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Dr. Rick Popp
I'm continually amazed how generous woodworkers are in general with their time and knowledge of the craft. Dr. Popp is no exception. I recently had the opportunity to sit down in Rick's home and talk to him about his views on working with wood. Everywhere you look in Rick and Carol's home you see examples of beautiful furniture that he has built. Their home is warm and inviting and a place that I immediately felt relaxed. This is no accident, as I learned in talking with Rick, the environment in which they choose to live is planned and the furniture that Rick fills their living space with is just as carefully planned.
I know you're going to enjoy getting to know Rick just as much as I did. So pull up a comfortable chair (and if you don't have one that's comfortable, after reading this article you may be inspired to build one) and get to know a fellow woodworker. (Click on any picture below to see an enlarged version.)
When did you first get interested in woodworking?
Rick - I started about 10 years ago. My wife and I needed dining room chairs. We liked Windsor chairs but handcrafted Windsor chairs are expensive. So I thought I could get the tools to build my own chairs and save a little money. This I did, but I quickly discovered there was quite a bit to making a good chair. This lead to a wider interest in furnituremaking and woodworking. So to answer your questions: I thought I could build some pieces, and make them unique to our taste, and of a higher quality. So I started acquiring some tools. The first piece I built was a cradle for our daughter, which we still have. I've been building furniture ever since.
What is it about woodworking that first attracted you to it?
Rick - Woodworking is concrete. At the end of the day, you can kick back with a beer and have something to show for your effort. The medical profession isn't necessarily like that.
How did you learn the craft when you first started out?
Rick - By reading a lot of magazines and books. When I first started out I used woodworking plans. This is helpful for beginners because plans help guide you through the process. I also took several classes at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, and Drew Langsner's Country Workshops.
What is your present career, and is there any similarities between it and your woodworking?
Rick - I was trained as an anesthesiologist, but I've been working as an emergency room physician for the past 10 years. As far as any similarities, I'm detailed and somewhat of a perfectionist in building my furniture which are characteristics that you'd probably want in your physician as well.
Do you sell any of your pieces?
Rick - I have sold a few but most of what I build is for us, friends, or family.
Along those same lines, most woodworkers have thought about turning "Pro" at one time or another, what about you?
Rick - I have, but I'm not sure how seriously. I enjoy building different pieces. I'm interested in so many things with woodworking that it's hard for me to concentrate on just one thing. Another thing is that most people don't appreciate the amount of time and the effort that goes into a piece of furniture. You put so much of yourself into a piece that it's hard to let go of it. I've built a couple of Sam Maloof style rocking chairs and have been involved in helping several others build theirs. I had someone ask me if I would build one of these chairs for them and I said, "I don't know. I would have to get to know you and I'd have to like you a lot" ( laughs). You put so much of yourself into a piece that you want people to understand and appreciate it. You're giving them a lot more than just a piece of furniture; you're giving them a piece of yourself.
When I go to craft shows I see most people just shuffling around like cattle from one booth to the next, not really looking at the pieces. When my woodworking friends and I go to these craft shows we really take the time to look. Probably because we are of the mindset that we know how much time and effort went into making each item. Not everyone is of that mindset.
I have thought about putting some pieces in a gallery. You could make enough extra income that you might be able to cut back on your regular job if you wanted to. But that's down the road; my honey-do list for pieces to build for our home is still too long.
What style of furniture do you enjoy building?
Rick - I've built a lot of shaker type pieces, some mission style, and the chairs I've built are Windsor or country style. Shaker furniture appeals to many because it's simple and beautiful. So a lot of the pieces that I've made are of that bent. I also like Sam Maloof's sculptural nature. But there's a lot of filing, rasp work, and handwork in general that goes into those pieces so they take a while to build. But I enjoy it. I have an interest in marquetry as well and I want to learn carving. I want to do it all (laughs).
What are your favorite woods to work with?
Rick - Mainly handtools, I love the spokeshave and drawknife where they have their applications. I've built some wooden hand planes that are a joy to use. My favorite tools are those that I've made myself.
You know it's hard to describe, you start out here (points to an imaginary line) and then you go in all these other directions in your woodworking, but you usually come back to what you started out doing. If I were to characterize myself as a woodworker, I'd say I'm a chairmaker. That's what I started out doing. Even though I go exploring and I'm interested in a lot of things I still find myself going back to chairs. And that's what I'd like to be thought of as, a chairmaker. So with that said, many of the tools that I enjoy using are involved in chairmaking.
What's your favorite part of the whole process of woodworking?
Rick - The part that I like the most is problem solving, the figuring out how to do it, and then doing it. The challenge of deciding what you want to do and then figuring out how to make it happen is the fun part. I'm not crazy about finishing or sanding, not that I know of anybody that is (laughs).
Rick - Initially, you start out using someone else's plans. You're going to pull a plan out of a book and that's where I started. Then after doing it awhile you start making it your own. You take a plan and modify it to your own likes. You start to develop an eye for proportion and style.
You should make full-scale drawings or scaled drawings most of the time. It will make the process go much smoother. And I do make drawings, but for instance I'm working on a chair right now and I'm just making it up as I go. Well, I should have made full-scale drawings (laughs). I'll get it made, but the process would have been smoother if I had started out with drawings. But I'll tell you, too, I make up stuff as I go also. I'll hold up a piece and just look at it and guage it's proportion and say to myself, does this look right?
When you're building something new you can even put together a mock up made from scrap wood to get a feel for the proportions in three dimensions. In fact, Craig Vandall Stevens (no relation to me) came down and did a workshop for our guild. He says that he makes a mock up out of cardboard, foam, or whatever and then lives with it awhile. This allows him to look at a piece over a long period of time. He says your mind's eye focuses on certain components and either they're aesthetically pleasing or they aren't. You may not notice certain things about a piece that bothers you until you live with it awhile. Craig makes a big deal out of this and he's right. You're the one living with these pieces and they affect you're environment and how you feel.
That's one of my big things. Your environment affects your entire well-being. If you're living in a dischordant environment, you're going to be an unhappy person. And the opposite can be true as well. If your environment you surround yourself with is simple and aesthetically pleasing your well-being, both psychologically and physically, will be improved. There's a lot to be said for simple living and to not surround oneself with unnecessary stuff.
Who are some woodworkers that inspire you?
Rick - Probably the biggest one is Al Hudson, (see our Featured Woodworker archive at WoodworkersResource.com for Mr. Hudson's interview). He's just an excellent human being in addition to being an excellent woodworker. I derive inspiration from all the woodworkers in the guild (the East Tennessee Woodworkers' Guild, of which Rick is acting President). They are all very accomplished and talented woodworkers. Usually people like to throw out the Krenovs and Maloofs of the world. And these people do inspire to some extent, but I think most of the inspiration is closer to home. You want to be as good as Dan Duncan, Al Hudson, Clay Crowder, Rick Scott, Howard Cox, Robert Lowry, Scott DeWaard; I could go on and on. They're outstanding craftspeople and incredible human beings. People that you try to model yourself after if you can.
What kind of advice would you give to someone just learning to work with wood?
Rick - Read as much as you can, and then just do it. A lot of people fret and wring their hands because they're afraid to screw up. It's just wood after all. And then the other thing is to plug into the woodworking community. We have the tremendous benefit of the guild, which is a great source of information.
When I first started woodworking I was just out there plugging along, and sure you can make progress, but you aren't going to make the kind of progress you can make if you surround yourself with people who already know a lot more. If you need a special tool you can go borrow it so you don't have to buy it to use just once. All these things can help you tremendously. And just get out there and do it. This isn't brain surgery we're doing here (laughs). In fact, if you're not screwing up you're not woodworking. And maybe that's what separates the better woodworkers from the average woodworkers.
What are some of your favorite books or magazines on woodworking?
Rick - With woodworking I probably read more magazines, and my favorites are Fine Woodworking, Woodworks, and Popular Woodworking. For ideas you can't beat these. I'll take out 10 magazines or so and just start thumbing through them looking for ideas. As far as books go, the Taunton Press' "Complete Illustrated Guide" series are really good reference books. For inspiration I highly recommend John Ruskin, John Brown and James Krenov.
What are some of your favorite finishes to use?
Rick - Well, to be honest, just about every piece I've built has a different finish on it (laughs). I'm still trying to figure this thing out, but I think that wipe on poly is the way to go. Satin wipe on polyurethane by Minwax is my favorite. Sand your piece to 220 grit or higher if you like. Then you put on the first coat of poly and don't worry too much about that, put on another coat, and again don't worry too much agout that. Then with the third coat, put it on with steel wool and rub it out, wipe it off and leave it, and it looks great.
Pictures of some of the chairs Rick has built:
Windsor Chair "Mule ear" chair Maloof style rocking chair
Other pieces in Rick and Carol's home:
Dinning Table with natural edge top in English Wych Elm and walnut base
Dining table base made from walnut. The bridle joinery of the skirt into the top of the legs combined with the gentle flair of the legs at the bottom give the base an Asian feel.
This shaker tall clock is a piece that Rick and Carol commissioned Christian Becksvoort to build. Becksvoort is an authority on shaker furniture and has been building furniture for over four decades. In doing research for a book he was doing on shaker furniture, "The Shaker Legacy" (1998), Becksvoort went to a private collections at on of the Rockefeller's estates and took measurements of an original shaker tall clock. Becksvoort then added the tall clock to his line of shaker furniture pieces he builds. A few years later, Rick took a class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking under Becksvoort and asked him what his favorite shaker piece was, and he repiled, the shaker tall clock. Rick Commissioned him to buld one an asked him to buld it from ebonized cherry. Becksvoort had never used cherry before in this way on the tal clock and told Rick he wasn't sure about it, but Rick asked him to try it anyway. After the fact, Becksvoort came back and told Rick that he loved the way it turned out and that this was his favorite tall clock that he had built.
When you open the door on the clock it shows off the beautiful cherry inside the clock as well as the clock's pendelum.
Here's a piece that Rick had Craig Vandall Stevens build for his wife Carol. Craig was asked by the East Tennessee Woodworkers' Guild to come and teach a class. Rick and Craig discussed the design and the piece was built. Pictures do not do this piece justice. The craftsmanship of the piece is incredible but the inlay work needs to be seen upclose to be believed. At first glance, the birds, leaves, flowers, and limbs look to be painted on the wood. But with closer inspection you notice the grain of the wood. It must be seen to be believed.
Woods used in making the case and base: Sweet gum, jatoba, quartersawn sugar pine, and walnut.
Woods used in the marquetry: Walnut, white oak, holly, maple, peroba rosa, jatoba, cypress, quartersawn sycamore, english walnut, black walnut, wenge, ebony, and horn beam.
Pictures of Rick's Shop:
Some of Rick's handtools, many he made himself
Chair in progress
The shaving horse that Rick uses in making many of the chairs he builds.