Dale Helms crafts fine furniture for function in his Bristol workshop
BRISTOL — Though Dale Helms has been making fine furniture for almost three and a half decades, he doesn’t call himself an artist. I know, it’s hard to believe. It’s even more unbelievable when you find out how much goes into every piece of his furniture. From a simple cheeseboard to a grand chair, dresser or bed, Helms has given thought to every inch of the piece; everything is done with intention.
Take, for example, the custom dresser Helms just recently put the finishing touches on: The wood was milled to produce a bookend grain — meaning the plank is cut and laid open like the pages of a book — to achieve almost perfect symmetry in the two planks, both in color and in the wood grain. Helms hand-planed all the wood to a finish smoother than a baby’s… well you know. He turned the 10 drawer-pulls by hand; each set matching the graduating size of the drawer. Don’t even get me started on the dove-tail joint of the drawers; measured and chiseled for a fit better than most puzzle pieces. The rounded edge-treatment? That’s called “pillowing” — a technique used by one of his favorite furniture designers, James Krenov (1920-2009) — and, yeah, Helms just eyeballs it.
“With a custom piece there’s that opportunity to have attention paid to every part,” explained Helms during an interview this winter. “It’s all part of speaking to a symmetry, an attention to detail… It’s how I distinguish myself.”
“I don’t consider what I do an art, but I approach it artistically,” he continued. When beginning a new piece, Helms thinks “about the journey and about the elements that make it stand out.” But ultimately, “every piece is chosen to highlight the grain of the wood,” he said.
Helms isn’t much into working with reclaimed wood. “Reclaimed wood can be problematic,” he said. “The nails are a nightmare with a hand-planer.” Understandable.
“I use wood with different character marks,” he said. Like wood with bark edges; that results in the unique symmetrical holes in some of Helms’ cabinet doors and other pieces.
Helms also favors spalted wood. “It’s wood that’s in a state of decay,” he explained. Apparently, “spalting in hardwoods is divided into three main types: pigmentation, white rot and zone lines,” or, so says Wikipedia. The way Helms described how his spalted wood gets the amazing black lines is from fungi that’s eating the sugar in the wood.
“The trick is getting the wood at the right time,” said Helms. Too fungified and it’s like any other piece of punky wood that’s pretty much only good for the fireplace; too fresh and the dark line designs aren’t very interesting. So how do you know when a piece of spalted wood is ripe? “It’s luck,” said Helms. “And even when you do find it, 60 percent of the wood you get will go to waste… some see spalted wood as rotten wood; some burn it. But for me, it’s what makes the piece.”
These days Helms works in a spacious, warm barn/studio. He listens to soft classical music in the background, surrounded by the smell of fresh wood shavings and inspirational photos, cartoons, magazine clippings and random treasures from the natural world. But it wasn’t always this way.
Helms got his start at age 26. His love of hiking and backpacking brought him from Ohio to New England, where he met a friend who introduced him to Krenov’s work. “I had this aha moment,” remembered Helms of furniture making. “This was something I felt I could do; something I could get passionate about.”
Not that Helms needed more convincing that this was his life’s work, but it sure helped that Krenov’s style of woodworking had minimal sanding — something most of us, including Helms, try to avoid. So, in 1982, Helms opened his first “shop” in his parents’ basement in Cleveland, Ohio. He worked there for three years, teaching himself the techniques. Once he knew enough to get up and running, Helms moved to a friend’s place in Gorham, N.H. That had space for a real wood shop. “That’s where I started to make a living,” he said, adding with a chuckle: “I’m still trying to make a living.”
Helms moved from New Hampshire to Ryegate, Vt., where he had a shop on his own for 10 years, and then made his way to Mountain Road in Bristol, where he established his current shop. He and his wife Connie raised three kids in the main house; but after the kids left, they started thinking about downsizing. And downsize they did! All the way down to a tiny home — yup 400 square feet with no running water.
“You know you bump into yourself in a tiny home,” said Helms half joking. But that was only temporary. He and his wife broke ground on their current home — on a subdivided part of their original property — in the fall of 2010. As you may have guessed, Helms had a big hand in the construction of his new home and the wood shop.
But you won’t catch Helms making your kitchen cabinets — nope, he tried that for a little bit and production work is not his passion. Fine woodworking is where Helms is at. Twice Helms participated in the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C. (in 2001 and 2007). “It is a prestigious show and an accomplishment that I am proud of.” Admittedly, though, craft shows were exhausting for Helms, who counts himself as an introvert.
After 35 years, Helms, now 63, said he’s ready to scale back a little bit. “It’s a mixed bag because it’s not an easy way to make money,” he said, “but I don’t know what else I would have done that would have made me happy. I use every aspect of myself when making a piece. There’s not a single thing that happens that I’m not a part of.
“It kind of saved my life,” he continued. “It allowed me to do my work and be involved in the kind of life that I wanted to be engaged in.”
OK, so really? Not an artist? Come-on.
“To me an artist is somebody who makes something unusable; created to cause a reaction, an emotional response,” explained Helms. “My work is firmly rooted in function.”
Fine, agree to disagree.
Go see for yourself. Helms’ work is on display at Art on Main in Bristol (they’re actually the only gallery that carries his work — Sweet Cecily in Middlebury has his cheese/serving boards). Or drop in on his shop on Mountain Road by chance or appointment. Learn more at www.dalehelms.com or call (802) 453-5798.
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