Late one morning, Corinne Graefe walked through an outbuilding that’s part of the fine furniture business, Phoenix Hardwoods, she and her husband, Bill, operate in Floyd. In the warm shadowy light, she examined slabs of various hardwood species, including rare specimens of walnut root and burled poplar, imagining what the rough-cut lumber would become one day – a table, a stool, a headboard perhaps.
“This is what happens when your addiction is wood,” she explains. What happens when you possess a Phoenix Hardwood creation is you become the caretaker for a piece of wood furniture which contains an undeniable, natural sense of grace. No matter how large or small, the Graefe’s furniture pieces all exhibit thoughtful design and craftsmanship.
Phoenix Hardwoods’ products exhibit a clear, practical utility, an obvious connection to the original tree, and genuine beauty. Take, for example, a stool whose seat shows the warm hue and chatoyant gleam of butternut. Or a table whose top and legs are made from the same piece of curly maple, with an entrancing rippling figuring – and a live edge. Or a headboard in which the original shape and coloration of a thick walnut slab is captured in a Shaker-style frame. “It still looks like the tree,” Bill says.
Customers especially like the Graefe’s live-edge products, whether it be a table, a floating shelf, a box or a vase. “People love it because it’s real,” Corinne exclaims.
The business began in 2002, a few years after the Graefes opened a custom lumber operation built around a sawmill and wood-drying kiln. The couple still use the mill and kiln, largely to supply wood for their furniture business. But the kiln, it should be noted, is only the last step in their slab-drying process. The first step is to dry the hardwood outdoors, a year for each inch of thickness. That means a three-year drying period for a three-inch slab.
That level of dedication to making sure everything is just right can also be found on Phoenix Hardwood’s shop floor, where, in addition to Bill and Corinne, four full-time employees build furniture by hand. To be sure, they use power tools, but the machines are hand-controlled, not computer-operated, and no detail is overlooked. For example, the stools use wedged mortise and tenon joints to connect each seat to its legs. This joinery technique involves hand rasping the opening of the mortise (in the seat) to create a wider opening, which allows for the insertion of a wedge into the end of the tenon (the top of the legs). The result is a much stronger joint.
Walk into the shop some day, and you may see shop foreman Abe Goorskey working on a new product, a table with a Reuleaux triangle top, which he himself designed and for which he made the pattern. Beside him, Eric McDaniel may be gluing and clamping stool legs, then setting them aside to dry for a day.
“I get the greatest job satisfaction here out of any job I’ve had,” McDaniel states. “You actually get to see the end product and be proud of what you’ve done.” Bradley Lawson who, together with Henry Vangunten, does much of the finishing work, agrees: “I enjoy bringing to life something that could outlive me.”
The Graefes mostly use a linseed oil-based finish and apply a minimum of three coats to all of their products, burnishing in between coats. Preparing and finishing a burl live-edge piece is incredibly time-consuming, but it’s the kind of work which brings Corinne satisfaction. “I’ve always been interested in woodworking,” she relates. “I was the first girl in my shop class.” Bill notes: “She’s very picky.”
In describing how the couple partition their duties, Corinne explains: “You’ll be more likely to see Bill with a chain saw and me with a Japanese saw.” Phoenix Hardwoods is particularly known for its larger pieces (Bill loves working with five-foot wide logs) and also for being featured in the rooms and lobby of Hotel Floyd. The company uses mainly hardwoods native to New River Valley forests, but it will also work with hardwoods recovered from planted species. “Arborists bring us all kinds of interesting things,” they say.
And from such residue – lumber which in other places and in other hands might just be turned into firewood or mulch, to disappear within a matter of years if not months – in the hands of the Graefes, harvested lumber claims a new, second life ~ one which honors and illuminates the life that came before in the shape and character of the original tree.
Text by Karl H. Kazaks
Photos by Kristie Lea Photography
2540 Floyd Hwy. N.
Floyd, VA 24091