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Against the Grain

Left to right: When they first started their business, John and Julie Taber were known for their custom wood furnishings that feature rustic hand-carvings, such as those seen on this corner detail of a mesquite armoire. • Cut slabs of mesquite, pecan, oak, olive, sumac and acacia rest against a wall at the Tabers’ mill in Tucson. • Today, Taber & Co. is renowned for its handmade interior and exterior doors. Each door is constructed in the frame in the company’s workshop before it is installed in a home.

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.

One of the Tabers’ longtime artisans, Chelo, hand-carves elaborate scrollwork into the surface of a piece of pecan. The resulting wood chips are given to local barbecue restaurants for cooking and smoking.

“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.

1.  John at his mill in Tucson. 2. Chelo (in blue) helps plane cuts of wood for a future project. 3.  Slabs of mesquite are laid out in the workshop in preparation for use on a door. 4. John sketches out all of his ideas on paper before the designs are placed on the wood. “We don’t do CAD drawings, because I think when you draw and erase, it gets you closer to the project,” he says. This drawing is for a door that is going to Anchorage, Alaska. “I only do one half,” notes John, “because if you don’t like that half, it’s a waste of time to do the other.”

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.”

1-2. Interior designer Victoria King commissioned John and Julie to create a contemporary chair and dining set utilizing acrylic. “We wanted to juxtapose that rustic appeal with the more modern hit of the acrylic,” King says. “It was really inspired by the clients’ wishes.” In order to get the right quality and thickness of the transparent material, the Tabers decided to make their own. 3. A pair of mesquite carriage lanterns showcase the variety of products that can be crafted from the hardwood. 4. A large mesquite burl is ready to become a one-of-a-kind bathroom vanity in a North Scottsdale home. “It’s difficult to find burls of that size,” notes John. 5. John walks among some of the many trees waiting at his mill to be turned into beautiful furnishings and accessories.
The Tabers began their business by making intricately carved, old-world-style mesquite furniture, such as this large armoire.

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?”

Left: Julie demonstrates the bifold shutters on a mesquite front door being built for a home in Tucson. All of the iron hardware is hand-forged. When complete, and including the large transom window nearby, it will stand more than 14 feet high. Right: Apprentice Angelo applies a finish to some woodwork. “All of our wood is hand-stained,” says John. “We don’t spray anything.”

“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.”

1. Taber & Co. designed a trio of carriage-style garage doors for a client’s house in Montana. The doors are solid mesquite with hand-forged iron hardware. 2. A view of the Montana house with the garage doors in place. “We had never built garage doors before, and we did it from afar,” says Julie. “It’s fun to work on these kinds of projects.” The rock structure at the top of the house is part of an old mine shaft; it leads to the homeowner’s office, which overlooks Glacier National Park. 3. A red-hot square iron rod is hand-hammered into a rounded shape. “It’s the only way to do it right,” says John. “And all of our stuff is solid. You just can’t make tubing look like solid iron.” 4. Chachi heats a piece of iron in the forge. 5. Some of the many iron hook and scroll prototypes found in the Tabers’ showroom. 

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.

For more information, see Sources.

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