Every piece of furniture sculptured by Michael Amaral has a story behind it. “When you look at it, you’re almost looking at the tree it came from,” said the 34-year-old Cumberland furniture designer and builder, who prefers to use species harvested around Rhode Island, especially salvaged trees or sustainable resources.
Every piece of furniture sculptured by Michael Amaral has a story behind it.
“When you look at it, you’re almost looking at the tree it came from,” said the 34-year-old Cumberland furniture designer and builder, who prefers to use species harvested around Rhode Island, especially salvaged trees or sustainable resources.
His love for trees is transplanted into each environmentally conscious piece he carves, allowing the unusual grains, growths and patterns to become an artistic element in his designs.
“It is hard to look at my furniture and disassociate it from the tree it came from,” he said. “You know where the wood came from, what kind of species it is, how I built it, how it came to be, why it was cut down. All that stuff is a story behind it.”
Amaral has been designing and building custom furniture for eight years, but he has been a tree enthusiast all his life. Rarely a day goes by when he does not wander into the woods to hike with his dog, mountain bike or to photograph the local wildlife.
“I have a natural talent with wood. It’s a part of me. It’s something I believe comes from my grandfather who came from Portugal. He was a carpenter and construction worker,” said Amaral, whose grandfather was originally from Mangualde, mainland Portugal.
After high school, Amaral started working in the trade as a carpenter’s assistant. He later on worked in various local lumber mills, and that is when he started wondering about trees’ origins and unique character.
He began reading specialty books. With the scrap wood he would take home from the mills, he started making furniture.
“I’d feel extremely uncomfortable when wood was mishandled,” he said.
Without money to buy lumber, he found more resourceful ways to obtain wood, learning how to salvage it and milling his own lumber. He also sharpened his woodworking skills working for a furniture maker who specialized in hand-crafted furniture from reclaimed wood.
Amaral sees his craft as a continuous process of appreciation and respect for nature.
“My designs are kind of simple because I want to allow nature to be the foremost feature of the furniture, so that my design is not in competition with what is already there,” he said, describing his pieces as organic, not rustic. “It’s got a lot of character, an organic feel to it, like a natural feel.”
But working this kind of wood can be an artform in itself.
“The wood I have comes from forests around here and it’s full of its own natural phenomenon. It’s got colors, streaks, figure and grain. As an artist, I have then to take these knots, colors, and I have to balance them into the piece of furniture so that it looks right. That takes creativity,” he said.
He approaches each piece of wood as a sculpture.
“I look at the wood and it will decide what it wants to do,” he said. “It takes a special mindset to design furniture with character as well as functionality … how to combine the boards with the right harmony and balance. I am really cautious with it, so that I am not wasting any wood.”
He is also cautious with the tools he uses.
“I try to keep my tools limited to hand tools,” he said. “I don’t use sandpaper. Most people can’t imagine doing work without sandpaper, but I use hand tools like scrapers and planes to get the results I want.”
His favorite wood is red maple.
“Not only is it very plentiful in Rhode Island, but the colors, grain and texture are very interesting. From tree to tree, you will get a completely different color of wood. There are also mineral streaks, curl and figure. … It has everything I am looking for. It’s the epitome of wood.”
He also utilizes wood that comes from local communities.
“A lot of good wood comes from our own communities, streets and parks,” he said. “Some big, straight trees that have no competition to grow are big and sometimes have to come down for some reason. It is my hope that we use those trees to their best potential.”
Mike Hendershot of the Woodcrafters Guild praised Amaral’s approach to utilizing a classic woodworking process to build furniture with a modern function and design.
“It demonstrates ecological awareness coupled with artistic practicality, and this behavior is something that the entire furniture building community needs to take a hard look at. He builds pieces that are heirloom quality,” said Hendershot.
Amaral works from his home in his native hometown of Cumberland.
“That’s where I get my best inspiration,” he said. “I often walk the woods with a camera. Just being close to nature and seeing these magnificent trees in their prime is humbling.”
For more information about Michael Amaral’s furniture and photography, visit www.michael-amaral.com/photography.