In a time when we are surrounded by plastics and synthetic materials, one company still focuses on the natural beauty of wood.
It began in an unlikely location and under the most unlikely of circumstances. In 1902 William Gunlocke and four other woodworking experts were traveling through upstate New York looking for a place to build wooden furniture. When they were going through Wayland, N.Y., they found a building that fit the bill. The owner used it to make incubators for chickens. He had revolutionized the design and needed a larger building. Not much need today for wooden chicken incubators, but the need for quality wooden furniture still exists for pieces good enough to be used by the White House.
In the early years, Gunlocke specialized in seating for homes and libraries. With the expansion of businesses and industries in the early 20th century, it began to make office seating and use the steam bending wood process. Steam bending is an art form where just the right amount of water heat and pressure allows a single piece of wood to be curved or bent to almost 90 degrees. Gunlocke is one of the few companies still using the process. It minimizes the waste created to get the same shape by cutting it out of a larger piece of wood. The natural beauty of the grain comes through without a break in the grain because there is no joint, which can be a weak point. The flow of the grain through the bend is highlighted with the application of a stain. One piece of wood lets the stain be taken uniformly throughout.
At Gunlocke, all pieces are made to order. Because of this, the orders are filled slower than if a product is sitting in a warehouse ready to ship at a moment's notice. The furniture being created, though, is monitored throughout the process, starting with the hand selecting of each piece of veneer to ensure all drawer, cabinet faces and desktops match. The veneers are then joined together in either a slip match or a book match, depending on the desired look. The end product clearly shows the effort that went into making each piece of furniture.
As the furniture travels through the plant, the various pieces are never far from their counterparts. Each is painstakingly monitored so everything is there for the first assembly. The pieces also are put together prior to the final assembly of the finished product to ensure all pieces match and fit together as intended.
Several veneers are available, including cherry, maple, walnut or rift cut maple. After the veneers have been applied and prepared, it is time for the stain and clear coats that let the natural beauty of the wood grain come through. Four coats are applied, and each piece is hand sanded between coats. The final coat is cured in an ultraviolet oven. With the environment in mind, Gunlocke uses water-based stains and finishes. The person applying the stain has a different color test block for each step in the process so the color is correct.
I paint cars as a hobby and to get the color correct, I just keep adding base coat until I know the panel is covered. This is not the case when it comes to staining wood. Each piece is unique and requires a finer touch to make sure of a uniform color not only for that piece but all of the pieces throughout the office. Two final finishes are offered: an open pore, low sheen finish which allows the natural pores in the wood to show through and a full fill, high sheen that fills the pores.
Of course, in addition to case goods Gunlocke makes seating. Their chairs include the Washington chair, which has been used by U.S. presidents, dining chairs created for Jackie Kennedy Onassis when she remodeled the White House, and the familiar Bank of England chair.
But Gunlocke is not resting on its laurels. It is looking to the future when green will be more important than days past. The company has a recycling program, and all waste wood produced in the manufacturing process is used to heat the buildings and produce steam for the wood-bending process.
Gone is the carcinogenic chemical urea-formaldehyde, with its place being taken by mushroom roots or mycelium. Ecovative, another company that calls upstate New York its home, has an ingenious process that uses mushrooms with corn stalks to create a product similar to fiber board called Myco Board. The roots of the mushrooms grow into corn stalks and other plant waste and produce a natural polymer glue that bonds it all together. The mycelium and waste plant material mixture creates a rigid, bio-degradable product. The company's Savor chair uses both old and new by combining a steam bent rear leg and the Myco Board for seat back support.
Gunlocke is proud of its heritage and connection with the community of Wayland and its employees. It's a friendly, family-like atmosphere at the plant, where some can trace their roots back four generations as Gunlocke employees. When someone gets married, it's been a longtime tradition that they receive a Gunlocke chair. With the 1972 case goods plant expansion, a small, nondenominational chapel was added where workers are free to go for quiet time to meditate, read or have a study group. It is quite possibly the only chapel in a furniture manufacturing plant.
Gunlocke is looking forward to the future and and what is possible. I have seen what you will see this summer at NeoCon. I have been sworn to secrecy, but I can say it is another example of wood working at its finest. BOF