Mind and Hand 03: Sander Willig

Posted by BC3 Team June 18, 2017

Welcome to our third post documenting interviews with people who work in the craft industry. Our previous interview can be found here: Favio Rojas. As designers we depend on a number of different experts who work with their hands to produce our designs or work in conjunction with us to create furniture, cabinetry, objects, art or anything that might be installed in our projects. Last year we decided to start telling the stories of these experts, both to learn more about what they do and how they do it, but also to expose their work to our potential clients. We have learned that successful design hinges on strong relationships with our clients, builders, craftspeople and engineers.

Meet Sander Willig. He is a local wood worker specializing in reclaimed woods and custom woodworking for both commercial and residential projects. We visited him at his shop in Opa Locka.

Q: How long have you been in woodworking?
A: I started as a carpenter’s apprentice in 1997 and I have had my own shop since 2003. When I started in carpentry I began through the union apprenticeship here in Miami, Atlanta and California and we did everything: concrete, metal framing, wood framing, roofs, cabinets, interiors, stairs–everything. I did that for about five years and then became a journeyman carpenter around 2002 in California. Then I moved to Miami, my hometown, to open my shop so I could do custom woodwork, furniture and cabinetry.

Q: What are the things that influenced your decision to enter this craft?
A: When I was 16 I met this old timer industrial designer/industrial artist, Barry Massins that worked with everything but his woodwork was particularly inspiring and so later when I finished school I went and hung out around his shop for a while and kind of just got interested–I may have done it anyway–I always wanted to build houses for my own family and such, but his work made focus on and say “I want to be able to do that” and so I started exploring how. I ended up in an apprenticeship which is very different than doing custom work but it gave me all of the foundations for being able to figure out anything else.

Q: Do you prefer to work with reclaimed wood vs. new growth and why? And are there other materials you like to incorporate into your work?
A: I still like the really simple romantic idea of a solid piece of wood–the closer I can get to the source the more satisfying it is. Even just knowing exactly where is came from–finding it, cutting it down…is usually the most rewarding. But for practical purposes for a lot of furniture, especially when plywood is needed, we have preferred local vendors. So there’s the ideal and then there’s the reality.

Q: Are you starting to evolve and figure out how steel can be integrated into the aesthetic?
A: We’ve occasionally used aluminum, steel and concrete and other fundamental materials, usually trying to avoid the high-tech–anything to do with plastic or a lot of the recycled materials are good for certain things but I not for what we do. I would much prefer even a tree gets cut down–you use all of the wood, it lasts a long time and it’s beautiful. It never really wears out and as it ages it often looks better. And then, other than with some shellac or varnish, if it’s tossed outside it’s biodegradable–it will just turn back to dirt–whenever that happen. That is probably the fundamental idea that allows me to justify being a woodworker–because I can’t manage the forest–I don’t have power in that big arena, but the number one issue I see is that products are not used long enough. The products that are made out of the materials that last forever–like plastic are used for the least amount of time. And the products that are organic that are built well–you could have a piece of furniture that lasts a few hundred years or a few decades. The hitech solution is to use plastic–and there’s definitely as place for that in the auto industry and ]similar industries. [with wood] you have the integrity of the materials–even if it is steel or rope, it’s as close to it’s original form as possible. And the true challenge is to design because if you design something that is not appealing after its popularity fades after a few years, then it doesn’t matter how well it’s built because it will thrown away or exchanged or changed, or tossed. So we have already solved the problem of having something not last a long time with the use of materials and the quality of craftsmanship, but the design part is something that is willing to kept in the home or passed on or passed down until it is completely unusable anymore which could be many many decades. And that is probably the more realistic side of sustainability than reclaimed wood. Whenever we have the chance to store some tree slabs, bamboo, that you find or that are inherited–I have some specimens from the 1800s, and things that were abandoned.

I will also say that when I started I was very interested in what the customer wanted and offering them samples of every kind of wood under the Sun, every color every stain. With the idea that that was what custom work was all about. And every year that goes by the simpler my approach gets which is I don’t even bring up woods that are really expensive–which means they are rare. I now always look at woods that are already in the shop or waiting or not used to put it into a piece because it is time it should be used. Especially if I can get it close by and less processing there is the better. That has become the key parts. So I often design now based on the materials that are available and in front of me. Rather than make the design and then go and find whatever it is anyone can imagine. For example I recently did a Tiki Hut out of Cypress and got the material from the Miccosukee, who get it from their own land and they manage their sources. And then it does not travel more than 50 miles. We try use local vendors.

Q: What species of wood do you commonly work with and do you have a preference.
A: Black walnut. I like purple heart and beaver wood. But people often show dark stains of what they want and then I just suggest we used walnut. It is very friendly to work with but it’s also dynamic–the grain and knots and changes in color–you never know what you’re going to get so it’s not consistent like a mahogany. So it’s always a surprise but at the same time it’s very friendly–easy to work with–it’s not particularly heavy or particularly light. It works well; it glues well. Mahogany is the dream material that is “perfect”–it’s often called the King of woods, so I like to say walnut is the Prince. But in the shop we use white oak and walnut and cedar (eastern, western and spanish–when available). Cuban Mahogany it’s like working with gold and butter.
Eastern Red cedar is my other favorite. I get it from North Carolina. That particularly wood has got a really fragrant smell, it’s a really great exterior wood, it’s got these crazy purple colors, and it’s really strong and really lightweight.

If I could only work with two woods I would work with Walnut and Eastern Cedar. Walnut for the inside and Eastern Red Cedar for the outside.

Q: Do you have a specific approach to designing–a philosophy that guides your work when you are commissioned as the designer.
A: Sure. There is certainly an aesthetic which is modern–but not contemporary–a dynamic modern. I would say industrial rustic Japanese. The vernacular of the area or where the piece is going–sometimes it’s a very subtle reference. Modern–and simple. The approach changes all of the time depending on the client. I try not to go further than “napkin” sketch and leave the joinery details for later in process. Because I can draw all day but once I start building that’s when I will know what it needs to be. But I prefer to gain the trust of the client by showing them the work that I have done. And if they like what they see then they know they are going to get something within that vein. They can visit the shop as much as they want, but nailing down an exact design usually only causes problems because something has to change and not usually up to me. It sounds hokey but once you start working with a piece of wood it tells you what it wants to be. I literally take the pieces and lay them on top of each or draw them on the wall and I just look at them. I’ll even bring those pieces to the space. So that’s my approach and it always makes it a little bit harder getting clients to trust you, but they always get a better product if they can relax and let you put a little bit more of an architect’s sensibility to it then worrying about exactly what it’s going to look like before it has been built.

I am more interested in questions like: what are you putting on the table or shelf, what it being used for, who is it for–is it for you, for a child or a friend. Where is it going? Do I have to get it in an elevator, do I have to make it into pieces. Those types of constraints start to shape a piece without my consent. And then you lay out the ground rules–is it glossy; is it matte; it is walnut or mahogany. Rather than questions like what is this corner going to like or what kind of joinery are you to use; I don’t even bother going into that because 90% of the time it’s going to change anyway once I start building it. And I have forced it before in the past, and it becomes a pretty grueling process to make this exact thing–to the drawing–because you start fighting [the material]. And we’re talking about subtle little things like the difference between a reveal that ⅛” or ¼”. And the smaller the piece the less planning there is.

Q: Share with us your favorite piece.
A: There’s a piece I did within the last few months that was a variety of natural edge tree slabs that we’ve had for a long time that hadn’t really found a place to be. And it just happened to be a house with a big enough wall with a big enough space where that was going to be the shelves all the way up. Usually how I know it’s special is when I’m done if I feel a sense of loss–like I want to keep it for myself or I want to put in my own house, is how I know I’ve done a good job. And 95% of the time it happens.

And then we recently did this really large extended deck with a mix of logs and decking and a cypress frame and thatched roof over the deck. And that was one of the most successful design builds I have worked on. It looks amazing and I really proud of it.