Great Work from a Small Shop

Whenever woodworkers get together shop space becomes a major topic. I’ve heard, “How large is your shop?” on more than one occasion. When examining woodworking successes, you might think there’s a correlation between the quality of work and the size of one’s shop. This article should put that notion to rest.

About 30 miles north of Cincinnati off Interstate 70, near Dayton, Ohio, we found a woodshop in which some of the finest selections of Federal furniture are being built. We didn’t discover this shop by accident. Many woodworkers know of or have heard of the owner/furniture maker Robert L. Millard.

His work is shipped to discerning customers all over the United States and has been acknowledged on many woodworking forums. He’s contributed to magazines as well as written for the Journal of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers.

Fascinating Federal Furniture
Although he builds pieces from most periods, Millard’s passion is precise reproductions of Federal furniture. When asked why Federal period work, his reply is that he is not great at carving.

“I can carve feet and fans, but when it came to vines and other carvings that were used on higher-end furniture in the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods, I had trouble.”

Then in 1998, two years after he started to build furniture for patrons, a customer requested a piece from the Federal period. Immediately, Millard knew he’d found his preferred style. (See more of Millard’s work at his web site americanfederalperiod.com).

Federal decoration is mainly inlay and veneer. When studying the intricacies of inlay, Millard clearly understood how the many pieces fit together to form the intricate designs. He understood the idea so well that he has never purchased a piece of inlay for any of his work. From the simple checkerboard designs to the most complicated lunette inlay, each is made in his shop, one design at a time. While we were visiting he pulled out an oversize cardboard tube full of various inlay designs with incredible detail.

Millard doesn’t focus on just any Federal-period furniture. His eye is drawn to the best from the period. He studies and builds designs from the most well-known builders of the period, including John and Thomas Seymour. And did I mention that Millard has never taken a woodworking class? All his work, from veneer to inlay to finishing, is self-taught.

Large on Furniture, Small on Shop
Millard tosses a monkey wrench into the “bigger shop, better workmanship” misconception. His shop is a one-car garage that shares space with his car on a nightly basis. There’s no heat or air conditioning in his shop, but he does have a small room located adjacent to the main shop area that is temperature-regulated for finishing. “I’m not bothered by the small space, but I would like to have more storage room for materials,” he says.

We had the opportunity to see a few examples of his work during our visit. Sitting on one of his benches was a shelf clock ready to ship to its new owner, sans the movement. In addition, he was finishing a card table with a shop-made oval inlay of an open-winged eagle (Millard makes it in the old-world manner) and later he brought out a sweet reproduction Federal tea caddy of which a few were gifts for special customers.