Meet an Iowa Woodworker With Finishes So Cool He's Patented Them
Clean lines and mod finishes characterize Clay Aronson's work. But the owner of Aronson Woodworks cites the Stickley brothers, pioneers of the 20th-century Arts and Crafts Movement, as his biggest influence—because they put quality of construction above all else. Designers have taken note, installing Aronson pieces in projects all over the United States (including the legendary Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island).
Who introduced you to woodworking?
CA My grandpa's shop was off limits to kids. I only saw inside about five times. It was a mess, with tools, wood and sawdust everywhere. But I thought it was amazing. We made teacher gifts with my mom. And just growing up on the farm, you get crafty. My dad was inventive, and my brother and I were always building things out in the grove. One of our forts was two stories with a walk-out deck.
An architect in the making!
CA I always wanted to design and build houses. I was big into Frank Lloyd Wright. But about halfway through the architecture program at Iowa State, I had a summer construction job, and they had me spend some time at the drafting table. I just couldn't wait to get back to pouring concrete in the hot sun.
You aren't pouring concrete today, though.
CA I like focusing on the nitty-gritty details, the design and the build. So after college, I apprenticed at a 19th-century furniture shop in Story City, Iowa, that only used hand tools. Then I did handyman stuff and remodeling. But I kept making furniture in the garage. Eventually, in 2014, I quit to focus on furniture. It was rough for a while, but it's worked out.
I'd say! Your furniture is in luxury homes, hotels and restaurants across the U.S.
CA It's crazy. I'm still in denial. It's great, but I guess I haven't wrapped my head around it. I was just hoping we could make a living doing furniture.
You really put yourself on the map with the way you finish your pieces—Claize.
CA I've never liked painting wood. But a client asked me for a cerused finish [a centuries-old technique that highlights the grain]. I was experimenting and failing, but the designer liked the messiness, and other people began asking for it. After a couple of years, I began playing with a high-contrast, cleaner look—stark white and black grain. It looked cool, but I was still like, "There's no way I want this on a whole piece."
Now it's your calling card. What changed?
CA A project came along for a contemporary vanity with flat slab doors—a good shape to attempt it on. The client let me go ahead, and it just gained traction from there. The finish handcuffed our design capabilities in the beginning. We have to take into account, even if we can build a piece, it's going to be really hard to do the Claize on it. But the more we've done it, the more we've figured out how to apply it on curves. It's still evolving. We're still getting better at it.
HA What else distinguishes Aronson Woodworks?
CA Nothing we do is about getting things out the door fast. We only think about what's going to make this piece the strongest. And that's all-wood joinery. A waterfall table is just a folded slab, but we use a butterfly spline [a wood joint that fits into a groove] on the corners. A lot of manufacturers fake it. They stain a bow tie shape, or the butterfly only goes in a half-inch. On ours, that spline goes all the way through the table. The tolerances are so tight, once you start driving them in, there's no turning back. But that table will never break.
What appeals to you about wood, as a material?
CA It's so accessible. You can start from the beginning, with a tree, and craft it into whatever you want. And every board tells its own story. You can see where a branch was cut off, and where the tree healed and grew around it.
Do you have a favorite wood to use?
CA We get most of our logs from the City of Des Moines' forestry department. They have to take down ash trees due to the invasive emerald ash borer. I like ash's blond color. And its burls—where the grain really swirls—are cooler than in any other wood. It's also dense, like hickory and white oak.
As a creative, do you ever feel sort of trapped by your own signature look?
CA Yeah, a little. I used to have all the time in the world to experiment. I'm hoping as we grow, I'll have more time for working with reclaimed wood—less clean-lined and more unique, with the insect architecture, holes and live edges. And I'm working with another local guy to explore metal. We will never mass-produce, but as our network grows, we can collaborate and do more and more cool things.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.