I’ve had a creative urge or maybe more correctly – an ache, for as long as my memory has a recording. As a kid, every weekend presented an opportunity to tackle some grand project. Skateboard ramps were some of these first wood-related undertakings. I was fascinated with framing, and how a rigid structure could be achieved using only thin skeletal elements and a skin of plywood. I filled many graph paper tablets with half-pipe designs over my 4th, 5th, and 6th grades.
After that point, the focus of my creative endeavor was usually in pursuit of capturing the attention of some girl, and I exhausted all of the mediums at hand. I tried not to repeat any. For example, if I gave a painting to one girl, I’d have to give an embroidered pillowcase to another. I was 20 years old when I ran out of obvious ideas. Christmas was approaching and I wanted to do something elaborate for a girl I had been dating. Without any former exposure to woodworking (outside of ramp carpentry), I decided to build this girl a finely made wooden box to keep trinkets and letters in. I consumed the local library’s woodworking volumes, talked to all the grandpas in the neighborhood, and finally paid attention to the Sunday afternoon woodworking shows on PBS. I toured Southern Lumber in San Jose (an amateur-friendly indoor lumberyard with an incredible inventory of pre-milled exotic woods), agonizing over individual boards, finally settling on some figured maple and mahogany. And, having no other tools of significance or quality at home, I bought a single chisel, a dovetail saw, and two clamps.
For the next month, I spent nearly all of my free time on the construction of this box. In fact, the object of this effort was beginning to feel frustrated and suspicious because I was always ‘busy’ when she wanted to hang out. Christmas Eve was spent applying coats of finish at 3 and 4 hour intervals throughout the night, and the box was finally delivered at around 10pm on Christmas Day. I suppose it was portentous that when it came time to leave that night, I felt more conflict in separating from the box than the girl.
Anyway, that was the project that hooked me. I still love playing music, producing drawings, paintings, and other two-dimensional works, but I’m most satisfied in making a thing that is composed of wood -this gorgeous organic material that is strong, enduring, reflective, and can be joined to form a functional object -a thing that is used, admired, and rendered more valuable with the character of it’s age and history of service.
I didn’t consider woodworking could be a profession until after I suffered through a few years of jobs and aimless college courses. I spent a few months working in cabinetry shops in order to have machinery access, and in 2001 when I was 25, I determined that I would be a furniture-maker. Of course, I didn’t really know what that meant at the time or what it might take (or cost). I first made a careful study of all the universities, colleges, and art academies along the western states that had any kind of woodworking program. I toured shops, interviewed students and faculty, and finally settled on attending Cerritos College -a humble community college with a startlingly large and vital woodworking program. I took classes there for just two semesters while also joining The Woodworkers Guild of Southern California. At the time, the WGSC was a collection of 30 or so professional woodworkers from around the L.A. area -mostly one-man shops. Up to that point, I had only produced one or two legitimate pieces of ‘woodworking’, so I assume my enthusiasm and dedication to making it my own vocation qualified me for an associate membership.
Through the guild I made a number of enduring friendships, and supported myself by working in various members’ shops. I might work Monday and Tuesday in Culver City, Wednesday and Thursday in Pasadena, and spend Friday in my 9′ x 21′ one-car garage workshop making lots of mistakes. After a time, I transitioned to working just 2-3 days a week for William Stranger who was a patient teacher and still a great friend (I talked so much, I don’t know how he endured me). William was generous in allowing me to witness aspects of a woodworker’s business reality: working with clients and designers, seeking economy in tools and materials purchasing, pricing labor, etc. This insight, and his trust in allowing me to take a few projects from start to finish gave me the confidence to move back to San Jose in 2003 to open a shop of my own.
Here’s a photo of that box I made as a Christmas gift -my first article of woodworking from 1996:
from what I recall, the dimensions are 14″ W x 20″ L x 12″ H
Here’s the toolbox I made while in school at Cerritos in 2001-2002:
Dimensions are 10″ W x 25″ L x 13.5″ H
From a short bio I wrote a little while ago:
Wood is like gemstone. It is a precious, organic material that can be used for pedestrian industrial purposes, or it can be carefully faceted, polished, and set to reveal the greatest color, figure, and clarity. Unlike many gemstones though, wood is plentiful among us, and it can be composed in forms to satisfy the most vital human needs. As a designer and craftsman, I act as steward to this vital resource, seeking to honor it through my attention and skill.
I’m drawn most to the ‘modern’ aesthetics of the mid-twentieth century, and I feel that these clear, minimal forms are the best means of showcasing the beauty of the wood. Construction is a mixture of contemporary technique and traditional joinery with great care taken to ensure these works endure over many future generations.
My process seeks always to minimize negative ecological impact by sourcing sustainable domestic wood species, namely: Walnut, Maple, and Cherry, and I relish every opportunity to make use of local trees otherwise destined for the fireplace or the landfill. Because I work only with solid woods, a scratch, a dented corner, or a worn armrest will not reveal an inferior material hidden beneath a thin layer of veneer. Rather, marks of wear on a piece of J. Rusten furniture will only serve to demonstrate it’s value as a beloved functional object.
Every piece of furniture is finished with a low-toxic, hand-rubbed, linseed or tung oil. Much attention is given toward showcasing the most beautiful section of each cut of wood. Occasionally, features like knotholes, cracks, and mineral streaking are highlighted in celebration of the organic nature of the material.
This will be a venue for thoughts on process, technique, intent, and other ideas related to furniture-as-art.
For now, enjoy this short film my friend David Thompson shot back in 2005 to document the construction of one of my early chair designs.
photo by Neil Barrett for Taylor Stitch, Charlie the bird appears courtesy of Laura Stevenson.