Furniture-making unplugged

There is an edge to hand-cut wood, a sharp line on curves that you can see with your eyes and feel with your fingers. Master craftsman Patrice Pinaquy calls it "crispness." You can witness it in Louis XIV furniture, its fleur-de-lis and sunbursts perfected more than 300 years ago, when carpenters made their tools by hand, when pulled bow saws left irregular strokes on wood grain, when no matter how fine the gold leafing, imperfection was inevitable -- the signature of the anonymous builder.

Period craftsman: An April 11 Home section profile of Patrice Pinaquy, a Los Angeles craftsman who uses centuries-old tools and techniques, included a photo caption that identified one piece of furniture as a Louis XIV tea table. The table is actually Louis XV in style. —

Pinaquy makes furniture the same way, using no power machinery, no modern adhesives -- just antique hand implements and a commitment to 17th century technique. The ethic is not some Renaissance fair gimmick but rather what this craftsman in L.A.'s Garvanza neighborhood sees as a logical approach to replicating or repairing period furniture. It's why the Getty Center calls when an antique needs restoration. The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and Hearst Castle call too.

For proof of his artistry, the drafting table that Pinaquy built for his wife has few equals: 7 feet wide and 3 feet deep, delicate yet functional, with ebony and tulipwood in the frame and inlays of silver and boxwood in the marquetry. The top is leather embossed with a scroll of gold leaf, done by a specialist in France who had just worked on the desks of the French Senate. Brass arms, cut from a single piece, are plated in gold and engraved.

Pinaquy spent more than 1,000 hours over 2 1/2 years crafting the table in his backyard wood shop.

"I thought if I'm going to spend all this time, it should be something that Louis XIV, the Sun King, might have had in Versailles," he says.

The idea for the table came to him while gold-leafing a room for architecture fanboy Brad Pitt. ("He has a room on the top of his house with a drafting table he's very proud of," the craftsman says.)

Pinaquy, 61, a native of Biarritz, France, trained in that country for two years, taught by elders in hand-powered woodworking. He came to the U.S. in his early 20s, eventually landing an office job in L.A. and rarely thinking of a career in furniture. But as he explored the city, he wondered: Where was the artistic craftsmanship that surrounded him in Europe?

"It came from a strong sense of nostalgia," he says. "Here, things are made for everybody and that's good, but there are a few people that want the special object, a special treasure. It could be a piece of jewelry or a castle or anything in between. I didn't want to make something that came out of Levitz, so after a few years I went back to France to get formal training."

He told teachers that he didn't care about modern methods -- no routers or jigsaws or chemical stains. He wanted to learn the old ways, the techniques that decorated Versailles.

He saved money to buy antique tools and then heard of a shop whose owner had just died. The brother was selling everything -- saws, clamps, planes, chisels -- all for 2,000 francs (about $400 today), exactly how much Pinaquy needed to buy heating coal.

"I froze that winter," he says, laughing, "but I was warm inside."

His expanded collection of antique tools is museum-quality in its breadth and depth. He believes it's one of the largest in the world and perhaps the only one in use. If a piece breaks, there's a good chance he can make a new one, like his predecessors did in 1700. The exceptions are hand-pulled bow saws that slice a half-inch per stroke (difficult to find blades) and massive wooden clamps (which have hand-turned wooden screws).

As part of his training, he made his own workbench, an 800-pound, double-tongue-and-dovetail behemoth that was sawed entirely by hand. He uses animal glues, preferred because they're easier to dissolve and furniture can be disassembled without breaking the joinery. He brings up the gloss with the time-consuming French polish method, applying scores of thin layers of shellac and alcohol that are rubbed in with circular motions.

"You can touch it up if it gets a scratch," he says, gesturing to a 15-foot replica of a dining table he made for Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Clients pay more for the polishing, but "you can still touch it up 300 years later. This is where the machine stops and the handwork fills in the gap of excellence."

Pinaquy was called to the Blacker House, arguably the most spectacular Greene & Greene home in Pasadena. The ceiling in the dining room was thought to have been decorated in gold leaf, but Pinaquy determined the finish was Dutch leaf, a less-expensive metal mixture that can tarnish.

"Those sheets of gold are very thin -- you can't even breathe around it," says Harvey Knell, the Blacker House owner who has spent years restoring the landmark. "Patrice uses a very fine bristle brush and some oil from his cheek to hold the leaf on the brush. It was a long process."

Pinaquy's passion for the old ways has lured craftsmen-in-training to ask for an apprenticeship, something beyond his guest lectures at Cerritos College's woodworking classes. But he and his wife, landscape architect Karen Adnoff, are planning something more ambitious. Inspired by a medieval fortress construction project in the Burgundy region of France, the couple say they will build a French chateau here entirely by hand, using materials and tools -- ropes, hoists, scaffolding, planes, saws and chisels -- also made by hand.

The dream is to partner with a local school or nongovernmental organization to create jobs for, and awareness of, at-risk youth.

"You are in the right spot in your world when you're doing something like this," Adnoff says, adding that drawings will be done by hand, not AutoCAD. Computers are great for revisions, but "it's wonderful to feel graphite all over your hands again."

Going back to basics makes sense in an economic collapse, but is building a monument to royal aesthetics sending the right message?

"You have to change the concept that art is a luxury," Pinaquy says. "People need to dream. That's why they go to the movies, to escape the hard reality. This is part of the dream."