April 12, 2010

Journalist tries to nail down process of crafting high-end furniture

Maine at Work: Ray Routhier learns it takes a lot of sanding, grinding and 'sculpting' to make a Thos. Moser dining chair.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

George Colby Jr., right, a cabinetmaker at Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers in Auburn, shows Ray Routhier how to sand the back of a chair.

John Patriquin /Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Cabinetmaker George Colby Jr., left, shows reporter Ray Routhier how to sand a chair at Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers. It takes nine to 10 hours to make a chair.

John Patriquin /Staff Photographer


MAINE AT WORK takes an interactive look at iconic, visible or just plain interesting jobs done by folks in Maine. Reporter Ray Routhier shadows a worker or workers, reports what he sees and tries his hand at some of the job's duties.

IF YOU'D LIKE to suggest a job to be explored in this feature, e-mail rrouthier@pressherald.com or call 791-6454.


TITLE: Cabinetmaker, Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers, Auburn.

WORKER: George Colby Jr., 30, of New Gloucester.

HOURS: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., four days a week now. (Can increase with workload.)

DUTIES: Making furniture by hand, including cutting, gluing, sanding, grinding and even sculpting until the piece is done. Colby is also safety coordinator for the shop, making sure workers take steps to prevent accidents, injuries and health hazards such as breathing in wood dust.

SALARY: $11 to $18 an hour.

SURPRISING FACTS: It takes nine to 10 hours for a cabinetmaker to craft one of Moser's Pasadena arm chairs ($2,500), not including the rough cuts of wood or applying the finish. Most injuries among cabinetmakers are caused not by tools but by repetitive stress.

PERKS: $100 annual tool allowance, so workers can buy their own hand tools. Monthly project time, when workers can use Thos. Moser equipment for personal projects. Free scrap wood for employees for use as kindling or for small projects at home.

Besides all the tool benches and power tools, the two things that stuck out for me were all the hoses hanging from the ceiling and the wooden parquet-style floor. The wood floor is "more forgiving" than concrete, so dropped furniture pieces are less likely to crack, Colby said.

The hoses are for ventilation and are meant to suck wood dust out of grinders, sanders and other machines. Respirators are recommended for anyone who does sanding and grinding. I didn't wear one. I can still taste the dust in my mouth as I write this.


Colby had me do some of the work that he did early in his career with the company. It consisted of gluing and shaping the back piece for Moser's signature piece, known as "the continuous arm chair" ($1,325).

The chair has one continuous arm that starts on one side, stretches across the back and becomes the arm on the other side.

The piece is made by gluing together nine or 10 layers of laminate, then bending, shaping, sanding, routing and grinding the piece until it looks like a curved tree branch that has been worn smooth by years of wind and weather.

Colby had a piece that was bent into the right shape but still pretty straight on the sides – not rounded – and with lots of glue showing. He showed me how to hold the piece against a power "balloon" sander to smooth it off.

He warned me not to slip, because the sander is "pretty aggressive," and he still has scars from past battles with it.

Then he told me to maneuver the piece around a power router to scrape glue off. He warned me to keep my hands away from the blade, as this was one of the more dangerous operations in the shop.

I successfully held the piece against the router for about 30 seconds and felt I didn't want to push my luck any more. So I handed the wood to Colby.

During another step, Colby put the continuous arm in a grip and started scraping it with a rasp. I could see the big curly shavings of wood that the rasp was creating. Since this wasn't electric, I felt it would be safer for me, that I'd be more in control.

But because it wasn't electric, my arms had to power the rasp. And my arms aren't very powerful. I barely grazed the wood.

"You've got to use a little bit more gumption," Colby told me.

Words to live by.


Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:



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