BY RICHARD AMRHINE
Mickael Fonteneau may be married, but he is also wedded to his craft: custom woodworking and cabinetmaking.
He started working with wood when he was 6, making wooden toys alongside his father at their home in the Loire Valley, south of Paris.
Today, at age 30, he is plying his craft out of a shop he calls Atelier Fonteneau in Interstate Business Park off U.S. 17 in southern Stafford County, where Fonteneau and his two apprentices create unique furniture and built-in cabinetry one project, one client at a time. "Atelier" is French for an artist's studio or workshop. It's sort of appropriate, in that the location borders artist Gari Melchers' neighborhood.
"It isn't easy getting established in this tough economy," Fonteneau said in his heavy French accent. He speaks English well, though, which he attributes to French schools' emphasis on teaching English to students starting at a very young age.
He said he has found enough work to keep him and his apprentices busy, thanks to his central location between Washington and Richmond.
"This is no time to expand. That time will come," he said. "For now we will do one project at a time so we do not sacrifice quality."
ENTERING THE GUILD
He has gotten to where he is now thanks largely to the way young people are educated in France, where students are encouraged to learn a trade in tandem with their schooling. Thanks to his woodworking skills, Fonteneau was a natural to enter the guild system, which takes a student from apprentice through master craftsman in a given trade. By hiring his own apprentices, he said, he is helping to perpetuate a guild tradition that dates to the Middle Ages. The guild to which Fonteneau belongs is Les Compagnons du Devoir, which translates as "the companions of duty."
Having grown up working with wood, Fonteneau had a head start going into his apprenticeship in carpentry and cabinetmaking at age 15. Three years later he reached the journeyman stage, and journey he did, spending a year in Germany.
"You learn a different culture and people, each with its own history and traditional [woodworking] techniques," he said.
In most cases, he said, craftsmen of a certain country or region use their own domestic woods, which gives the work from a particular area its own identity.
He also learned about repairing, restoring and preserving old furniture--some dating to the 16th century--which deepened his appreciation for how the craft had evolved.
He eventually went to work for a French woodworking company that did business in the United States, and five years ago he was sent to New York to oversee the company's U.S. operations. He found himself getting more into management and away from being hands-on in his craft.
While in New York he met Heather, who would become his wife. She has roots in Alexandria and family in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.
Last year they "made the big move" south to the Washington area and then to the Fredericksburg area.
"I like the history here," Fonteneau said, "and I get nice vibes."
During a visit to Atelier Fonteneau earlier this week, the craftsman was working on a table for a client.
Each piece of wood is selected for the specific project a client has commissioned. Whenever possible, Fonteneau said, he involves the client in the selection of the wood from the supplier so the client can appreciate from the outset the quality and beauty of the wood in its raw state.
This tabletop was of fragrant white cedar that had been "bookmatched." Bookmatching involves fitting sequential boards cut lengthwise side-by-side, as though opening a book, which provides a mirror image of the grain on either side of the centerline. The pieces are joined tongue-in-groove fashion with standard wood glue.
The table's edges are left in their natural state. "That adds more charm to the piece," Fonteneau said.
This will be a pedestal table with two substantial oak bases for stability. To give the bases a unique appearance, Fonteneau hammers a curved gouge across the top and sides of the oak slabs, leaving an undulating, wavy surface.
FINISHING THE PIECE
Fonteneau said it is his job to enhance the beauty of the wood he's working with. Tooling it and assembling it are only the beginning. The finishing is where the true beauty of the wood will emerge.
"I only use eco-friendly finishes--natural oils and waxes that are hand-rubbed to bring out the wood's beautiful color," he said.
Fonteneau said finishing takes the most time because each coat must be allowed to dry thoroughly before the next is applied.
This cedar table, for example, will receive five coats of oil with a final wax coat on top.
It's a method much superior to the sprays many mass manufacturers use that leave a protective plastic coating but don't bring out the subtle grain and colors of the wood.
Fonteneau has also created herringbone wood flooring as well as wood trim, paneling and built-in cabinets. Many such projects are done partly in the shop and partly on-site.
Richard Amrhine: 540/374-5406