Learning how to create beautiful wood furniture at first glance can look daunting. But, local furniture maker Robert “Bob” Ortiz of Robert Ortiz Studios in Chestertown has created furniture making workshops where he makes the whole process a learning experience, while creating a beautiful family heirloom.
Bob, who has been making furniture for 30 years, has been in the renovated feel mill at 207C South Cross Street in Chestertown since 1997. The studio specializes in fine, contemporary furniture in the Shaker and Japanese traditions.
He recalls the circuitous journey that lead him to furniture making. Bob’s father was a metal worker and he used to help his father with projects around the house when he was young. After college, he became a high school teacher and during his summers off he did house renovations with an Italian craftsman. This experience enabled him to apprentice in all areas of carpentry, but in the end, he liked the finished carpentry work the best. The seed was planted for his future career.
Later, while working at a residential treatment center for troubled youth in the Enoch Pratt family home in Baltimore, Bob began doing renovations to the home and started a program there with the youth involving woodworking. He eventually was promoted to administrator of the center. In 1984, while in Chicago on a business trip, Bob saw woodworker George Nakashima’s book, The Soul of the Tree that had just been published. The book, which discussed the spirit of a tree, struck a chord with him. George Nakashima was devoted to discovering the inherent beauty of wood so that noble trees might have a second life as furniture.
Bob comments, “Working with precious, beautiful, heavy and wide slabs of wood requires patience, knowledge of the materials and, on occasion, extra hands. Each slab of wood, like a new acquaintance, has its own personality. Some are cooperative, some stubborn, some a joy and others want to make you scream. The goal in wood, as in life, is to bring out the best.”
He soon left the residential treatment center and began working with furniture makers in Baltimore. His work focused on fine interior millwork, including working on the interior of the Lord Baltimore Hotel. In the evenings, Bob did his own work and had a small shop in Baltimore where he sold his furniture. For 10 years, he made furniture based on designs that other people wanted. Someone then asked him to design a coffee table and his own style was born.
“The influences on my work have been George Nakashima and Walter Raynes, a woodworker friend who I worked with in Baltimore. Walter was the conservator of The Kaufman Collection of American Furniture, which was on display at the Smithsonian. He introduced me to the best furniture in the world and told me to figure out what style I wanted to do and not to do anything else. The Shaker style really spoke to me. I learned more from Thomas Moser’s book on Shaker furniture and from a one-week class I took in Shaker furniture,” Bob states.
After he made the coffee table, he decided to make furniture that blended the two styles he liked: Asian and Shaker. He adds, “What is common to both Asian and Shaker styles is proportion, line and the use of materials – presenting a simple and straightforward construction and joinery which is the embellishment for the piece of furniture. Nothing is added on.”
Today, Robert Ortiz Studio offers two lines of furniture: The Sofia Line named after Bob’s daughter and the Daniel Line named after his son. The Sofia Line has more Asian influences while the Daniel Line has variations on the Sofia Line and less Asian influences.
Bob reflects, “I have arrived here by the kindness of many people. I have benefited from free advice over the years. My job now is to pass it on.”
In 2015, Bob started what he called “Chestertown Vacation Workshops.” These workshops would offer participants the opportunity to create one piece of fine furniture by working one on one with Bob in his studio for one week. Participants can select from three to four pieces of furniture to make – a Sofia coffee table or end table with a glass or wood top or a sideboard. The furniture designs are Bob’s and he uses machine patterns for his students to follow.
“Participants discover the joy of working with their hands making something beautiful and useful. I guide participants through the process of wood selection and design to joinery and finishing using the same tools, jigs and fixtures that I have developed over 30 years of furniture making. Participants take home a piece of fine furniture whose quality of craftsmanship creates a family heirloom for generations.”
Participants of the workshops can enjoy the slower pace of the Eastern Shore, staying in a B&B in Chestertown while participating in the week-long workshop. They learn about wood selection, how to dress wood flat and straight, how to prepare wood so that you create joints, parts and bring them together to make a piece of functional, beautiful furniture. They prepare their project for finishing and learn how to achieve a lasting finish to enhance the beauty of the wood. Most pieces are made in cherry wood.
“About one half of the people come with no woodworking skills. It’s not about learning hand skills, it is about learning to make something to my standards. Participants are immersed in a process for a week, in a tradition that existed for millennia, but is disappearing in our rushed throw away lives.”
One third of workshop participants are women and about one half of them said they were not allowed to take shop in school. Some participants have connections to woodworking families. Other students have taken the workshops because a family member bought them a gift certificate as a retirement or birthday gift. Husbands and wives have worked together, as have fathers and daughters. Bob’s furniture is popular with clients in their 50s, however, a number of people in their 30s and 40s have been interested in his workshops because they offer the experience of making their own furniture.
Bob adds, “The workshops create a legacy for me and legacy for my participants who are leaving furniture for the next generation.”
Gordon Benson of Church Hill and Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania met Bob over 20 years ago in a Craft Shop in Philadelphia where Bob had won a blue ribbon for his furniture. He has taken four of Bob’s workshops and made seven pieces of furniture with him. Gordon had collected wood before he retired as a physician in Pennsylvania, harvesting walnut trees from his yard there. He processed the wood nearly 25 years before he took the workshop so that it was properly aged.
He comments, “I had had early experiences in woodworking and looked forward to getting back to doing it.” He adds, “Bob is a great person to work with. He is very talented and supportive.”
Bob tells every workshop participant two things. The first is that there is no mistake they will make that he hasn’t made 50 times. The second one is that by the end of the workshop, he would be proud to have their piece in his showroom.
Jared Lerner of Annapolis, whose father gave him the workshop as a birthday gift last year, states, “I’ve always had an interest in woodworking, but I don’t have my own shop. I jumped at the chance to come and use Bob’s first-rate equipment with his guidance. It was great that Bob got me involved in the whole process, from going to Pennsylvania to pick out the wood for the project to personalizing some of the finishing touches. I ended up with a beautiful Sofia coffee table. The week with Bob enhanced my skills as a woodworker and has inspired me to take on some other projects. It was a great experience and would love to do another workshop soon.”
Bob states, “I love taking people beyond what they think they can do – it’s the essence of teaching. I also like that people can come and concentrate on the task. They can leave at the end of the day with the satisfaction of completed task, coming away with what they did and what they learned.”