Robert L. Millard builds Federal reproductions in a one-car garage
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.
A Place for Every Tool
How does Millard produce such high-quality, detail-oriented work from his small shop?
The majority of his furniture making is handwork, but of course, power tools play an important, although somewhat lesser, role for him. Millard’s most important power tool is the 14" band saw that stands prominently centered in the shop as he works his magic. On casters so it can be maneuvered at day’s end, the band saw is responsible for most of the ripping and cutting action. And it becomes even more of a workhorse when slicing and fitting small pieces to create strips of inlay and shop-cut veneer.
He does own a table saw, a 10" benchtop model. The day we stopped by, the table saw, shown hanging in the photo at below right (look closely, it’s hard to see), had a generous coating of shop dust – evidence that the tool had not been used in a while.
Other power tools in the shop include his favorite, a benchtop planer (which was serving as a television stand on the day of our visit), a benchtop drill press and a small lathe that are stored behind cupboard doors, as is a scroll saw. A small aged shaper that Millard says is rarely used (but handy to have around) sits as a “catch-all” table in one corner of the shop.
These normally stationary tools are pulled from the deep recesses of storage when called into action and plunked onto benches to do their jobs. Afterward, they return to the wings to await another work order. By putting all his tools back in their spaces when not in use, Millard makes the best use of his space.
In addition, he has all the customary hand-held power tools that you would expect in a woodshop. A jigsaw, miter saw and random-orbit sander are close at hand, but neatly stored in out-of-the-way closets. He has a couple hand-held drills and a selection of routers that, while not his favorite tools in the shop, he finds extremely useful when it comes to his style of woodworking.
It’s All About Hand Tools
The crux of Millard’s woodworking is hand tools. He creates his furniture with the same tools and techniques as the original period furniture makers. Accurate reproductions are what he strives to create.
His assortment of planes is impressive, if not overwhelming. He names most numbers associated with planes when asked to create a list. There are examples from Lie-Nielsen (a No. 4, a large shoulder plane and a miter plane), a Veritas scraper plane as well as a jointer plane by Clark & Williams. But the majority of his planes have the name Stanley embossed on the tools – evidence that you don’t have to break the bank in order to produce great work. Millard also has a couple wooden planes that he built himself.
When persuaded to pick his favorite plane or planes he answered, “I have two favorites, the Stanley/Bailey No.7, I purchased new in 1979, and the Lie-Nielsen No. 4.” He also favors his other Lie-Nielsen planes as well as a homemade scrub plane that sees a lot of use.
Other hand tools found stored conveniently in the shop are a couple dozen Pfeil carving tools, a small selection of Japanese chisels (preferred because of the hollow-ground backs which Millard feels makes them easy to keep sharp and they’re well balanced in his hand), a couple marking gauges and a few Starrett layout tools along with a number of handsaws. His favorite handsaw is his 1925 Disston crosscut saw that was part of his grandfather’s collection back in the day.
Millard says, “I don’t have a lot of tools because it doesn’t take many to make furniture.”
You might be surprised by what he says is his overall favorite woodworking tool: “My homemade, and somewhat crude veneer hammer, because it is central to the signature part of Federal furniture. Of all the aspects of furniture making, I enjoy veneering the most.” pw
Glen is a senior editor of Popular Woodworking, a published author, host of the Woodworker’s Edge DVD series and teaches woodworking classes and seminars. Contact him at 513-531-2690 x1293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.