Book report: Working Reclaimed Wood, by Yoav Liberman

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Yoav Liberman first came to my attention at Woodworking in America in the fall of 2016. We met in the trade show hall and quickly fell into a discussion about reality versus fantasy when it comes to making furniture for a living. Impressed by his openness and intelligence, I made a point of attending his talk on designing furniture using reclaimed wood, a topic of longstanding interest to me.

Liberman came to furniture making via architecture. As a result, he has the perspective of an engineer, as well as that of a craftsman and artist. He is also an accomplished draftsman, many of whose renderings are so beautiful I would gladly frame them and put them on my office wall. But what struck me most in his presentation was the deep respect he gives to the materials used in his work. He seeks out their history and works these stories into his pieces’ design. It’s a process he compares to the challenges faced by chefs who use seasonal produce: “As a chef creates a meal based on the ingredients of the season, I meld the material I acquire to create a completely new and interesting piece that pays homage to the individual history of its ingredients.”

“Homage” is no exaggeration. Liberman’s work gives new life not just to the materials others have rejected, but to the people in whose lives they’ve played a part. Such respect is rare in a culture that encourages us to see things as separable from those who make and use them; this is an exemplary kind of reverence for the everyday. But don’t confuse reverent with stuffy; Liberman’s designs, like his writing, are leavened by a smart sense of humor and refreshing readiness to question convention.

So when Liberman told me he was working on a book, I knew I’d want to read it.

In Working Reclaimed Wood, Liberman provides a useful taxonomy of reclaimed wood and explains the processes involved in turning each variety into material suitable for furniture making. He offers diverse examples of pieces made from reclaimed wood, some mind-bogglingly ingenious in their utilization of discarded wood and metal parts. There are suggested sources for materials, detailed instructions on cleaning salvaged hardware or adding patina, and a very good section on stretching boards (illustrated by some of the most eye-popping pieces in the volume). The book also includes fascinating snippets of history, such as an account of how the peculiar habit of live oak trees made this the timber of choice for constructing ships’ hulls.

Liberman’s character animates the text, whether he’s explaining how he made a particular design decision or sharing a glimpse into life with his young son. He’s thoughtful, funny, principled and kind, all of which contribute to make the book a good, as well as informative, read.* The best examples of this are the sections about his process in designing the signature pieces scattered throughout. The “Flash Teapot,” which started out as a bowl the author turned out of a rotten limb, paired with a silver lid from a sugar bowl (Liberman charmingly calls it “orphaned”), takes a dramatic turn at the first gallery where it’s shown, only to end up being purchased by a pair of collectors in L.A.

For my money, though, the best section is the one about “Attn: John Everdell,” the highboy Liberman had long wanted to build. The materials that presented themselves resulted in a piece that’s less highboy than cabinet on a stand. Liberman’s account of how he created this piece after pulling a pile of coarse crating from a dumpster reads like a romantic adventure. This tale alone is worth the price of the book. I’m not going to spoil it for you. Read it for yourself.–Nancy R. Hiller, author of Making Things Work

*A few errors slipped past the editor, and it’s exasperating that the conclusion of the section on patina was inadvertently cut from page 115.

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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8 Responses to Book report: Working Reclaimed Wood, by Yoav Liberman

  1. this book has been on my wish list for awhile. I’d be interested what other woodworkers think of it since a lot them feel farmhouse style woodwork is junk.

    • NR Hiller says:

      Farmhouse style? This book is not about that. And if it were, who cares about what those others think?! As I said in my review, one thing I especially love about this book is the author’s readiness to question prevailing ideas of what is “worthy.” Check out the book! It’s a good read and full of useful information.

    • mike says:

      Junk is a loaded term. Personally I don’t like the aesthetic of many “farmhouse”
      pieces. But I don’t like fake – be it fake worn out paint or fake barnwood or fake distressing. When we remodeled our kitchen my designer tried to sell me on a barnwood wall. I said “Listen closely. 1) I am allergic to trends and 2) My ancestors left eastern europe so I woild not have to live in a barn. Why would I decorate my house like one?”

      Like all styles of furniture, some rustic farmhouse stuff is done well and some is crap. Sadly, I do think it is a style that lends itself to dishonesty. But, if people like it, who am too judge?

      • As you said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Go into Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware and farmhouse style furniture will be all over the place. Like you, I get sick of seeing it done with poor joinery, like a faux breadboard edge done with pocket screws. I was hoping the book was going to be farmhouse style done right, which apparently it isn’t which is fine, it’s Yoav’s book not mine. Should still be an interesting read.

  2. Richard Mahler says:

    Okay, I had to order this book, not that I am likely to have a source, or to work with, reclaimed wood (who knows), but any out-of-the-mainstream artful craftmanship draws me like a magnet. I do work with hardwood slab and live edge in my furniture designs, so I am sure I will garner useful ideas besides having a good read. Thanks for the heads up – I might not have known about this otherwise.

  3. The book and the man sound lovely.
    The architects I know and with whom I have worked have tended not to have an engineer’s perspective. I have also found the inverse to be true. Though it would be interesting to get Santiago Calatrava’s take on that (he’s both).

    • jenohdit says:

      I thought that was kind of a funny thing too. The simple concrete and steel structures courses we had to take literally brought many of my classmates to tears. Nervi and Otto are two other crossovers, but it’s rare that architects really care about engineering and many are afraid of it.

      • nrhiller says:

        My remark about the engineering insights that Yoav brings to his designs was based on other architects with whom I’ve worked. I suspect that architects, like furniture makers, focus on particular dimensions of their field according to their interest, aptitude, and the requirements of the institution that trains them. I loved hearing Yoav discuss the specific types of stress he has to deal with in his work with reclaimed materials (and here I’m referring to physical stresses, not emotional/existential ones).

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