About the Artisan - Henry Miller


Henry Miller's Amish workshop is a combination of modern and old-fashioned. There is no electricity, so the machinery is run by a lineshaft powered by a diesel engine. The line shaft runs beneath the floor of the shop. Machinery is engaged by tightening drive belts from the shaft to pulleys attached to each machine.

 

Henry Miller was raised on a farm near Cashton, Wisconsin, a member of the hardworking Amish community that populates the rural area in much of West Central Wisconsin.

Henry, who is in his early thirties, didn’t begin woodworking until he married his wife, Linda and the couple started a family. To provide, Henry began picking up side-jobs in the carpentry field. He worked for his brother-in-law producing interior panel doors for a year, helped build log cabins and did a variety of other woodcraft projects for hire.

Eventually, Henry recognized a growing market for barn wood and with the assistance of one or two helpers, began tearing down barns and selling the salvageable materials. The first barns were given to him. If he had been required to pay for the opportunity to deconstruct them, he says, he would not have been able to afford to begin making furniture from the materials he was collecting, but with a growing supply of barn wood lumber available, he saw an opportunity to use the wood to create a unique end product.

Henry admits that initially, he wasn’t sure how to make furniture. He spent hours, examining the construction of dressers and other furnishings, borrowing ideas and ultimately incorporating his own as he began assembling his pieces.

His first attempts used barn wood that was deeply planed to a smooth surface and was somewhat similar to the furniture other members of his community made, except that he used aged wood with distinctive patinas, while others in the area were using new wood. Because his pieces incorporated old wood, often studded with some combination of nail holes and other imperfections, Henry encountered some skepticism from his peers initially, but as his pieces began to become popular, the voices quieted.

Still, Henry wasn’t quite satisfied with the look of his earlier pieces. They were sturdy and strong, but didn’t have the rustic emphasis of his current style. Today, Henry has developed an approach that truly brings out the unique characteristics of beautiful aged, weathered wood, but incorporates techniques and hardware that makes the pieces ultra-strong and user friendly.

For example, while Henry’s first drawer slides were wooden, similar to the type found in chests in antique stores, today he uses full extension ball bearing drawer slides and soft stop slides that stop just before the drawer is fully returned to its berth, then gently pull it in the rest of the way.

While Henry can create a piece of furniture that uses 100% rough sawn aged wood, as a standard feature of a tabletop, for instance, he supports the visible layer of barn board with an under-layer of thick, strong plywood, then edges the entire top with two inch thick rough sawn wood.  Drawers that are faced with uniquely chosen barn wood will incorporate dovetailed drawer boxes from strong new wood that is easier to keep clean inside. 

According to Henry, most of his clients prefer the marriage of the authentic rustic materials he uses, with the strength and convenience of more modern hidden features.

That said, every piece of furniture or décor item Henry’s shop turns out, is one of a kind.  While if there is time, Henry will make an occasional piece to display in his showroom, nearly all his work is in answer to customers’ requests for custom designs. Often a customer will stop in or will mail a photo of a piece they’ve seen elsewhere wondering if Henry can adapt the look to something that will fit their needs. “I like this piece but can you make it in your style and add four more leaves to make it 12 feet long instead of only eight?” might be a typical request.

Although Henry has developed a particular style for his work, that style is continually evolving. According to Henry, customers who bring in pictures or sketches on a napkin often spark a creative idea that is uniquely different from the original concept. In short, Henry is always looking for an improved technique or a new idea to incorporate in his designs.

As for the material itself, every square inch of every board or beam is completely unique from any other. Henry is kept so busy making furniture he no longer has time to deconstruct barns. He now purchases only high quality materials from other deconstructors, then, carefully selects pieces of wood with specific characteristics that will incorporate well into the piece he is making. That may be a particular grain pattern, a unique knot or free-flowing edge - or it may feature indications of the boards’ historical use, such as original hammer marks from construction 100 years ago, or the chop marks left behind by the adze in a hand-hewn section of beam that will become a table pedestal or a massive bedpost.

While Henry notes that large furniture manufacturing companies often attempt to replicate the look of old wood, sometimes distressing it with chains, etc., the distressing and imperfections in the wood he uses for his projects are genuine and unenhanced beyond generally a light sanding and the customer’s choice of sealant or finish.

Henry says, “I would much rather build rustic furniture than fancy new stuff. I wanted to make something unique and different. I personally like this look and I’m glad others like it too.”

Go to Henry's Shop

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