Sunday, August 20, 2017

Working with Wood: An interview with Mark Rila

Working with Wood: 
An interview with Mark Rila
with Gina McKnight

Master craftsman Mark Rila, and his wife, fine artist Kelly Lincoln, live in Marietta, Ohio, just beyond the Ohio River. Their farmhouse is towering, with ten to eleven-foot ceilings, hand-carved amenities, crystal chandeliers, and all the charm of Americana. The farmhouse is part of 11-acres, better known as Fernwood Farm; a magical menagerie of life, including chickens, sheep, horses, a dog, cats, and, most of all, pigs... Lucky, Boris, Natashia, and other ovines who let you pat their tummy, scratch behind their ears, or just let you watch as they waller and snort. 

Several weeks ago I had the great pleasure of taking a tour, petting pigs, and talking with Mark about his history as a talented woodworker. As we tour the farmhouse, Mark shows me some of the one-of-a-kind handmade furniture he has created over the years. His woodworking skills can be seen from floor to ceiling, including fancy banisters, doors, furniture, and trim to match the home's original historic woodwork details.

A Fernwood Farm Bedroom
GM: Thank you, Mark, for showing me around your beautiful farm! Tell me about the house and history…
MR: Kelly and I have lived in this house for five years. The architecture of the house, which is Federal, dates to 1811, the former of Colonel Joseph Barker. The house was built for Colonel Barker and his family - wife Elizabeth, and their ten children - during America’s Colonial era. Marietta is a very old city, and some of the homes are historically significant. The Federal style of home is very simple. There are linear elements as well as recognizable structural aesthetics. The scroll work on our porch was added later, during the Victorian era. Over the years, the house has been updated. The back of the house was finished in the 1840’s and is different than the front part of the house. When Kelly moved into the house, about twelve years ago, she un-renovated the house to restore it to its original Federal era charm.

GM: A seasoned carpenter, when did you begin working with wood?
MR: When I was seven years old, my dad gave me a pocketknife. He taught me how to whittle. He taught me how to make puzzles out of wood – I could whittle a cage with a ball and chain; the ball was inside the cage. As I grew, I could whittle anything that came to mind. When I was a teenager, I wanted a Model T to drive, so I rebuilt a Model T, which had a wooden frame. I still have the Model T.

I always wanted to create with wood. To get to that end, I became a carpenter. I learned on the job, taking houses apart and putting them back together. A guy that I knew recognized my talent as a carpenter and hired me. I was skillful enough at twenty-years-old that I became a full-time carpenter. Most beginning carpenters start working in an apprentice/gopher capacity. I began as a full-time carpenter building houses.

GM: Building houses has been steady work for you throughout your carpentry career. How did you intertwine your creative woodworking ability with your carpentry skills?
MR: I began woodworking on the side. My boss knew I had a skill for fine woodworking, so he selected me to do trim – the molding around doors and windows, installing doors and windows. That became my specialty from that point on. I made the doors and the trim, then evolved into creating furniture. Once I became self-employed and my customers saw my custom furniture, I was contracted to build specialty items. Chairs are my favorite to build. I like the challenge. I create custom cabinets, but that’s easy to do, they are just a box. Creating a custom chair requires a lot of skill.

GM: Your handiwork with wood is beautiful. Building furniture must be a challenge; manipulating the wood to become your own design, or the customer’s vision. How long does it take to create a custom piece and how do you choose which wood to work with?
Jewelry Box designed by Ralph Duesing
MR: Time and the choice of wood depend upon the details. Larger furniture pieces may not take as long as a smaller, intricate piece, such as a jewelry box I created for one of my long-standing customers, Ralph Duesing. Ralph is an architect and designs his own amazing houses. He was impressed with my woodworking skill and we collaborated on projects. Ralph sent me blueprints to build a jewelry box for his wife. It’s easy for someone to send you blueprints - I had to use my skill to figure out how to piece the jewelry box together. Some of the inlays were intricate and complicated to build. The drawers are hidden within the box with special mitered corners and complex designs. It took time to find just the right section of curly hard maple and curly soft maple I used for the box. There are differences in the coloration and waviness/grains of wood. There can be anomalies in different types of wood that can make a custom piece of furniture unique and one-of-a-kind. I always look for wood with different dynamics to create unique pieces. For example, the walnut I used for Ralph’s jewelry box, I bought two walnut slabs that were five-feet long and I cut them just to get certain pieces from the wood.

GM: What other projects stand out in your career?
MR: While working in Texas with Ralph, I created all the trim and some of the furniture for his custom home. I crafted specific furniture to fit the customer’s design. The home is a Southwest Spanish style ranch. All the elements were built by hand. Gates, doors, trims, ceiling beams, were all crafted by hand. Some elements of the house are solid cedar. The house had handmade custom shutters and three front doors. I made the dining room table from white oak. Pocket doors, bedroom furniture, floors, cabinets, all were custom. It was a lot of work.

Another house we removed all of the shiplap from the walls and ceiling. The homeowner wanted to recycle the wood; I made custom cabinets from the shiplap. They were beautiful. I’ve worked with walnut, oak, chestnut – you name it, I’ve worked with it!

Ralph, the architect, asked me to make him a wine box he had designed. He gave me the design and I went with it. When other people saw the wine boxes, they wanted one. Each wine box is an intricate design of small pieces of wood based upon Ralph's design. It takes two weeks of constant work to construct one wine box. It’s more of an art object influenced by historic architecture, patterned after Italian design. 

I’m not a designer. Besides Ralph’s architectural designs, my wife, Kelly, helps me with design, too. I have made custom design settees, tables, chairs, dressers, bedroom suites, cabinets, house shutters, doors, garden trellis’ and much more, all from a client’s design, using many different types of wood. If you can dream it, I can make it.

For additional information, connect with Mark…
Mark Rila Woodworking
Custom Furniture and Woodworking
Fernwood Farm
1903 Masonic Park
Marietta, Ohio 45750

740 629 1520

@Fernwood Farm's Country Kitch: Handmade by Mark Rila

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