Sense of place informs every piece made by the father-and-son team of Erickson Woodworking
January 24, 2018
The dichotomy feels very true to what makes Nevada County tick in 2018.
Take father-son duo Bob and Tor Erickson, who make their living painstakingly crafting sculptural pieces of furniture off the grid, deep in the woods of the Sierra Nevada. Then showcase those high-end pieces of functional art online in gorgeous detail, both on Erickson Woodworking's carefully curated website and on Instagram.
The story of the way-out-there woodworking shop on the San Juan Ridge starts in the early 1970s and involves a serendipitous meeting with renowned poet Gary Snyder.
"I made my first piece of furniture in 1969," Bob Erickson wrote on the website. "It was a cherry stool, and it sold in a gallery in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I was excited because I'd always wanted to make a living doing something I enjoyed and this was a confirmation that such a course might be possible."
Snyder invited Bob up to the Ridge to help him build his house. Bob then bought the adjoining parcel of land with a weaver, two aspiring architects, a poet and a carpenter. Bob built a woodshop on the land and Erickson Woodworking opened for business in 1973.
In the 45-plus years since, the process has largely remained the same despite the newly internet-savvy marketing.
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When Bob and Tor Erickson build a piece of furniture, they literally start from the ground up, locating, harvesting, milling and drying each tree.
"'How long does it take to make a chair?' That's a common question," Bob said. "For us, really and honestly, it starts with an idea, then the design, selecting a tree, and milling the tree in a particular manner. We're very picky about how the sawyer will cut the boards. It really starts then."
But after the boards are cut, they will air-dry for a couple of years and then spend time drying in the Ericksons' solar kiln — and occasionally in their wood-fired sauna.
"The real answer is that it literally takes years … before we even lay out the parts of a chair," Tor said.
It is very important to the Ericksons that they use woods that are found on the West Coast, using walnut from Sacramento Valley orchards and big leaf maple from their own property, for instance.
"We like to use the woods we can see outside our window," Bob said. "As you start to work in local materials, you discover the idiosyncrasies of the different species … It adds a lot of meaning to the piece, for me. It enriches the background story of that piece."
Erickson furniture is "rooted in place, this particular place," agreed Tor. "The most obvious (way) is in the selection of materials. But there are other ways, too, in which this place — and California in general— has influenced the work. A lot of my dad's designs fall in a California tradition."
On a very practical level, Bob noted, the place in which he chose to site his home and business has influenced the work.
"The tools and processes and techniques available in a place that is off the grid — it does change the process," he said. "Every drop of power becomes precious."
The Ericksons used a generator until they installed solar power in 2006; the limited amount of power available limits the types of designs they do, since they have to use smaller, simpler machines along with hand techniques.
"Handmade is a big part of what we do," Bob said. "But what do we mean by that? … We use power tools — we're not the purist form of handmade. That's a very fundamentalist approach."
'A very rewarding process'
But it's clear that the Ericksons' approach to woodworking is far from a cookie-cutter assembly-line process.
Outside the shop is a covered stack of walnut and madrone that has been milled and is now drying in what Bob calls a "log book" — stacked as it was sliced so that the pattern of the wood can be matched up if desired.
Inside the solar kiln are pieces of "Paradox" walnut that, said Bob, came from the levee of the Sacramento River; he seems to have the history of almost every piece of wood stored in his memory.
Each piece of wood chronicles the drying process, with notations that document the dropping moisture content.
"With some, we have readings that cover years," Tor said.
Once a piece of wood has dried sufficiently, he said, they will grab the template for the piece they plan to create, grab the wood and then lay out the template in such a way that it incorporates the grain, or figure, of that particular piece.
Inside the shop, Bob shows off a piece of madrone as woodworker Bobby Corns puzzles out fitting the template in order to avoid a "tricky" crack in the back.
"Most madrone is pretty boring, but what makes this special is this beautiful blood-red streak," Bob said, explaining, "That's frequently associated with damage to the tree, like fire."
The majority of the pieces created by the Ericksons — 60 to 100 pieces in any given year — are custom-sized and ergonomically fitted to each client.
"It's extremely personal," Bob said, adding that often clients will even pick out the wood.
The business has evolved somewhat since Tor joined his dad in 2010. He became a full partner in 2014.
Tor grew up working in the shop, but never considered woodworking his future career, he said.
"It was what my dad did, it was his thing," Tor said. "It wasn't until I graduated from college that I realized how fun it could be, how cool it was to conceive of and build this really cool object … You get to be the engineer, the architect and the contractor. It's a very rewarding process."
Bringing the face of the business online was a natural — and obvious — step to take, with Tor developing the website and the company's social media presence.
"It's cool, and it's fun, too," Tor said. "I enjoy photography and the visual presentation of our furniture. We see our furniture in a very particular way."
Photography allows him to capture their vision, he said, adding that he uses Instagram because it is a visual medium.
"It hasn't transformed our business," Tor said with a shrug. "But it might."
Tor also has pushed the business in terms of design and materials, he said, using stone and metal to push the envelope.
"I'm excited to see where it goes," he said.
In the meantime, even though Bob is now in his 70s, Tor doesn't anticipate him slowing down.
"He's so involved in the business," he said, "I think it keeps him young. He loves it."
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at email@example.com.