“My name is Blair Sligar and I build furniture and sculpture
from salvaged and local materials.”
Blair’s own words are concise, functional, and to the point. All things that you find in his work. Talking with Blair and seeing him among the wood and tools artfully thrown throughout his shop, somehow it all makes sense. The way he walks around his shop, you see a comfort in stride and step, and that comfort comes from his ability and the freedom he gives himself to “make whatever he wants.”
Built to be used, loved, cherished, and kept, all of Blair’s pieces have an old-world sturdiness that you rarely see in today’s all to frequent buy-destroy-repurchase cycle. Joseph Heller would be hard pressed to find a catch in anything Blair does. He balances quality, originality, balance, and detail alongside a fair amount of delicacy, strength, and longevity. All done with purpose and without irony or remorse.
He and his wife have a governing rule they live by where they buy and own only what they love, no matter what the item. You can see this rule and thought put into everything Blair makes. Why build a work bench (even if it’s only ever to be used by you) if you don’t love it? When a craftsman has this mentality and thought process engrained in who he is, you see a special level of detail and practice in each piece he builds.
How did you start this? We want the real-world story, the nitty gritty.
I started woodworking pretty crudely. I haven’t really had any formal training. My father was a framer and is pretty handy, so I think that I picked up a lot of basic skills from him when I was growing up. We did a lot of projects together on the weekends and he was always building me some thing or another. I did a lot of work out of his garage for a long time. I actually did my first big job there. A contractor friend of ours was building a house and they were kind enough to gamble on me being able to build them a set of cabinets. I ended up not building the cabinets, but built pretty much everything else in the interior of their house: furniture, fixtures, wall treatments, etc.
I also spent a lot of time in metal working shops and a few cabinet shops. I really feel that a lot of my real training came from working as a restoration carpenter.
I love selecting lumber. There's a moment when you're looking through the piles, when you find the one you want and you just know, that's the right piece.
How did working in other trades/mediums influence your style?
Those times really stand out to me because I learned a lot of things in a job that I really didn’t like. I was fortunate enough to work with someone who taught me a lot of the reasoning behind different processes in woodworking. Things like: A frame and panel door being built a certain way to allow for wood movement and provide stability, certain ratios and dimensions found over and over again in traditional American architectural details and furniture that can be traced back to how the Greeks worked and saw things.
I also think working in a few metal shops was good because all of the skills used in building things in metal are so transferable: layout, planning, design, process of work, etc. I was pretty unhappy doing restoration carpentry on older homes, I was constantly building projects on the side that led me in this direction. I struggled a lot with the idea that woodworking was not a good expressive medium and was relegated to the realm of craft—which could be interesting—but could not express or explore ideas like a drawing, a song, or a novel could. After a while, I realized that I could do whatever I wanted. I could sculpt, draw, and build furniture. I need not limit myself in exploring all of these things. Now I generally do these things everyday, in some form or another.
At what point did you transition into your current situation, running your own shop?
I was in art school studying drawing and sculpture full time and working this business full time, all while struggling to support a family. I realized that I had to choose between my company and schooling. I knew that I would be doing the exact thing when I left school that I was in my shop, and that I was better equipped in my shop to work than I ever was in the sculpture studio at the university, so I left school and picked up some great commissions. I haven’t really been back on a regular construction site doing a trim carpentry job in over 2 years. My work now centers around well built wood furniture and sculptures in wood, metal, and whatever else I feel like. I also do specific pieces for bars, retail stores, and restaurants. I’ve slowly acquired equipment, material, and a great space to work in. Improving on those three things is a constant process.
The small fine woodworking studio that works from it’s own designs is a somewhat current idea. It is a difficult thing to pull off and it’s really been only since the 1960s that studio quality furniture makers have been able to work from their own designs and support themselves, often just barely. There seems to be somewhat of a revival to revisit older ways of working wood by hand.
What are you doing differently than other builders?
I think I am different in my commitment to designing in a certain way. There are several woodworkers out there who are interested in the same types of things that I am (traditional hand rubbed finishes, reviving forgotten techniques, natural forms and character being exhibited in a pieces, using readily available and indigenous species). These are all things that many woodworkers influenced by the craft movement are interested in.
I think that Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, James Krenov and such had really carved a niche, not just for themselves, but also for people that work like I do. I am choosing, like these folks, and committing to designing in my way: the way that I know how.
I really like to explore and create and design. I hope that my clients appreciate the type of work that I do and come to me for that. It’s what my shop is built on: not doing whatever comes through the door just to make money. I am not the right person for some jobs. I am going to stubbornly keep hammering away at what I do even though I could probably make plenty more re-facing cabinets and building laminate kitchens. But I am not interested in that type of work. I’m committed to creating furniture and sculpture in a unique way, and I think that sets me apart from other shops.
I also work in species (of wood) that most people don't have access to because they're not cut commercially. I stay away from exotic species from overseas as they don’t interest me much. Most of my materials come from trees cut from residences or land clearing projects or are pulled from old buildings. The local materials that I get are often found and cut in such small quantities that they aren’t available at mills or through lumber suppliers. My materials have a high degree of character that most mills avoid because they are difficult to grade consistently.
Some of my favorites are:
- Live Oak which is a beautiful, extremely hard wood. It hardly has any predictable grain and it runs in waves. It has known almost no use except in the shipbuilding industry in the 1800s and earlier.
- Laurel Oak which is a red oak and has varied colorful patterns with tones ranging from light grey to almost black with reds and purples in between.
- Chinaberry, which is in the mahogany family and is a deep pinkish red with yellow streaks
- Florida black cherry, which is a very dark cherry that works very well.
I also work with a lot of slabs, which are large cuts that often have natural edges on both sides. The largest one I have worked with was a 14’ laurel oak slab which was 3” thick and 2.5’ wide. There is quite a challenge in working with pieces this large. Not only are they heavy, but their grain can be very inconsistent (and intriguing) and they present design challenges.
What are you doing that’s the same?
I feel that I am pursuing the same things that drove the arts and crafts movement, and the things that are driving the current craft revival: working with your hands, carving out a place for yourself, inventing new ways of doing things, discovering things that many don’t get to discover or aren’t interested in discovering. I really want to follow a model that includes select custom pieces and small batch production, as well as exhibiting high degrees of quality and imagination. I’m interested in doing those commissions that fit.
What was the first piece of furniture you built?
I built a desk to work and build sculptures on. It was made from scrap plywood and I painted it blue and yellow. It had curves I made with a jigsaw and a raspy type drill bit. I think I was 15 or 16. It was pretty awful, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I built it though, and it was solid. I don’t have it anymore.
After that, I found a very old writing desk in the back of a metal working shop that I was working in. It was completely covered in black grease because it had been used to change wheel bearings. It was also a short table. A neighbor across the street who had a garage workshop helped me to extend the legs. He gave me a lot of ideas about how to work with wood very early on. I refinished the rest of the table and beneath all of the grime was a beautiful primitive pine table. I still have it. I think that old table really got me started in woodworking.
(PART II continued below)
Describe your workflow and process.
Right now, I mostly work on commissions. I have flat file drawers full of drawings that I’d love to build on speculation but haven’t had the chance. I really love working on commissions though. The parameters are a challenge and they—hopefully—help focus the design. I like working with specific clients that bring specific needs.
Initially, we discuss what they are interested in, some things they might have seen that they have liked, and I discuss how I work and what types of materials I use. Sometimes they will have reference photos, which are always good to see. I never build other designs, but it’s great to be able to get a feel for what a client is interested in. Some clients just want me to come up with something and build it. These projects can be fun, it’s a good feeling to know that they trust your instincts. When these projects come up, I usually go with an idea that I have already drawn out in the past that has been waiting for the right client. I will present at least 3 hand-drawn designs: fewer than 3 is typically too few and more than that can become confusing and complicated. I often draw 10 or so sketches that the client usually never sees, along side plenty of doodles that won’t make sense to anyone else.
Sometimes you just have to get out there with a hatchet and
a big chisel
and just start carving it out.
For certain projects I will build scale models, which I enjoy doing. It’s definitely the best way to present an idea. Once they accept the contract, I gather materials. Often, I have a specific board or slab or series of book matched boards in mind when I design a piece. Other times, I go out and find something that I can build the design upon that will guide the process.
From here I get the material in the shop and begin to do a rough layout with chalk. I rough cut, mill materials, and pay careful attention to how I want each piece situated. Then begins the joinery. From here the piece is often assembled and disassembled a few times. Pieces that need to be glued and clamped are glued and clamped.
The piece then gets surfaced and finished. There are many ways to do this. You can easily spend just as much or more time surfacing and finishing the piece as you can building it. There is quite a learning curve to planing and scraping correctly and you have to have razor sharp edges that are maintained well. Often times it is faster to plane a surface and then scrape it by hand than to go through all the grits in sanding. With sanding, I usually start with a very low grit (80 or so) and work my way all the way up to a completely polished surface of 600 grit. If you take your time and sand correctly through all the steps, you will have a completely polished satin surface, before any finish is even applied. I use traditional oil finishes such as Tung oil, boiled linseed oil, and the like. Several different coats are applied over several days and rubbed hard into the wood. By the time it is done, you have been over the piece many times.
I deliver all of my work myself and try to do so as soon as a piece has been finished.
So why Orlando, Florida?
Well, I grew up in Orlando. I have a lot of family and friends here. I’m also growing a client base that really likes my work. I have had and continue to have really great clients, and a few have even become good friends, which is important to me. My work is very personal and I really desire only to work for people who really appreciate my craft.
I feel that by offering something that isn’t really available here (fine workmanship with good materials and a unique design sense) my work will stand out. I am really grateful to be so close to some other companies that share a similar type of approach to craft but in different mediums.
Almost all of the materials that I work with come within about a 75 mile radius of my shop. We have such a diversity of species that are available that are not cut commercially that are absolutely stunning.
The climate is a constant issue for me though. We have such high humidity that it is difficult to control wood movement, it causes difficulty in finishing (especially the type of hand rubbed oil finishes that I prefer), and rusts hand tools and equipment. I’m hoping to move into a storefront style shop soon that has air-conditioning so that I can control the humidity. It’s also just difficult to work in the heat. It can easily get to over 100 degrees in our shop for several months of the year. For these reasons, I often consider moving the whole operation within the next 5 years or so. I am very drawn to the Santa Fe, New Mexico area but I don’t like the availability of wood species there compared to here.
Do your art and test jobs influence your business model and products?
Definitely — my whole business is built around a specific aesthetic I am trying to create and explore. I hope that is the appeal for those commissioning my work.
I also like having to design within the perimeters that commissioned work provides. I can only work the way that I work and within the ideas that I have and the ways that I think about things; that is how I produce. If people have liked the previous results of those explorations, then those are the people that I want to work with.
What are your future plans?
Moving to a new shop within the next six months is definitely in the works. I am hoping to get into a place that is a climate controlled and has a gallery.
Any immediate plans?
For now, I would like to open up the species that I work with a little more. I really love walnut but we don’t have much of it here in Florida, and it’s a great wood to work with. I recently built several wooden spoon sets from butternut and it was my first time using that species. I can’t wait to work with it more. I’d love to be able to build more from live oak because it is such a beautiful and useful wood that has hardly ever been utilized.
There are so many skills that were around for so long that we’ve mostly lost in pretty much less than a century. Like wooden shipbuilding or coopering, for example. These trades had great ideas about how to work wood in an efficient and useful way. I think of these old wooden ships with curved planking that was a foot and a half thick by two feet wide by as long as they could get—no one knows how to work like this anymore. Sometimes I look at these old pictures of wooden ships being built, the hull will be roughed out and you could fit a building inside it. It is just absolutely littered with wood chips from the adzes and planes. I think that some people are seeing that building things solely from machine is not necessarily the most efficient way to work. Sometimes you just have to get out there with a hatchet and a big chisel and just start carving it out.
For me, I would like to continue to do custom work. I would like to be able to do more sculptural work and work in the public sphere. I’d like to put sculptures in airports, libraries, hospitals. Working for these types of clients used to be sort of anathema to me, but I’ve really come around to the idea that this is a great way to show work. Many people can enjoy the work without having to pay for it or an entrance fee.
I would also like to incorporate more drawing and printing into my work. I have a couple diorama-type commissions in the upcoming year that are built completely around animal figures I’ve drawn. I have some large pieces coming up in the next year, including a 22-foot woven, steam bent piece and a 12’ long low record cabinet, but I want to do more large-scale work.
Do you have any plans to sell your own line of products in the future?
I plan on starting small batch production and limited runs over the next couple years and having these products available for order over the Internet. These would include items like knock apart tables and chairs (to save on shipping) as well as smaller items such as kitchen utensils, bowls, bat-houses, etc.
In woodworking, if you are going to make one of something you might as well make five. Because the setup, milling, and layout process are all the same, so it doesn’t take that much longer to create multiple copies. There are certain table and chair sets that I’d like to do limited runs of 30 of. I’d also like to be able to continually reproduce a few designs that are always built to order as well as smaller products like kitchenware, small boxes and cabinets, light fixtures, and wall art.
What is the most enjoyable part of what you do?
I really enjoy the design process; sketching out ideas on a piece of paper and figuring out how to then build what you just drew.
I love fitting joints. It’s a great feeling when you have been shaping a joint for a while and you put it together and it fits snugly. I enjoy putting the first coat of a finish on and getting to see what your piece is going to look like. The smell of heart pine, linseed oil, and beeswax. I enjoy using an old hand tool that is tuned up really well. It seems like you can feel its history when you pick it up. Creating jigs that work and then keeping them around and using them over and over again. Delivering a finished piece to an appreciative client is awesome.
I love selecting lumber. There is a moment when you are looking through the piles when you find the one you want and you just know that it is the right piece. I don’t really know how to describe this, but the idea of taking round logs (which are organic, long and cylindrical) and shaping them into rectangles and curved pieces that work with and cut across the integral structure of what is basically a stalk is really fascinating to me. I love walking out into the shop and just feeling that I can make whatever I want here
Photographs & Video: JonPaul Douglass
Interview & Introduction by Aaron Martin
Design by Danny Jones
A bar inside of a furniture shop
The Imperial Bar (Orlando, FL)
I heard that they were building a new bar at Washburn Imports. So I stopped by and caught John Washburn, the owner, and told him that I'd like to build his bar. He didn't really know me from Adam, but he had seen some of my previous work and he made the decision to use us from a quick drawing in a sketchbook. We presented that we'd build the bar from pieces of his architectural antiques and furniture.
The bar-top is made from a ten foot suar Balinese tabletop that we cut down and is 4" thick. The panels on the bar face are all made from joining together several panels from old indian doors and windows and other decorative architectural pieces. They are all well over 100 years old. The columns are a type of limestone.
Bar-top: We dovetailed all of its sections together.
Drink rack: made from pieces we cut from an antique Balinese room divider.
Hog Eat Hog:
You could call it
a family name
Whats the story behind your "Hog Eat Hog" name?
I like animals and I was trying to think of a silly but assertive name for my studio. My wife came up with it — probably as a joke. I really liked it and I love play-on-word types of jokes and I've always kind of been fascinated by wild pigs. It doesn't really speak much to the work, I guess, but it is pretty memorable and simple.
When you buy stuff, does your craft influence your shopping?
Very much so. I get really frustrated with products that aren’t made well, especially tools. I never buy cheap tools. I don’t even like buying intermediate level tools. I used to, mostly out of necessity, but whenever I have I always get frustrated with them quickly. A chisel that won’t hold an edge or has soft steel or a saw that won’t stay square have no use to me. You can’t do good work with them. I really consider it from the long-term perspective. I hope to be using these for the duration of my career so it’s just a bad investment to have to buy the same thing 3 times because it keeps breaking when you could have just bought the nice one the first time.
Older hand tools seem to me, to often be, of better quality. I love collecting, tuning, and using old tools. One of my favorites is a beautiful old 5/8” Stanley Sweetheart bench chisel. Its tool steel runs all the way through the wood handle so that you can really strike it. It has patent date of circa 1906 — it's about twice as heavy as one of my modern beater chisels. It feels solid, because it is and it's been used for over a hundred years.
At my shop I keep all sorts of odd old things that need to be tuned up and put into use. Old architectural pieces that will be incorporated into some project, tools, old taxidermy pieces, antique hardware, old photos I find, and other pieces of this thing or that thing that I surround myself with that I like. Friends know that I keep and display all these sort of things so I am often given random old tools. Those are good days.
I also really like living with very few things in my home. I live in a very small older wood framed house with my wife Brittany and my two year old daughter Nahli, so we really can’t have too many things in it cluttering it up. My wife has this saying about, "buying only what you love" and that’s what we try to do, to not have too much stuff; only have around things that we really enjoy and use.
So we keep only the clothes that we wear (and I have a terrible habit of working in all my clothes so I’m limited to a couple of outfits), only the books that we read, and only the furniture that we really love.
I think my craft certainly influences what we buy for our daughter, or at least what we try to keep around for her to play with. There is such a lack of good toys out there. There are a few great companies out there, Plan toys and Anamalz specifically, that produce some really innovative beautiful wooden toys that she really likes and I think they have great products.
The Hog Eat Hog Workshop
1610 Alden Road
Orlando, FL 32803