s already happening in the architecture and what’s done in furniture will follow.

Changing the designs will probably also require changing the technology behind them. And that will be a big change. Right now, there is a harmony between the designs and the tools that are used to make them, all nicely balanced in a simple and interconnected system. But the big trees will soon be gone and that alone might drive the need to do things differently.

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.
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