When Sarah Birch moved to Bedford from out West with her husband and two young children, she knew they’d be starting almost from scratch, furniture-wise.
Their new house is a lot bigger than their old one, and one piece of furniture was most important to her.
“Growing up, we had a beautiful dining room table,” she said. “My parents had their dining room table made and it was a big expense for them, being the parents of four kids, and . . . it was their Christmas present to each other. We had so many family dinners around that table, Christmas dinners and special moments growing up, so to me a dining room table kind of captures all those things and it’s a special piece, a bit different from a sofa that’s probably going to get wrecked.”
The Birches sold almost everything before they moved back East, and after buying a kitchen table online visited Geddes Furniture on Agricola Street, where they ordered a custom dining room table at a price not much higher than a factory-made table from a big box store.
“They had one in their shop we really liked, on sale but not the right size. We liked that it was two-tone, with the top lighter than the bottom,” said Birch. “We thought that was cool and added some dimension, and we really liked that idea, so that is custom. And we have hardwood floors in our home, so we wanted to do something that went with that.”
Their custom table, about to be delivered, was built by self-employed furniture maker Gary Staple in his shop in Seaforth.
He trained at the prestigious Chippendale International School of Furniture in Scotland, after working in construction for 10 years.
Geddes Furniture is his largest customer, ordering tables and dressers in cherry and walnut.
“Cherry is a really stable wood, it works well and it used to be pretty cheap but the price of cherry is going up,” Staple said. “It machines well, a good quality furniture wood, medium hardness, durable but it doesn’t destroy your blades. Walnut is just beautiful, it’s a pleasure to work as a woodworker, on the softer end of the hardwoods so you have to be careful what you use it for. But it’s stunning and you don’t have to do too much to it after the fact.”
Staple works alone in a workshop heated by a wood stove that is fuelled by very neatly cut kindling. Planks of various hardwoods sit in stacks waiting to be transformed.
“Big sticks come in, they’re eight quarters, so two inch, and various widths,” he said. “Then I mill them down, plane to thickness and piece it together. For Geddes Furniture, it has to be perfect because their clients don’t like any (defects), so I have to be super choosy. I’m always cutting pieces off because of a knot.”
It takes a day-and-a-half to two days to build a table, which is delivered unfinished to the Geddes finishing facility on Isleville Street for sealing, staining and two coats of lacquer. The more tables and dressers Staple sells through Geddes, the more people realize there is a little bit of furniture manufacturing going on in Halifax.
“The table I’m building now is one I designed last year,” Staple said. “I designed it, they put it in the showroom — no interest. But in the last three months I’ve had five orders for that same table.”
The original owners of Geddes Furniture moved in 1982 to the current location, which dates to the 1880s. They mainly sold antiques that were purchased on buying trips to the U.S. In the ’90s, they started mixing antiques with furniture, mostly tables, built in Halifax.
When a customer orders a table from Michelle MacEachern, the current owner of Geddes Furniture, it takes four or five weeks for it to be built, finished and delivered.
The lumber comes from a Burnside business which sources woods from mills in Canada and the U.S.
“We work primarily with cherry or walnut,” said MacEachern. “Most people like the look.”
When a customer is considering having a dining room table built, often the only thing they know is how many people they want to seat. MacEachern guides them through decisions on shape, style and how thick a tabletop they want. A sketch with all those details is agreed on by the customer, the store and the furniture maker to ensure everyone is on the same page.
“All the trends come into play as well. Right now people are wanting lighter colours and midcentury is big,” MacEachern said. “ Mad Men is what really spurred on the trend.”
BY BILL SPURR/THE CHRONICLE HERALD