A conversation with Roger Benton
by Brooklyn Modern | September 18th, 2008
Roger Benton is a Brooklyn based musician and furniture maker who works out of Third Ward in Bushwick. Recently, I watched him finish making a modern walnut table. The story behind this piece and Roger’s background as a furniture designer and artist, is intriguing and indicative of the type of creativity currently coming out of the borough.
BrooklynModern: There is an interesting story about how you found the wood for this piece. Can you tell us about it?
Roger Benton: It all started with railroad ties. I was asked to recreate a table for an NYC based fashion designer’s showroom, and it turns out the table was made from very old reclaimed railroad ties from. So I was scouring the internet for salvaged railroad ties and wound up on ebay, where I stumbled across a listing for a bulk lot of walnut lumber. There was only a day and a half left to the auction and nobody had bid on it yet. Decent walnut lumber goes for anywhere from $7 – $13 per board foot locally, and the starting price on the auction was about $1.40 per board foot for 240 board feet. Although I had no pressing need for a garage full of walnut, I just couldn’t pass up that kind of deal so I bid and won the auction. I abandoned my quest for Indonesian railroad ties (for now) and drove up to Connecticut to pick up the wood. The seller was a Navy man, a weapons operations specialist on a nuclear submarine, and had just been reassigned to a base in Virginia. I felt horrible for him; not only had he and his wife and daughter just gotten settled into their house 8 months before, but he was an avid woodworker and had big plans for that walnut. Circumstances dictated that he had to get rid of it quick so I promised to do my best to put it to good use.
BrooklynModern: How did you arrive at this particular design?
Roger Benton: I came up with this design while flipping through an old West Elm cataloge out of boredom at my laundromat. There was a table with three stepped tiers, but it was very square and boxy, made of m.d.f. or something. I kind of adapted the basic shape to a solid wood format, and I wound up drawing about five different versions of it. I finally settled on a plan, but as soon as I cut the first piece of wood I started changing features, adjusting things; the final product looks way different than the final drawing.
BrooklynModern: How did you construct it.?
Roger Benton: Each of the three shelves are glued up panels with the natural live edge facing out. The back piece is glued up the opposite way, with the light sapwood from two pieces glued together to form a kind of ‘racing stripe’ down the back. The top and bottom shelves are attached to the back via hand cut box joints and the middle shelve has multiple tenons lining up with the fingers on the other shelves. The spacers are housed in shallow grooves in the back and shelves. The feet are carved from scrap cut offs and mortised into the bottom. All the edges are smoothed over, to blend in with the live edges.
BrooklynModern: I like how the edge of the piece still has bark on the surface. Did you plan this in advance or did you just let this happen?
Roger Benton: I knew I wanted to use live edges, and when I saw the one board in the lot with the bark still on, I was psyched. At first I wanted to leave the bark rough and flakey, but curiosity got the better of me and I took the sander to it. I’m glad I did, I really like the way the bark looks in cross section all sanded smooth.
BrooklynModern: How did you get involved with furniture design?
Roger Benton: I’ve always enjoyed building and making things, using tools. A friend who used to design furniture was talking to me about getting back into it and we were thinking of joining forces. I got so into the idea that when my friend went another direction, I started out on my own. Wood has always been a source of fascination for me – the thought of tree living for hundreds of years, growing to thousands of times their original size, able to spread seeds for miles on currents of air or via animal couriers; they are beautiful and amazing. As soon as I began to work with wood I kind of fell for it and realized that this was something I could spend a long time doing.
BrooklynModern: While a lot of furniture designers attended schools like Pratt or College of the Redwoods, many are also self-taught or have had a mentor. Do any of these routes apply to you?
Roger Benton: So far I fall under the self taught category. I read a lot about the craft, and I do tons and tons of research on everything from tools to techniques to different woods; I’m kind of an information junkie. My father, both grandfathers, and three uncles were all the type of guys that would make, fix, or build everything themselves. If they came across something they couldn’t do they learned how. So that whole ethos has rubbed off on me I guess. I ask a lot of questions too. The great thing about working at a large community shop like 3rd Ward is that there are people of all skill levels working right next to you most of the time. If I feel a little unsure about how to proceed with a certain procedure or process, I can usually ask a few different people for some advice and more often than not, I’ll wind up learning a handful of different ways to overcome the obstacle. Asking a ton of questions is a great way to learn. If I see someone at the shop doing something foreign to me I’ll just go introduce myself and ask them what they’re doing. So far so good, but there is a saying that goes, “a smart man figures thing out on his own, a wise man seeks a master”. I sure would like to hook up with some crusty old German cabinet maker for a few years and learn some secrets.
BrooklynModern: Which designers or design movements have influenced you?
Roger Benton: I like medieval designs, Asian architecture, 60’s mod style, all kinds of stuff. I was recently introduced to the work of Jonah Zuckerman, from City Joinery here in Brooklyn, is a current designer/maker whose work I really admire.& Greene, furniture builders and architects from the early 19th century who are noted for blending an Arts & Crafts style with Asian design touches. In their firms prime, they would design a house and all the furniture in it, everything crafted by hand with subtle little details everywhere you look.
BrooklynModern: You are in a band and I know a lot of furniture designers who play music? Do you think there is a relationship between the two disciplines?
Roger Benton: I don’t know if there is a link between musicians and woodworkers, but an artist is an artist, and most artists like to play with more than one medium. Music has been my life from day one. I don’t think I will ever come to a point in life where I have no musical outlet. At the same time, woodworking has become a kind of second passion. They are both creative outlets, artistic outlets.
BrooklynModern: You work a lot with hand tools? Do you prefer them over power tools?
Roger Benton: Definitely. The quiet and control of using hand tools is where it’s at for me. Although, I will say that in my opinion one is best served using a combination of hand and power tools. I would not want to work out of a shop that didn’t have a good table saw, jointer, planer, drill press and miter saw; at the same time I feel like I need my hand saws, chisels, planes, files and scrapers just as much.
BrooklynModern: Has being based inhelped your furniture design in any way?
Roger Benton: I think so. Brooklyn is where it’s at for creativity. There are so many talented artists here which is great for inspiration, information, and motivation. Plus it’s nice to have so many resources and networking options at your fingertips.
BrooklynModern: What projects will you be working on next?
Roger Benton: I’m working on a pair of Asian flavored floor to ceiling cabinets for a client right now, they are kind of modeled after traditional Chinese temple entryways. I have a book case I need to make, a design I came up with a while ago – it’s got an Asian theme going also. I have plans for a giant viking style dining table. I want to make some children’s size stuff for my daughter, stuff that looks like it was drawn by Dr. Seuss. A friend and I are in the planing stages of making a walnut burl skateboard with leather grip tape. It’s for show, not go.
To get in touch with Roger and find out about his work, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.