Making the Wood Work - Michael Colca Lives and Carves by the Grain

Thursday, November 8, 2007 | Posted by Michael Colca

Cottages & Bungalows

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Made With Pride. Michael Colca Gives His Furniture Something That Mass Producers Can’t.

Thursday, September 14, 2000 | Posted by Michael Colca

The Austin America-Statesman / Michael Barnes

American-Statesman: You make arts-and-crafts furniture in a traditional manner. Tell us about the revivalist movement and how you got involved.

Michael Colca: At the beginning of the 19th century, mass production was beginning to be employed in all areas of manufacturing, including what had traditionally been the artisan fields. In general, mass production methods resulted in loss of quality and individuality and gave rise to a groundswell of discontent and a feeling of detachment with the product itself. The British architect and designer William Morris was able to articulate these sentiments and his writings are largely credited with beginning the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and America in the latter part of the 19th century. Toward the end of the 1960s, in an age of abundance unequaled in human history, we saw a parallel with the original Arts and Crafts movement and a similar groundswell of dissatisfaction with mass produced goods. This time, however, there was more of a societal fear of being plugged into The Machine of mass production and the loss of the heart and soul of the artisan. I see the same environment in place today. I was drawn to the revival of this movement by a desire to make things that we, as a people, could be proud of. I was searching for something worthwhile to do that would allow me to create items through the work of my own mind and hands and feel the satisfaction of that creation.

How much time do you spend on each piece and why?

It varies - a piece of furniture such as a Highboy will take 250 hours to build, a Medina bed 95 hours. The process begins with a careful selection of materials. Parts are selected for how they will work structurally and visually in the finished piece. I look at the grain and flow, the pattern of the grain, of each piece and select each piece of wood for the characteristics it holds. These are then roughed out to near their final size, cataloged and set aside to equalize for a few days. Parts are then milled to the final size. Next, the careful cutting and fitting of the joinery - mortise-and-tenon and dovetails - provides the structural integrity for the piece. This part of the process must be completed very carefully, not only to ensure the beauty of each joint, but to also ensure the tightness that will provide the lasting sturdiness of a truly fine piece of furniture. Each part is then sanded to 320 grit (very fine) to allow the true character of the wood to emerge. The piece is then assembled. This is always an exciting time in the shop when you get to see for the first time (especially on new designs) the full effect of the wood choices. Then comes the finishing. For pieces that are not exposed to moisture we use a hand rubbed oil finish that is applied in four coats, sanded with 400 then 600 grit between coats. We do this in order to bring out the silky finish, the tactile sensuality of the wood, as well as to showcase the grain and flow of the overall piece. For pieces that will be exposed to moisture such as table tops, we sand to the same level, but then apply a final coat of pre-catalyzed lacquer to prevent staining and water rings.

What are the advantages to such a meticulously crafted piece of furniture?

The advantages of such a meticulously crafted piece of furniture can really be summarized by four qualities: character/beauty, sturdiness, individuality and appreciation.

Character/beauty - With a finely made piece of furniture there are always pleasant surprises over the years from the subtle play of grain in the design and the balance that it creates, to the hues and patina of unstained clear finished wood as it continuously matures. Fine work inspires in each of us the desire to live up to a higher standard.
Sturdiness - These pieces of furniture will hold up to a lifetime of use and then some. The joints remain tight, the legs don't wobble, and the silky action of the doors and drawers continue to operate smoothly and cleanly.

Individuality - Each piece, by virtue of materials, design, finishing and aging, is unique. You're not going to walk into someone's house and say, "Oh, I have a chair exactly like that." Each piece is an expression of its owner and of me, the artisan.

Appreciation - Depending of course on the treatment it receives and conditions in which it's kept, these are pieces of furniture that appreciate in value over time. These are originals, not prints, so to speak.

Is the cost prohibitive?

My prices are competitive in the fine production furniture market, but to put it in context, you should expect to pay roughly 40 - 70% above what you might see for a mass produced item. A bed, for instance, might run you $3,500. However, for the reasons listed above, you're not buying the same piece of furniture that you see in the local furniture store.

From Butcher to Craftsman. It’s Been a Long, Interesting Road to Success.

Saturday, July 15, 2000 | Posted by Michael Colca

The Century-News / Dan Pickens

Michael Colca sat in his newly remodeled kitchen outside of Driftwood, sipping a cup of green tea and gazing out the window at the leaves of a cedar elm, reflecting on his life and how he - the son of an Italian butcher - came to be a nationally recognized furniture maker.

"The world's crazy, isn't it," he said, grinning through his dark goatee. "I must be the luckiest man alive."

Colca, 48, grew up in southwest Houston, attending Catholic schools and working with his father in the grocery store owned by his uncle.

"I worked with my Dad every day after shool, all the way through high school," he said, "And he taught me one of the most important lessons in life -- how to deal with people, with customers. He would make every customer feel like they are the most important, most special person. He made them feel good about themselves. I use that same philosophy in my business."

Apparently, it works. Colca's business, making fine, handcrafted furniture has landed him national recognition, with pieces pictured in Architectural Digest , an article in Texas Monthly, and clients ranging from New York to Oregon. And while the road to success has been long, there have been some interesting turns along the way.

Colca began his career as a cabinet maker in a shop in Austin in 1977. "As far as cabinets go, these were nothing special, but we also made skateboards, lots of skateboards," Colca said with a laugh. " I knew it wasn't a place I was going to stay for long."

In fact, by 1978, he had moved to a 50-acre dairy farm in Manchaca, and opened his own cabinetry shop in the barn. For the next ten years, he made only high-quality cabinets and slowly received more and more comissions to build furniture pieces. In 1981, he helped found the Austin Woodworkers Guild, a non-profit organization dedicated to education about, and promotion of the art of furniture-making.

While he was president of the Guild, he helped organize shows at the University of Texas' Institute of Texas Cultures in San Antonio and the Daugherty Arts Center in Austin. His proudest moment as Guild president, however, was to arrange for Sam Maloof, guru of fine furniture makers and godfather to the arts and crafts movement in America, to come lecture at the Huntington Gallery on the UT campus in 1983.

"I'll never forget it," Colca said. "There we were, gathered around this man, a man who had made rocking chairs for several U.S. presidents, the lecture was over and he was taking a few questions. Awestruck, one guy raises his hand and asks, 'Mr. Maloof, if there was one bit of advice you could give us as furniture makers - one thing that would guide us - what would it be?' And Maloof turns to us, and without missing a beat says, 'You must work fast, very fast.' We all laughed, but he's right! Furniture-making is extremely time-consuming and by nature a very slow process. If you're going to make a living, you've got to be able to do your work efficiently - you must execute very quickly."

Colca moved to the Wimberley/Driftwood area in 1988. In 1989, he was one of six artists to exhibit in the newly formed Whit Hanks Antiques and Decorative Arts Gallery in Austin - along with Dripping Springs resident, furniture maker Louis Fry. Today, Colca works with Designer/Craftsman Mark Love in his shop beneath his house in the Rolling Oaks subdivision. Together, they have created an entire line of furniture in the classic Arts and Crafts style, which they call, "Medina."

The Arts and Crafts style, developed during the Arts and Crafts movement (1890-1930) was in part a reaction to the industrial revolution occurring at the turn of the century. During this period, old world craftsmanship was heralded over mass produced items as many crafstman saw that they were no longer able to compete in the new economy. The style itself emphasizes quality workmanship over ornamentation, with clean lines and particular attention to proportions. The works of craftsman such as Charles and Henry Greene (Greene and Greene) Gustav Stickley, Charles Renny MacIntosh and to some extent, Frank Lloyd Wright, are outstanding examples of the Arts and Crafts style.

While many furniture makers today are content to make replicas of pieces designed by the aforementioned craftsmen, Colca and Love design and create original pieces.

"I really embrace the design philosphy of Greene and Greene," said Colca. "Not their style, but their philosophy of emphasizing the structural components - the dovetail joinery, the mortise and tenons, the techniques used to bring two pieces together - in order to create an ornamentation that is integral to the piece - not a curlicue added on. It's a philosophy of less being more. Clean, and simple."

The Medina line includes: dining table and chairs, end tables, coffee table, chest, wardrobe, bed and highboy. Most pieces are in American black cherry with accents in lighter "figured" maple such as birds'eye or curly. Colca and Love also incorporate other exotic hardwoods, many from Africa, as accent material. The Medina line itself may be expanded in the future as client demand dictates.

"Mark has a special talent," said Colca. "He's designed several of the pieces that we've added to the Medina line in recent years, and he's a superb craftsman. I will depend on him to continue to create new pieces as we flesh out our portfolio." While it is unusual for a furniture maker to have an entire, cohesive line, it is not the only thing that sets Colca apart.
"I think what sets us apart from the crowd is our obsession with craftsmanship and detail," said Colca. "Our pieces are all finish-sanded with a 320-grit paper (very fine) before assembling. All panels are book-matched (milled from the same piece of rough-cut lumber and placed sequentially so that the pieces are mirror images, with identical grain, color and characteristics.) Our drawer glides are polished and waxed, wood on wood (without wheels and tracking). Our hinges are all handmade, solid brass, and concealed. Our door catches are all handmade. Every piece of wood is evaluated for its effect on the balance of the piece, its grain and flow (the pattern of the grain). Everything we do, we do it the best we can."

Colca's passion for quality craftsmanship, the passion that will ensure his continued rise in the art world, becomes most pronounced when he talks about what he wants to achieve with his craft.

"When I look at a piece of really well-made furniture," he said, "I'm inspired. It makes me feel good about people. It's an exhilarating affirmation that the person who made it really cared.

"I want to be the person that creates the piece that makes you feel good about humanity, that inspires you," he said.

An ambitious goal, in this jaded and cynical age. Still, one has only to spend 30 minutes with this gentle man and his warm humor - to inspect his work firsthand - to realize that he may be on to something. As he said, the world is a crazy place, and finding inspiration in beauty is a time-honored tradition.

The Handmades’ Tale

Wednesday, July 1, 1998 | Posted by Michael Colca

Texas Montly / Suzy Banks

Fed up with the mediocre quality that was the standard at the cabinet shop where he worked, Michael Colca quit his job in the late seventies and decided to strike out on his own. "I figured in five years I'd be so good, an expert..." Now, 23 years later, the idea of mastering his craft so rapidly seems so ludicrous that the 45-year-old Colca can't finish the sentence without laughing. One problem back then was the lack of instructors or mentors. "Of course, I really admired the work of Sam Maloof," he says of the California woodworker and designer who was in the vanguard of the crafts revival in the fifties. "I could read about him, but I wasn't able to work with him."

Colca soon discovered the Arts and Crafts style and fell in love. "Everything you do, you do for a reason," he tells me as we crawl around under one of his dining tables at his workshop in Driftwood. He points out a mortise-and-tenon joint on the side of one leg whose securing wedge has been overdriven to create an attractive bulge. "When you do something like this, you're not doing it just because it's pretty," he says,"You're doing it because it's strong and provides a visual focus for the strength of the piece."

In an attempt to find some balance between perfection and affordability without compromising his standards, Colca has designed a furniture series that he calls Medina. The dining-room and bedroom suites, highboys, and hutches made of cherry, pecan, and maple--with unobtrusive hinges and book-matched grain--give a reverential nod to Arts and Crafts by transcend pure imitation. "I'm a fanatic for book-matching," says Colca of the process of splitting open a piece of wood to reveal mirror-image grain patterns. And if there's one thing he learned from Maloof, it's that there are no rules. "Maloof doesn't get stuck in tradition," he says. "He knows you're going to come up with better stuff if you don't get locked into the way things should be done." Although he's basically happy with his Medina designs, perfectionist Colca says he can't stop "fiddling with proportions, playing with it, deciding how big to make the feet, driving myself absolutely crazy."

Architectural Digest

Wednesday, May 1, 1996 | Posted by Michael Colca

This photo was taken in the Aspen, Colorado home of one of our clients. It features a reproduction of a Greene and Greene sideboard which we crafted in 1989. We were proud to see it in Architectural Digest.

Furniture Maker Does Divine Work for Church

Saturday, September 24, 1994 | Posted by Michael Colca

Walter Brewer / Austin American-Statesman

When the calling came, custom furniture builder Michael Colca was reluctant to shift his creative direction and turn his attention to the altar of a tornado-torn church in Plainfield, Ill. He really wanted to develop his own line of furniture for homes. But he responded to a congregation in need and it turned out to be a match made in heaven.

Now, Colca has completed his largest single project (in dollar volume) and the parishioners of St. Mary Immaculate Parish have proclaimed his inspiration and artwork divine.
Colca's work consists of five pieces--an altar, two lecterns and two chairs. While the spiritual nature of altar furniture may conjure images of ornate, elaborate carvings, these pieces don't fit that mold.

The wood's beauty stands out as one of the furniture's most striking features. Long, smooth curves melt together in designs that look as if they were created in stretched or molded clay rather than carved wood.

"It's very sculptural, art nouveau stuff," Colca says. "There are lots of free-flowing lines. There are no straight lines. It's massive, very heavy."

Colca says he only had a drawing of the church and a floor plan for the altar to guide him in his design creation. He also drew on his own spiritual roots.

"I was raised Catholic, so I had all the archetypal information," he says. "It was pretty easy to know what I should communicate and what the intent should be. It was one of those matches that was magical. They got the first sketches and said, 'This is perfect.'"

Colca started cutting the wood in April of 1993 and started the design work in November. He began with a scale model (1 inch = 1 foot). He still has that to show for his work.
"The main altar is the centerpiece," Colca says. "It's a giant parabolic shape. It's real sculptural. There are also two chairs. One is either the bishop's chair or presider's chair; it's a big chair that sits on the altar. It's bigger than life. Then there's the deacon's chair; it's the lesser chair. It's a small stool-like chair. Then there's what they call the ambo. I've always known it as a podium or lectern. Finally, there's the cantor's lectern or podium the choir leader uses."

While this was a rewarding project for Colca he almost didn't undertake it. He really wanted to keep his focus on developing his own line of furniture, instead of only building furniture to customers' specifications. Colca has been showing his custom furniture at Whit Hanks and that's where the parishioners of St. Mary Immaculate found him.

"One of the parishioners was through Whit Hanks at Easter a year ago," Colca says. "they started talking to us and said 'Boy, we sure admire your work. I wish you could do some drawings of what we want.' I did the drawings last year and they went nuts over them."

When they asked him to undertake the project, Colca wasn't sure he wanted to do it. "I tried to discourage them because I felt like it would be a distraction. I was reluctant at the start."
Now that's it's done, Colca has the satisfaction of knowing his work will be appreciated for years to come.