Hauling firewood from the side of the road has become a commonplace hedge against these inflation-crusted times, but John Robson does it with discrimination. Robson, a professional woodworker, approaches logs with the eye of a connoisseur.
"There are over 30 varieties of wood just in this area," he says pointing to the land around his Oakton home, "and I can tell you exactly where each one of my pieces was cut."
His "pieces" are mounds of mirror frames, bowls, clocks, coffee tables and untouched tree trunks drying in the barn he has converted to a studio and home in exchange for free rent.
Some of the untouched wood dries in a kiln he has fashioned over his hot water heater; other wood piles up in dusty corners of his studio. "I look for . . . character," he says, fingering pieces of apply wood, oak, maple, cedar and dogwood. "It also helps if the piece has a natural hole."
The holes -- natural, chisled or both -- form the frames for mirrors, Robson's "bread and butter." Often incorporating the wood's bark, the mirrors show Robson's trademark -- a respect of the wood and an unwillingness to tamper with its natural shape.
Robson cuts a slice from a thick trunk for most of his mirrors (some are made of driftwood) and starts sanding. "Sanding is the curse of woodworking," he sighs, "and can take me a whole day."
"But you won't find a single sanding mark on any one of my pieces," he says proudly.
Sanding brings out the wood's grain, visible in almost all of Robson's work. Then he applies a clear furnitur e lacquer with a sprayer. Once dried, it is rubbed down with steel wool "to bring the gloss without destroying the finish," he says.
Finally, Robson applies a wax coating, rubbing it in by hand. "This is one of those time-consuming things that many woodworkers skip," Robson says, "but I think it's necessary for a quality piece."
Once the woodwork is finished, Robson cuts a mirror and backing to the size of the hole, and inserts it. "Many woodworkers just glue a square mirror onto the back of the wood, and they're surprised that you can make round cuts on glass. It's not really hard," he says as he finishes tapping on the glass and an oval-shaped mirror emerges from the shards.
Mirrors make up the bulk of Robson's sales at the 30-odd craft shows he attends each year. He also has worked on commissioned pieces during the four years he has been in business.
Robson originally studied engineering at the University of Maryland, but dropped out of college before completing his degree. Soon after he left the university, he took a job in a furniture repair shop, where he learned some basic skills as a finisher and joiner.
From there, he became an apprentice to Georgetown craftsmen Claude Hurea, an experience he says gave him the knowledge he needed to turn out quality work.
His next big step came as the head of a woodworking program for a vocational rehabilitation school called Contemporary Workshop, which was housed in the barn he now calls home. When the school's grant money ran out and business snafus ensued, Robson had to choose between looking for a job or going on his own.
He opted for the dangers of freedom, and after a rocky start, found the sales avenue of craft shows. The first one, four years ago, was a "terrible show -- I sold only one bowl to a lady I still see every now and then."
Sales picked up when he started offering mirrors. He now makes from $18 to $1,000 a show," but he continues to display his bowls.
The bowls are his greatest love and are fashioned from the burls (a growth on the side of tree trunks). Usually, he strips off the bark, sets the burl on a lathe and, while it turns, chisels it out.
The work takes patience -- a quality Robson sees as the key to woodworking -- and intense concentration."I've never done transcendental meditation," he says, "but I imagined it's something like this: Your whole brain and hands and motion are focused on one little spot, working at it, while a different part of your mind roams all over."
This keeps up for most of a day. Then the sanding starts anew. "I don't turn 'em out," Robson says of the bowls. "People have bought them as art objects -- something you put on your coffee table to admire, not to use."
The coffee table also may be a Robson original. He rummages through some cobweb-covered pieces at the back of his studio and emerges with a 40-pound trunk. "I've had this drying for about a year," he says.
This one, a commission piece, will be evened and sanded at the top and finished at the bottom "to show the grayness -- the couple who wants it likes the look of the uncut wood." A piece of clear glass makes the table top.
After living with a piece for a year, does it make him so sad to see it go?
"People always ask me that," he says cheerfully, but I don't see it that way. Selling, to me, is a communication between myself and the person who buys it.
I've created what I think is the correct solution to a piece of wood, and the last step of that solution is to have it accepted."