Growing up immersed in the woodworking field, Jacen James’ current profession should come as no surprise. What started as a cleaning job at his stepfather’s cabinetry business led to his own interest in cabinet design. After high school, he went to an interior design school for a year, but left because he didn’t like the pure focus on design. “I got back into woodworking,” Jacen says, “where I could design and build, which was a lot more interesting to me than just the design.”
Frequent visits to Ely, Minnesota, drew him to logs and, more specifically, the North Woods style. “Seeing the hand-scribed log homes that are popular out there just made me fall in love with logs,” he says. Jacen started constructing basic log furniture—chairs, benches and beds—then moved toward distinct pieces heavy on burls and other character-defining features. “That’s when I really started to enjoy mixing logs in with cabinetry and timbers,” he says. In 2003, Jacen broke off and started his own company, Wilderness Woodworks.
“I like to use white cedar logs because they grow in such different shapes,” Jacen says. Weather-resistance and coloring also factor into his heavy use of that species. He also uses knotty alder, pine and red oak, and collects oak and walnut branches from his property. “Even if I don’t know exactly what I’m going to use it for, I take it to my shop,” Jacen says.
Behind the Scenes
“I hand-peel every log with a drawknife,” Jacen explains. Cabinetry is constructed using a mortise-and-tenon joinery, while furniture joints are secured using wooden dowels. Everything is finished with a sprayed-on glaze.
“I like to use a glaze where you put a stain on, then seal it, then lightly sand it, then glaze it,” he says. “It highlights all the imperfections in the wood and the trim molding and makes the crevasses in the wood stand out. If you just used a stain, you wouldn’t see as much. A glaze really highlights the piece and makes it unique looking.”
Inspired by many facets of his life—the outdoors, his faith, his kids—the key to Jacen’s work is individuality. “I want every piece I make to be unique,” he states. “I don’t like to make two pieces that look exactly the same. It’s more of an art to me than making furniture for someone. ”
That’s not to say he doesn’t craft custom pieces for clients. “I’ll have people ask me what I think will look good,” he says. “It’s nice because I get to work with a customer, but I also have an empty canvas and can use my imagination to do whatever I want.”
Because the company is low on overhead, Jacen is able to price his work more competitively. Chairs start at $300, while cabinetry can cost up to $30,000 depending on the complexity of the project. For more information, visit Jacen’s web site, wildernesswoodworks.com.