Sawdust in His Veins

Colorblind woodworker wins prizes for meticulous parquetry

David Adler transformed an engineering career into an art career.
Photo by Karin Strickland

David Adler was, in the most literal sense, born into making art from wood. There was his grandfather, a master furniture maker who emigrated from Europe during the last century and passed his skills on to Adler’s mother, who made much of the cabinetry for the family’s home on Long Island, just outside New York City. “My uncle’s hobby was making wooden toys for children, as well as clocks and organs,” the 74-year-old Adler explains. “One of my nephews makes furniture as a hobby, and my granddaughter is interested in woodworking as well. As I like to say, there’s sawdust in our veins.” 

Adler’s own hobby during his career as an advanced manufacturing engineer is now a full-time passion, evident in the burgeoning collection of parquetry wood art displaying a full range of wood types in all their subtly colored glory, cut and shaped into patterns resembling quilts — which, as it happens, is his wife’s métier. “For years I would admire the geometric patterns and colors of her quilts,” Adler says. “What drew me to parquetry was a desire to make a quilt out of wood.”

Spider Monkeys

Parquetry is usually associated with the patterning of wood flooring, but Adler has adapted the technique for purely aesthetic purposes, making use of his engineering background. “It was my job to take a designed product and determine how to make it and what equipment would be necessary to make it,” he explains. “That’s what I do in my art.” 

Adler uses the same woodworking tools employed by miniature model makers, enabling him to cut layers of wood as thin as one-eighth of an inch, distinguishing his work from marquetry, which uses veneers so thin they can be cut with scissors. Marquetry was Adler’s first exposure to making wood art, but it was the more creative and challenging parquetry that drew his attention. “There are no books on parquetry,” he points out, “but a lot on marquetry. So I’m self taught, and will someday write a book on how to do this kind of art.”

No Beginning No End

Adler works with more than 100 different types of wood, sourced from suppliers all over the country and from scrap wood he forages from backyards and construction sites. Each of his pieces is one of a kind. “When I make an art piece, I look for wood color and grain patterns,” he says. “Each new piece brings its own challenges. For some I follow the quilting technique, and for others I have to develop the assembly method, which I think out in my mind. My professional life was and is most central to my art work.” 

Hidden Trail

Adler’s most complex pieces can require more than 2,000 separate elements cut from more than 30 kinds of wood. It was one such piece, 32 inches square and based on a quilt pattern he’d seen in a magazine, that made him think seriously of making wood art full time. The three-dimensional illusion on a flat two-dimensional work was striking enough that it earned him a second-place Best of Show prize, competing against 300 other artists at the nation’s largest woodworking show, held each year in Ohio. 

It was his first time exhibiting his work to a large audience. 

Humming Bird

“That’s when I realized I had something to share with everyone,” Adler says. He soon retired.

Carefully chosen colors are a hallmark of Adler’s work — which is remarkable, given that he is tone-color blind. It becomes particularly challenging on pieces that require certain contrasting colors to produce his signature three-dimensional effects. 

However, “I realized that my color blindness to reds, greens, and browns gave me an advantage,” he says. “I used a technique I taught myself to convert colors in my mind’s eye to gray-scale tones. I feel this is at the heart of my successes.”

Diamond Ball

Adler shares his discoveries, teaching techniques to students in classes organized by, among others, Tryon Arts and Crafts School and the Arts Council of Henderson County. 

But his studio workshop always beckons. “If I don’t get to work on one of my wall hangings or just cut wood for a few days, I get a bad case of wood withdrawal,” he says. “I guess I’m a sawdust junkie.”

David Adler, Hendersonville. Find Adler’s work at Art Mob Studios & Marketplace (124 4th Ave. East, Hendersonville, artmobstudios.com) and Number 7 Arts (2 West Main St., Brevard, number7arts.org). For more information, see dadlerwoodart.weebly.com. 

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