Frontlines

To see a world in the grain of wood

John Plaskett January 15 1979
Frontlines

To see a world in the grain of wood

John Plaskett January 15 1979

To see a world in the grain of wood

Luciano Direnzo’s workshop is about the size of a modern, two-car garage. All similarity ends there. The frame, wooden building and all that it contains, from the foot-powered lathe to the rows of moulding planes and carving chisels lining the rough, pine walls, is a throwback to the 19th century; and so is the man who works there. Resident cabinetmaker at Upper Canada Village near Ottawa, Luciano is an artisan in the purest sense of the word. He makes everything, including most of the tools he uses, by hand.

Slight of build, shy, with fingers more like those of a cellist than a craftsman, Luciano explains the workings of his shop with a talk that sounds well rehearsed—as it has been; thousands of people file by his workbench each summer asking about this or that, and with a continental graciousness, he lays his work aside and answers their questions.

It’s only when he gets down to the intimacies of his profession that he loosens up, pointing out the flow of the grain in the butternut table he’s restoring, or stoking up the treadle of his foot-powered jigsaw to show just how “really fine” the old machine cuts.

At the age of 38 he’s already a master cabinetmaker by most standards. But not by his own. “I don’t consider myself great,” he says. “I’m an average guy. I can make all the fancy pieces you want, but you’ll never see my name on them.” Would he like to be great someday? “Yes, with time, with age. We work a lifetime to create something for the future. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

To become a good cabinetmaker, Luciano says “You have to apprentice. That’s the only way. If I were to teach someone, I’d want them young. Ten, maybe 12 years old, which is already late.”

At the age of five, Luciano’s first job in his father’s workshop was to stir the glue, made from rabbit skin and water, to keep it from boiling over. A simple enough task unless, of course, your friends are kicking up a ruckus just outside the workshop window. Luciano abandoned his ladle, the glue boiled over, and the stench that resulted lasted for days. “My father beat me,” he laughs. “I’ll never forget that. And I’ll never forget, when I’m making glue, to stir it.”

The Direnzo family practised cabinetmaking in Pesaro, Italy, for five generations; his father was a cabinetmaker, and his father’s father before him. But no more. Unable to compete with modern furniture factories, the family business was forced to close when Luciano was 16.

Along with his father and grandfather, Luciano went to Switzerland and France in search of work. Given

their talents, and the vintage furniture filling the churches and museums of Europe, restoration work was easy to find. But after a year they grew homesick and returned to Pesaro to re-open their shop. They modernized by setting up a production line manned by uncles, cousins and brothers, eight in all, overseen by grandfather Direnzo. The business was saved, but at the cost of the tradition where a cabinetmaker could slowly coax a block of wood through its evolution to becoming a fine chair, an inlaid table or an ornately carved coffin.

“I saw a lot of hidden talents there,” Luciano remembers, “but nobody used them because they had to do what grandfather said. I felt things had to change. That’s why I wanted to go my own way.”

When Luciano made his break, he went to Germany where, ironically, he was forced to work in a furniture factory to survive. Disillusioned, he returned to Pesaro where he set up his own shop and married. But now his handmade furniture couldn’t compete

in price with factory-produced copies of Chippendale, Empire and Hepplewhite. He cast his eye to North America, and decided on Canada, because a friend had told him that Canadians were friendlier.

“My first impression was a little disappointing,” he recalls. “Most of the houses were wooden. In Italy, buildings were made of brick, concrete, stone. But I decided that if I was going to stay, I must begin to think like Canadians think.” Like Luciano, our pioneer cabinetmakers had to learn to adapt. It was this adaption and sharing of traditions that carved the style of cabinetmaking later to be coined “Canadiana.”

The government found him his first job—in a window factory. “I was supposed to make mouldings with modern machines,” he says, a little forlornly. He also had to walk six miles to and from work every day. One day he brought in some designs to show his boss. “Look,” he said, “I can make more than just mouldings. That’s a job for a kid.” The boss shrugged. Luciano quit.

Working as a laborer, a carpenter,

and a foreman in a trailer factory, Luciano kept making fine furniture in his spare time, selling it locally. He had begun to develop a reputation, despite himself. Upper Canada Village offered him a job with a 12-day trial period in which to prove himself.

The shop’s collection of antique tools, while extensive, was incomplete. Luciano set to work making the tools he would need to do the job right. Three days later, they offered him a job “for life.”

As much an artifact as the traditional furniture that fills his shop, Luciano is safe from the modernization that has sent most cabinetmakers who work by hand the way of the whooping crane.' His pieces grace the museums, historic sites and government buildings of Canada. The Queen, an Italian cabinet minister and a raft of other dignitaries have visited Luciano in his shop. He’s proud of this, but what pleases him more is the knowledge that his creations have found a secure place in history. One table he’s working on will soon reside in the east wing of the Parliament Buildings. Another table (now stationed in Old Fort Henry) is one of his favorites: 1,200 tiny pieces of wood inlay, all hand-carved, adorn its surface.

“You can buy plastic inlays, but where is the pleasure in using plastic when you can create something from wood? I don’t know if I can explain it, but it’s a completely different feeling.”

William Kilbourn, in his preface to Howard Pain’s new book, The Heritage of Upper Canada Furniture, comes close to putting into words the feeling Luciano puts into his furniture:

Our relationship with artifacts around us is nurture for the hand and eye and body. It touches the desire at the heart ’s core and speaks intimately of the furnishings of the soul.

Perhaps it is this intimacy with our surroundings that modern life threatens to destroy. For now, Luciano’s intimacy with hiâ craft is ensured. And with his three-year-old son already tapping around the workshop with the small hammer that Luciano made for him, the tradition might reach into yet another generation.

But even with the resurgent interest in handmade furniture and cabinetmaking, without the opportunity to apprentice at a young age, the state of the art is in peril. As Luciano says, “Apprenticeship must begin at the age of four or five. That’s when you begin to learn and put things in the bank ... the memory bank.”

John Plaskett