Against the Grain
Master-Made in Arizona heads to Tucson for an inside look at custom wood artisans Taber & Co.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Brandon Sullivan
A live-edge table with knots along the grain. A rustic armoire with hand-carved rosettes. Dark wood cupboards with roughly forged iron hinges. High-quality, beautiful and functional handcrafted furnishings have played an important role in the history of Arizona, their chunky silhouettes, sturdy bases and warm finishes filling early traditional adobe homes.
Today, even with changing tastes in design and architecture and the influx of low-cost, mass-produced products, these heavy, ornamented styles persist, deeply ingrained in the spirit of the Southwest.
In Tucson, one company is keeping the tradition of handcrafted furnishings, as well as doors and other architectural elements, alive. For more than 25 years, Taber & Co. has been filling homes in Arizona and around the country with one-of-a-kind wood designs that recall the region’s storied past.
It’s a sunny May weekday. Hidden behind unmarked doors in a nondescript industrial building in South Tucson, slabs of wood are coming to life as intricately detailed design elements. In a large workroom, owner and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner John Taber is helping two of his carpenters fit a pair of custom doors into an arched frame. The oversized piece, intended for a home in Anchorage, Alaska, is crafted of pecan. Hand-carved rosettes and scrolls cover the front. Towering over the workers at more than 11-feet-high, the door will weigh about 1,000 pounds when complete.
“This is what’s really defining us right now—our custom millwork and doors,” says John’s wife and business partner, Julie. Of course, the company still produces one-of-a-kind furniture pieces, ranging from dining tables, desks and armoires to outdoor seating and kitchen cabinets.
John and his staff deftly shift the door—angling it from one side to the other, lifting it a few inches off the ground—finding just the right placement for proper fit in the substantial frame. “We don’t finish cutting the doors prior to getting the correct radius,” says John. “We construct the frame and put the doors in, and then we make our cuts.” The final pieces will hang on sturdy iron hinges that are hand-forged onsite.
While Taber & Co. is widely known for its mesquite products, the company works with a wide variety of hardwoods.
“We started in mesquite because it’s indigenous,” says Julie. Once relegated to more utilitarian uses, such as ox yokes or plain, unfinished seating and storage elements, mesquite has transformed into a prominent material for decorative elements in the Southwest, whether indoors or out. Although the wood fell out of favor in the early 2000s and early 2010s, it has seen a resurgence in popularity.
“We love it because of its hardiness. Mesquite is one of the hardest, most stable woods, and it’s great for use outside,” says Julie. Its rich, reddish tones also make it an ideal choice for the traditional Spanish colonial-style furnishings that demand attention in classic Southwest homes. “It’s earned its respect,” says John.
All of the company’s wood is salvaged—whether from naturally fallen trees or harvested from ones destined to be torn down and sent to the dump. A while back, one of John’s childhood friends was remodeling his house in Scottsdale and wanted a Taber door. The friend’s father, a farmer, had a stash of pecan wood from trees that had been cut down because they had stopped producing. “We brought every bit of the pecan down here, and we made him a door using wood from those trees. That’s how we got into pecan,” says Julie.
Pecan can be finished to match mesquite, or it can take on a variety of colors, from green undertones to light gold. “If the client wants lighter shades, then pecan is fabulous,” Julie explains.
Another wood for which Taber & Co. has become known is Arizona ash. “You want to keep it light because you want to see the contrasting grain,” says Julie. The couple’s use of the wood took off after Tucson Country Club contacted them about 26 trees—white oak, mesquite and Arizona ash—that were set to be cut down during remodeling of the grounds. After harvesting the trees, John took them back to the mill where he discovered the unique grain of the ash. When the late interior designer Billi Springer commissioned a baker’s island for a North Scottsdale home out of something lighter in color than mesquite, John knew he had just the right wood for the project.
The floor of the workshop is covered with a thick layer of sawdust. Artisan Chelo expertly chips away at a slab of pecan. A former broccoli farmer, Chelo began working with the Tabers when they first started their business; he was only a teenager. Today he is an accomplished carpenter with teenage children of his own. Using hand tools—some worn down to mere inches long due to years of use and resharpening—he digs into a pattern that is penciled onto the wood. “We approach everything, including our doors, like a furniture maker would. It’s the old-school way of doing things,” says Julie.
Interior designer and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Karen Rapp was one of the Tabers’ first clients. “Buying one of John’s pieces is like buying an antique,” she says. “He engineers and crafts things the way artisans did years ago, with dovetail joints and beautiful carvings. His carvers are amazing. You see the raw wood, and then they finish it in a way to look like a magnificent, well-worn heirloom.”
Also in the workshop, another of the Tabers’ longtime craftsmen, Chachi, forges solid bars of iron into decorative scrolls, chunky handles and eye-catching hinges. Each piece of metal is heated in a furnace until it is red hot. Using a hammer, Chachi beats the metal rods into the required shapes.
“People always ask if they can buy just our handles, but we only put them on our pieces,” says Julie. “Our cone hinges and our handles are definitely a Taber signature.”
Builder Randy Arnett-Romero attests to the distinct character the iron brings to Taber products. “One of the assets of working with John is that he hand-forges and manufactures the actual living connection that affixes his products to the home,” says the Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner, who has been working with the Tabers since the mid-’90s. “So whether it’s hinges, straps or mechanical parts that move, you have the beauty in that as well.”
“I like to let the wood speak. What does it want to be?”
“If I had all the money in the world, and I needed to go somewhere to outfit my house, John and Julie would do the whole thing,” Arnett-Romero continues. When the Tabers were first starting out, they did just that to their own home, a Mexican colonial hacienda in Tucson.
“We started getting into architectural elements when we built our own home because we couldn’t find anything that was befitting its style,” says Julie. “Building every cabinet, every door and every beam was a great opportunity for product development.” John agrees. “I’d rather do it for us because if it fails, at least it fails on us and not on a client.”
From mesquite flooring and hand-hewn interior and exterior doors to handcrafted furniture, cabinets and fireplace mantels, even iron chandeliers and walls sconces, their house—just like their business—is an homage to John’s imagination.
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