Woodworking with Andy McFate

Mar 30, 2020 • Virginia Knight

Woodworking with Andy McFate

Woodworking with Andy McFate

We're exploring Andy’s woodworking studio today, and it smells like heaven. If you’ve ever pressed your face against cedar wood and deeply inhaled, it’s like that—except the whole place smells that good so you don’t have to walk around holding a piece of wood to your face to get the effect.

It’s Monday, March 16th, and I’m meeting Whitney, East Fork’s photographer, at Andy McFate’s studio. Andy is a woodworker and makes beautiful cutting boards you may have seen on our site or in our stores, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you he’s both wildly talented and incredibly kind. We had this visit on the books for weeks, and the night before I was checking in with Andy and Whitney to see if we all felt comfortable meeting, given the circumstances of the pandemic. This was before East Fork closed its doors, before mandatory working from home and “Shelter in Place” and the drastic actions we’re taking now.

The weather was that weird, definitive overcast that makes you forget the sun exists. Whitney joked that if a zombie jumped out at us, we wouldn’t be surprised given the day’s ambiance and everything going on in the world. We found Andy’s studio, and it felt good to cross that threshold: a physical signal giving me something concrete to do (interview Andy for the blog) in a day where all routine and structure were swirling around the drain.

Andy’s studio smells like heaven. If you’ve ever pressed your face against cedar wood and deeply inhaled, it’s like that—except the whole place smells that good so you don’t have to walk around holding a piece of wood to your face to get the effect. Whitney immediately starts taking photos, and Andy and I started at the beginning. He met Alex out in Madison, when East Fork was taking root and Andy was working on a sorghum farm (I meant to circle back and inquire about the sorghum farm). Andy does and can make a lot of things, but it was decided he should make cutting boards for East Fork because they have a relatively streamlined production process and are functional and enduring.

A cutting board starts two years out—two years out! Andy tells us this and Whitney and I both exclaim, because we really don’t know anything about woodworking, that that’s a long time. The pieces of wood that become Andy’s cutting boards ideally come from large, urban logs. These logs are quarter sawn, which allows them to be more dimensionally stable than “plain sawn” logs. After being cut, the boards air dry for one year—the general rule of thumb is one year of drying time for each inch the board is thick. Once your 1”-thick boards have air dried for a year, they’re cut, flattened on the jointer, and then they sit for a week. Andy repeats this process several times, to get the boards as dimensionally stable as possible.

Andy uses white oak for his cutting boards, and for good reason. White oak has historically been used by boat builders, because a silicon compound in the wood called tyloses plugs the wood’s pores and keeps it watertight. White oak is highly resistant to rot and decay and is antimicrobial. If you’ve seen Andy’s boards in our stores or online, you may have noticed some are lighter wood, while others are very dark brown. They’re all white oak, but the darker boards have been ebonized. Ebonizing refers not to a stain applied but to a chemical process that occurs within the wood. White oak has a high tannic acid content, so when a catalyst is applied, the tannic acid reacts and changes color. 

Step one of ebonizing the boardThe first step in the ebonizing process: a solution of iron oxide and vinegar is applied to the white oak.

For all the reasons Andy uses white oak, others are after the same wood. Andy tells us the price of white oak has tripled since he started making cutting boards because it’s so in demand. The biggest purchaser is the whiskey industry (we jokingly referred to them as “Big Whiskey” throughout the conversation), as white oak makes excellent whiskey barrels for all the same reasons it makes excellent cutting boards. I asked Andy if there are other woods he has/would consider using. Maple is a contender, but Andy doesn’t find the graphics as nice, and red oak is much more porous than white oak. It’s possible to ebonize woods other than white oak, but you have to introduce tannic acid if it doesn’t naturally occur in the needed amounts.

So that’s how Andy makes a cutting board for us, but the large pile of wood that will become cutting boards is just one of several projects Andy has going on. Several large pieces sit in his studio that will be installed at Sauna House here in Asheville, and he’s working on tea trays for Dobra Tea House. He was heavily involved in the construction of beautiful Airbnb The Nook (that’s also full of East Fork and many of our favorite local makers) and works with Shelter, a design studio responsible for, among other things, the beautiful East Fork Asheville (which Andy naturally had a hand in).

Andy's tools
Some of the many tools Andy uses for woodworking in his studio.

I asked Andy about his work on The Nook, as that kind of large-scale building project is very different from his production-style work. His answer was incredibly beautiful—and I wish I’d had a tape recorder so I could get it down word for word—but I’ll do my best to articulate it here. Andy said that when making furniture, while functional, he’s making something that is not absolutely necessary to the human experience. Shelter is another matter: humans need shelter and places to live, so fulfilling that need is something Andy finds deeply rewarding. Whitney and I both teared up a bit at that. It was such a beautiful sentiment, and I wish you could have been there with us to hear it from Andy, in his words.

When it was time for us to leave, I think Whitney and I were both dragging our feet a bit—who wants to go back into the gray, overcast world where a global pandemic looms when you can stay inside a beautiful studio and have tear-inducting conversations about the human condition? Probably no one, but real life does go on. We said goodbye to Andy and headed out, Whitney to her car and me to mine.

The next day East Fork would make the call to close our factory and shipping facility, and I’ve been working from home ever since. You’ll probably read this at home, as more and more “shelter in place” and “stay home, stay safe” protocols are enacted across the country. It was and is surreal, and I walked to my car that day I thought about those cutting boards starting two years out. I was comforted by the thought of things growing now in these strange times that we cannot yet see, things growing that we will celebrate two years out.

Shop Cutting Boards

Comments (0)

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Strong Feelings

Coloring Pages

Coloring Pages

Emilja made coloring pages! Click for a happy, calming distraction. Then share your artwork with us @eastforkpottery