House Beautiful: A woodworker’s dream

Karen Trickett and Cam Russell have a workshop that would make most men drool — and some women too.

In fact, a visitor recently said it looked like a cathedral and all it needed was stained glass windows.

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That gave Russell a brainwave.

For years he had collected stained glass to use in his new house, but when it took a more modern turn, the glass pieces weren’t needed. But his friend’s comment inspired Russell to hang them in the workshop’s soaring light well, like giant mobiles.

The effect is dramatic and adds an artistic element to an already spectacular space.

But then, no one expects the ordinary when it comes to these two remarkable woodworkers who finished not only their Cobble Hill home’s entire interior and exterior, but built virtually everything in it.

They have made all the exterior doors, tables and chairs, kitchen cabinets right down to a novel filing system of individual cutting boards, book cases, mantels, deck furniture, banisters, staircases, light fixtures, beds and even a secret passageway for their cat to slip behind a bathtub and down a hidden tunnel to the basement litter box.

Their new 1,650-square-foot house is attached by a breezeway to the workshop, garage and design studio that together measure 2,180 square feet — and that’s where they can be found most days, pouring out their creativity.

“I guess the relative size of our house and workshop is kinda reflective of where we spend most of our time,” said a smiling Russell, who set up Camosun College’s fine furniture department in 1987 and still teaches there half time. Trickett also teaches on contract there and at Lee Valley Tools.

Their home shop measures 24 by 32 feet, and the adjacent double garage is 24 feet square. Both have in-floor heat, supplied by an on-demand boiler that also heats the home’s floors.

State-of-the-art air filtration removes dust from the joiner, planer, table saw, drill press, band saws and power sanders, and it’s so spotless they could pass canapés on the chisels.

Just off the workshop is a dust-free finishing room for varnishing, with north facing skylights, a bathroom and sharpening station for tools.

Upstairs, over the garage, is the creativity command centre where the two have their design studio, drafting tables, computers, and a foldout bed for guests. It’s also where they lived for a year, after six months in an RV, while finishing the house.

The two-acre property is set well back from the road, “and we didn’t have to cut down a single tree to build the house,” said Trickett, as the home is located on what used to be a riding ring.

And they didn’t need to bring in any rock either,

“I now know why they call this area Cobble Hill,” joked Russell. “This place is actually made of cobbles. I’m not kidding. You can’t stick a shovel anywhere without hitting a rock.”

The stone was used to create walls, a soaring fireplace and bases for eight pillars that support the verandah.

Nothing was rushed with this home.

“The luxury was being able to live here and really get the feel for it,” he said. “We first built a little shack and came up on weekends. There was no power so we pre-cut everything.”

After designing the house, Russell built a little model and put it on a couple of saw horses on site, to see how the light would come through the rooms. “We ended up turning it about 15 degrees because of that.”

They also took their time with the interior details.

Floorboards on the second floor, for instance, are finished and visible on both sides. Reclaimed from an old hanger in Comox, they are held in place by 1,700 screws plugs.

An amusing detail in the den is the furniture rail, a throwback to an old-fashioned Shaker idea, “and kind of a joke.” Such rails were originally designed for hanging chairs, but Russell has hung all kinds of things on it including a clock, TV, mirror and candlesticks.

In the kitchen they installed four different countertops: teak, plastic laminate, concrete and a cutting area of maple. “Teak is used a lot in English kitchens and we had it for seven years in our Victoria house. It is beautiful and cheap — and I wanted concrete either side of the stove.”

Footings and framework started in 2009 with Derby Brothers Construction, and Macdonald & Lawrence Timber Framing Ltd, which restored the historic Kinsol Trestle on Koksilah River, did the major framing. These world-renowned experts helped restore Windsor Castle in 1992 after a disastrous fire (receiving a commendation from the Queen), and recently did conservation work on the Antarctic shack of British explorer Robert Scott.

“We can’t say enough about that company,” said Russell. “They were so easy to work with and so reasonable.

“They created a big kit for the frame and then a crane moved in all the pre-lettered posts and beams, and placed them — in one day. It was a bit like building furniture using big mortise and tenon joints, and all went incredibly well. They even loaded the truck in reverse. It was brilliant, so the roof beams came out last.”

Trickett noted she and Russell had previously spent four days sanding and finishing all the timberwork.

“I’ve built tons of furniture in the past,” said Russell, “and can tell you I’ve had more trouble with some pieces than these guys did. The level of fit was something to see.”

The rest of the framing took three months, “because there were some quirky things in the garage, such as the light well over the main shop,” but it all went smoothly

Russell has done many renovations over the years and often used to mutter to himself: It’s got to be easier building from scratch.

“Well, it is,” he said with a roar of laughter, and it helps when your wife is also a sterling woodworker.

They met when she took one of his courses and have been together since 1995.

Trickett has been designing, building, repairing and finishing furniture for 20 years and is an expert in fine marquetry, as well as high-end automotive woodwork.

She restores both exterior and interior car trim and has made many burled walnut dashboards and door caps for Jags and Rolls-Royces. She is currently working on an iconic beach boy’s woody wagon, a Morris Minor traveller, and is replacing interior trim on a 1927 Cadillac limo reputed to have belonged to the Dunsmuirs.

Trickett is being featured on this weekend’s Cowichan Valley Artisans studio tour, (See fact box at right) and will be showing examples of her furniture and other fine work, as well as their new workshop and studio.

“A lot of people don’t really know how we create this kind of thing, so I think they will be interested in seeing the process,” she said, adding all through the project, whenever they got tired of working on the house they’d go and make some furniture.

“We’ll probably be at it for another 10 years,” she said, noting they next plan to build a little greenhouse.

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