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Nikari’s Five Decades of Working with Wood

Jan 18, 2018

Kari Virtanen and his many pupils are responsible for 50 years of cabinetmaking history at Nikari. To celebrate the anniversary, the Finnish company has released a book titled ‘Working with Wood.’

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Text by Rab Messina
Photography by courtesy of Nikari

The oldest machinery workshop in Finland serves a noble purpose: to carry on the traditions of finest Nordic cabinetmaking, following the exquisite vision of founder Kari Virtanen.

Nikari started as a one-man operation and now boasts half a century of know-how.
Throughout the five decades of its existence, Virtanen and colleague Rudi Merz, together with the company’s master cabinetmakers, have trained several generations of pupils on the patient process that is working with Nordic wood. Put briefly, their goal is to use “massive wood to craft objects that have a soul, [via] expertise that is mainly based on tacit knowledge.” The lessons, findings and musings that make up that knowledge have been compiled in a tome that celebrates the landmark anniversary: Working with Wood, published by Rakennustieto.

One section of the book is dedicated to distinguishing between the different types of forests in Finland, a land covered by them. Another discusses the features of each species of tree, from oak to ash and elm to maple, birch, pine, spruce and goat willow. Knowing the applications and the harvesting and storage processes for each particular tree came first as a matter of subsistence: Virtanen was initiated into woodworking as a child by necessity —the postwar years required every Finn, no matter how young, to find a way to make do and make money with what nature provided.

Although Nikari sticks to wood, its history has been linked to some of Finland’s most renowned creators in other areas. The book includes visual evidence of these co-creations, from drawings made in Aalto’s firm that featured the wooden parts crafted by Virtanen to Kaj Franck’s detailed sketches of experiments and tools needed to mix glass and wood at Nuutajärvi —as the cabinetmaker explains, “working with Kaj meant talking with pencils instead of words.”

As the tome sets out to explain, Virtanen went from opening his small workshop at age 19 to becoming the cabinetmaker of choice of Aalto and now being an inextricable part of Finnish furniture design with Nikari. And yet, Virtanen is still humbled by his favourite material, open to learn more from it. “The more one tries to learn about wood, the less one seems to know,” he concludes.

The beautifully detailed book is, just like the company he founded, a painstaking effort to match by hand, wit and machine the intricate structures that nature brings out of the earth in those dark Nordic forests.

Working with Wood
An image of dovetail joints in a pine bookshelf
A page discussing the two species of elm that grow in Finland.
A lesson: "A cabinetmaker needs to take into account the 'mirrors' that are unveiled when an oak tree is sawed. They can be visually powerful."
Highlighting the Café Classic stool
Reinventing a traditional Finnish table

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