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Tampa woodworker creates furniture at Franklin Street Fine Woodwork

TAMPA

Furnituremaker Alison Swann-Ingram is as well-versed in woodworking and milling as she is in spinning tales. The Tampa craftswoman imbues each design with a history lesson or enchanting myth.

"A romantic story lies within the natural beauty of the wood," Swann-Ingram said.

Textures, grains and warps inspire the imaginative names and stories she invents to accompany her work, "most drawn from the wood's forgotten provenance."

Not that she's daydreaming behind the table saw.

"Woodworking is all focus and precision," said Swann-Ingram, 47, who doesn't allow her mind to roam while chiseling or hand burning artful details at Franklin Street Fine Woodwork.

Swann-Ingram and master craftsman Carl Johnson co-own the business on the northern end of downtown Tampa. The two teamed up in 2004 after he read a newspaper article about her.

"We look at design and construction from two different sides, which always makes it more interesting," said Johnson, 57. Customers looking for custom work find Swann-Ingram and Johnson on the Internet or by word of mouth, he said.

The storyline behind each piece begins with the client's needs and selection of woods.

Initial doodles become scale models as they work out proportion, utility and budget.

And placement — a site visit is critical.

"Last year, working only from photographs, I shipped a 14-foot dining room table to Virginia," she said. "It didn't fit through the door and had to be taken apart and then reassembled."

Currently, Swann-Ingram is conjuring Ybor City lore as she builds a 20-foot-long conference table of heart pine floorboards, beams and rafters salvaged from a local cigar factory.

An earlier piece, a contemporary dining table she named Lost, was built from walnut trees begun as saplings in the 1850s on the Lewis and Clark Trail in Portland, Ore. She points out a bark inclusion prominently featured in the table and thinks out loud about the squirrels who hid walnuts in it.

"And I wonder about the explorers and the people who sat under those trees."

Swann-Ingram dubbed a pair of red lacquer bird's-eye maple cabinets "the Emperor and his Queen." To her, they are "noble, regal royalty," graced by chiseled maple branches and hand-forged silver leaves.

Vivian, an L-shaped cabinet, reminds her of the character Lauren Bacall played in The Big Sleep. Swann-Ingram considers the design "glamorous, controlled and seductive."

In 2011, craft magazine Niche recognized her Winds of the Prairie cocktail cabinet, made of wenge wood and American sycamore. She burned blades of grass and blue flag irises and milkweed into the smooth wood to convey the windswept land. Asking price: $11,000.

Prices are subject to materials, design and labor. The design aspect being the subjective variable, Swann-Ingram said, with a nod toward a queen-size headboard inlaid with semiprecious stones forming snails, butterflies, mice and edelweiss commissioned for $5,000.

Teaching woodworking also helps the Palma Ceia resident pay the bills, and offers the opportunity to show her respect for vocational training.

"I strongly believe we overvalue academic intelligence in the USA," she said. "A wider spread of skill sets — heads, hands and hearts — make a community richer. I'm very lucky to get to teach that."

Born in Aldershot, about 30 minutes from London, Swann-Ingram has taught outdoor survival skills to teens in North Wales, herded sheep on a farm in Provence, France, and hiked Chile's highest mountains. Four months working as an au pair for a family near Lausanne, Switzerland, kept her from having kids for years, she quips.

Those youthful adventures sparked Swann-Ingram's spirituality, independence and design aesthetic.

A possible career as a translator — she's conversant in French and Russian — was detoured when she married an American soldier she met in Chile. Their first home, "a money pit," in Portland, she said, was where she became handy, learning to install drywall, tile and flooring. That led her to enroll in furniture-making classes at night at Oregon College of Arts and Crafts while also working corporate day jobs.

In 2002, the family, including son Caleb, now 13, was transferred to MacDill Air Force Base.

Her romance with wood, said Swann-Ingram, can be traced to her first project, a console.

"It was awful, but I used the most beautiful quilted maple."

She sought further training and was surprised when friends began asking to buy some of her pieces.

New clients become friends, too.

"When they get a piece of furniture from me, they get me, too."

About this series

Our community revolves around a diversity of jobs, some more unusual than others. Throughout the summer, we'll introduce readers to a variety of creative, hardworking people who have made interesting, some might say quirky, career choices. Suggestions welcome; email ascherzer@tampabay.com or call (813) 226-3332.

Tampa woodworker creates furniture at Franklin Street Fine Woodwork 07/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 26, 2012 4:30am]
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